Saturday 15 December 2018

Nothing is certain as referendum decision day draws nearer

This latest poll on attitudes to the Eighth Amendment shows everything is still to play for, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Options: Referendum posters
Options: Referendum posters

Eilis O'Hanlon

With a little over three weeks to go until the referendum on removing the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution, every poll takes on that much more significance. If this latest snapshot of opinion doesn't set nerves jangling among pro-repeal campaigners, it certainly ought to.

On the surface of it, that might seem a curious conclusion to take from the figures.

There is a clear lead for the Yes side, with 57pc planning to vote in favour of repeal, thereby giving the Dail the right to legislate for abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and with doctors' consent after that, and 43pc preparing to vote against; but the devil, as always, is in the detail.

That is the figure when undecideds and don't knows are excluded. Put them back in to the total, and the figure for Yes drops down below the winning margin to 45pc. Suddenly it doesn't look quite so comfortable for repealers.

There also remains a large number of voters who are still undecided about which way to go, and it's notable that this is much more prevalent among men (21pc) than women (15pc). Perhaps that reflects a reluctance in men to get involved in the debate, after decades of being told that it's none of their business.

Pro-repealers have started to reach out to men and appeal directly to them to row in supportively behind a Yes vote, but they've definitely left it a bit late. What might save them is that the number of men planning to vote No in this referendum is, according to this poll, slightly lower than for women, confirming that the most solid support on both sides of the ideological divide is among female voters. That should be expected. Women are most directly affected by these issues. They're the ones whose bodies are being fought over on the lamp posts.

Of those who have made up their minds, it's worth noting that there's a wide range of conviction, too. More than half are "absolutely certain" that they will vote in a particular way, and 30pc are "pretty certain", but those who have "some" reservations or doubts, or who are "not at all certain", stands at 17pc - and the doubts are higher among those currently intending to vote for repeal. The No side will be seeking to amplify those reservations. Many votes will change between now and three weeks on Thursday, when the referendum is held.

This poll further confirms that the Yes side remains heavily skewed towards younger voters, who historically vote in fewer numbers than older voters. That may not be the case this time, there is much more determination among younger people to vote on this issue, since it's the only chance they've ever had, or might ever have, to change the law on the matter. But even here there are interesting nuances.

Yes, 58pc of 18 to 24 year olds intend to vote for repeal, but 21pc are planning to vote against and 18pc have yet to make up their minds. Young people do not constitute a progressive, pro-choice monolith. Their consent to liberalising abortion law in Ireland cannot be taken for granted.

The figures planning to vote against this amendment to the Constitution rise steadily in this latest poll as voters get older. Among 25 to 44 year olds, it goes up to 27pc against; then to 31pc against for 45 to 54 year olds; there's a further sharp increase to 43pc among 55 to 64 year olds, before it peaks at 51pc against repeal among the over 65s.

Again, it's important not to lump all voters in together according to age. Even among the over 65 year olds, 32pc intend to vote in favour of repeal. Insofar as this is a demographic which traditionally gets out to the polling station on the day, that represents a solid cache of votes for the Yes side, many from people who've campaigned for women's rights for decades. If Yes does win, it won't be with the support of young people alone. It needs older voters, too.

The same goes for that traditional urban-rural divide. Of course these latest figures show that support for repeal is highest in Dublin at 51pc, but the capital also has the biggest concentration of population, so the 29pc currently intending to vote No in the city makes a considerable phalanx of opposition to change, and it needs those Yes voters outside the Pale, even if they are a minority locally, as a counterweight.

That means the 41pc in Munster who plan to vote in favour of opening the door to the legalisation of abortion, and the 37pc who plan to do so in Connacht/Ulster, will prove crucial on the day.

Pro-repeal campaigners will need to get out on the ground in rural areas between now and referendum day, because every vote genuinely does count. That's a cliche in every election, but cliches are generally true. That's how they become cliches in the first place, through experience.

The best way to illustrate the truth of this one is by comparing where polls stood at the same stage of the same sex marriage referendum.

With three weeks to go back in 2015, the majority in favour of changing the Constitution to allow gay people the right to marry was more than 70pc. That gave the Yes side back then a cushion against any diminution in support as the date neared, and, in the event, supporters of same-sex marriage needed it.

With one week to go, a poll in the Sunday Independent showed that support for Yes, excluding Don't Knows and those who refused to say, had fallen by 13 points, despite cross-party support for the measure and widespread backing from various organisations and celebrities and huge international goodwill.

By the time the polls closed, 62pc of people had voted on May 22, 2015, to allow same-sex marriage. Support had dropped from the high water mark, but the Yes side had enough wriggle room to survive the slippage. That same luxury does not exist this time round.

A similar fall back in support for repealing the Eighth Amendment could conceivably see the referendum fail to cross the line. Only 24pc of people in that 2015 Sunday Independent poll said they were certain to vote No.

On the day, the actual figure for No was just short of 38pc. Quite the increase. And that was to oppose a measure which was simply allowing gay people to get married. No one was going to die if same-sex couples won marriage equality. That referendum certainly did not encompass the complex moral questions which are raised by abortion and which cannot be wished away with trite slogans about trusting women.

Arguments against same-sex marriage tended to be quite abstract, even whimsical. The No side in this debate has far more powerful, visceral arguments on its side, as the posters attest.

They're emotive, loaded, some have even condemned them as unfair, but they do the job. Being hectored in the pages of The Irish Times by the perpetually affronted Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, or U2 posting Repeal The Eighth slogans on their Instagram account, doesn't really have the same impact.

The reliance on celebrity endorsements didn't work in the US presidential election or the Brexit vote in the UK, and it certainly does nothing to reassure the 32pc of voters in this poll who think the proposal to allow women to have abortions on demand up to 12 weeks goes too far.

That figure is clearly outnumbered by the 42pc who think 12 weeks is "about right", and the 11pc who think it doesn't go far enough; but the warning against complacency still stands.

The Yes side has nowhere near the wriggle room in this referendum that its counterparts did in the gay marriage vote. There will inevitably be some tightening.

Nothing is certain.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss