Guest Post: Irish Referendums 2015
David J. Barrett contributed this excellent guest post covering the results of the two referendums held in Ireland on May 22, 2015
Two referendums and a by-election to parliament took place on Friday May 22nd in Ireland. The referendums took place in order to change the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, and to lower the age of eligibility for candidates running for President from 35 to 21. The by-election took place to fill the vacancy caused by the appointment of Phil Hogan to the European Commission.
The referendum in marriage was a long-time coming, but still moved quickly when it did. Ireland has traditionally been very far from the lead in socially progressive legislation in Europe. Homosexuality was only legalized in 1993 and divorce only won a referendum in 1995 by about 9,000 votes – less than 1%. Abortion is still one of the live-issues of Irish politics and is still effectively illegal. Nonetheless after legalization public opinion moved relatively quickly. In 2010 civil unions, with many similarities to marriage (albeit without being exactly the same) was pushed through by the then governing Fianna Fail-Green coalition, after having been repeatedly proposed by the social-democratic Labour Party in legislation while in opposition for several years prior to that. It faced nearly negligible opposition when actually brought to a vote – with only a handful of senators in the largely powerless upper house seriously expressing disquiet over the issue. Reaction to the legislation among the Irish LGBT community was generally positive, albeit not uniformly so, with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) expressing their support for the legislation while Marriage Equality – an organization with an eponymous raison d’etre – pointing out the numerous legal differences between civil partnership and marriage.
In the 2011 election Ireland elected openly gay parliamentarians to the Dail – the lower house of parliament – for the first time, having long had Senator David Norris in the upper house. Norris, who led the legal fight in the courts to get homosexuality legalized, was later that year considered the heavy favourite to win Ireland’s largely ceremonial presidency in polls before ultimately faltering, but the popularity of his campaign showed how homosexuality seemed to be increasingly a non-issue in Irish politics.
Same-sex marriage was not in the programme for government of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition that took power in 2011. Instead, the issue was put to the Constitutional Convention, a joint assembly of citizen’s and politicians that would consider a variety of civic and political reforms. The constitutional convention voted overwhelmingly to recommend the issue to the government, along with a variety of other reforms, including lowering the eligibility age for presidential and lowering the voting age.
However the step from civil partnership to full marriage was always going to be more difficult. The Irish court system had previously ruled that the constitutional definition of family was limited to opposite-sex couples only. This meant that any change to the legal status of marriage required a referendum – like any other change in the Irish constitution. While the government’s poll rating had slipped since the election, the referendum began to be seen increasingly as the most inevitable of those proposed by the Convention, not least owing to the passionate support it received from the Labour Party, whose then leader Eamon Gilmore called it the ‘Civil Rights issue of our generation’. Fine Gael as well became increasingly more supportive as time went on, with motions supporting same-sex marriage being supported by the youth wing of the party, and with the foundation of an LGBT wing led by popular Cork based deputy Jerry Buttimer, who came out after the 2011 election.
On January 11th 2014 Rory O’Neill, a popular Irish drag queen who is best name as his alter-ego ‘Panti Bliss’, was interviewed by the state broadcaster RTE, in which he alleged that two socially conservative newspapers columnists for the Irish Times, a major broadsheet newspaper in Ireland, Breda O’Brien and John Waters, were homophobic. Both O’Brien and Waters sued RTE for defamation, who immediately settled and paid them a sum of €85,000. There was immediate outrage not only among the LGBT community but among politicians and wider society, which culminated in large protests and a passionate and extremely well-watched speech by Panti in the Abbey Theatre, which currently has over 700,000 views on YouTube. With the referendum very well anticipated by this point it was a seen as an early battleground between the liberal and conservative portions of Irish politics.
The Yes side spent a considerable proportion of their energy initially ensuring that large numbers of county councils passed resolutions in favour of same-sex marriage, in order to help build a sense of momentum for the idea among the body politic.
Much of the work before the referendum concerned the ‘Children and Family Relationships Bill’, which was an omnibus piece of legislation that aimed to address legal ambiguities involving all kinds of non-traditional families, including LGBT ones. While not strictly related to the referendum the passage of the bill before the vote was seen as absolutely necessary for the referendum to pass, as the bill would remove most of the issues that the No side to the referendum would likely raise regarding children and the family. In the event the bill only passed the upper house on March 20th, very close to the final date of the referendum, so much of the issues dealt with in the bill were seen by many as tied up with the referendum.
Both the Yes and No campaigns carefully studied previous campaigns in the US and Eastern Europe for advice over what worked and what did not for their rivals, giving the campaign a much more international than previous referendums.
Irish referendums have been dominated in recent years by the Coughlan and McKenna Supreme Court Judgments. These hold that governments cannot spend public money to promote their own proposal and that the state broadcaster must be ‘balanced’ in their coverage of the issue – which has usually been interpreted as giving exactly equal airtime to both sides.
The Yes campaign was supported by all major political parties, and a major civic society effort. Fine Gael and Labour in particular were active in promoting the government’s proposal with campaigns that emphasized the idea of equality for every citizen, with extensive and costly poster campaigns, and with many deputies running their own campaigns for the proposal in their own local area. The far-left and nationalist Sinn Fein, similarly, strongly supported a Yes vote, with their campaign invoking the 1916 proclamation, a document written by Irish rebels in 1916 declaring an Irish Republic that is considered the founding document of the Irish state, albeit without legal force, that all children of the nation be cherished equally. The centrist and populist Fianna Fail similarly ran a colourful poster campaign, but the party was noticeably more lukewarm in its support than the others and almost non-existent beyond the efforts of Senator Averil Power, based in northern Dublin suburbs, and a few local councilors. Indeed Wexford based Senator Jim Walsh resigned from the party over the party’s support for the proposal and for its support of the Children and Family Relationships’ bill. The party gave a distinct impression of being more interested in campaigning for the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election, which the party was regarded as strongly competitive in, than in the referendum.
However civic society was undoubtedly the main force of the Yes campaign. GLEN, Marriage Equality and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, who pooled their organisations to make ‘Yes Equality’ (YE), which rapidly became a campaigning behemoth in several areas of the country. YE largely ran a conservative message, emphasizing the importance of family and stability in people’s lives, and how a yes vote would reduce stigma and improve the mental health of young LGBT people. Much of their early literature focused on well known sports and television personalities popular in rural Ireland, as it was felt that these individuals who would appeal to swing voters, rather than the outspoken liberals most associated with LGBT rights before this point.
YE’s actual strategy was similar to that of any political party – knock on as many doors as possible nationwide and speak to voters. While this has long been considered the best strategy for parties in general elections it is normally not done in referendums due to a severe shortage of volunteers. Most parties find it difficult to muster up their own members to campaign even over contentious European treaty referendums, and other volunteers tend to be extremely sparse. This means that the ‘ground war’ in most referendums is limited to things with high visibility, such as distributing leaflets at sporting occasions. However YE had no such shortage of volunteers, particularly in Dublin and Cork, where the number of campaigners in a constituency per night regularly passed fifty. YE was partially motivated in this approach by the (now utterly discredited and found to be fabricated) study of LaCour and Green, which found that people speaking to those that they know to be LGBT helps change attitudes positively significantly.
The No side ran a significantly more traditional referendum campaign. It had no political parties in support, but a number of politicians did support them, such independent Mattie McGrath and former Fianna Fail junior minister John McGuinness in the lower house, and Senators Ronan Mullen and Fidelma Healy Eames in the upper house. The Catholic Church also lent their support to the campaign. It was also supported a by a few media figures – most noticeably newspaper columnists David Quinn, Breda O’Brien and John Waters. Most of these figures amalgamated their efforts into the civic society group ‘Mothers and Fathers Matter’ (MFM). Their campaign focused little on the issue directly at hand. Their posters emphasized surrogacy and the importance of gender specific parents biologically related to the child, as well as arguing that No voters were being ‘silenced’ and discriminated against by a liberal society. The overall thrust of their campaign however focused on the ‘air war’, where their lack of volunteers on the ground (certainly relative to YE) was less noticeable and where they would be obliged to receive the same airtime as YE.
Both sides were well funded. YE in particular attracted an exceptionally large amount of small donations and also managed to make a considerable sum on the sale of campaign related merchandise. In particular YE badges became ubiquitous, with over 500,000 in circulation. The source of funding for MFM was more ambiguous – but they could clearly print posters and post literature at the same rate as YE, and also paid a considerable sum for seemingly endless advertisements on YouTube.
A selection of posters from both sides in Dublin city centre can be seen on either side.
Polling in the campaign stayed quite consistent, with support for Yes consistently high, and usually over 70%. Almost no one from either side of the campaign believed these numbers however, as it was felt that there was a strong social desirability factor in voting yes and many Irish referendums see extremely inaccurate poll numbers (with several European treaties and the abolition of the upper house being defeated in spite of no poll showing the Yes side behind). Additionally many spoke of the 1995 divorce referendum, which polled well and then saw the lead for the Yes side dwindle to almost nothing. As, arguably, the referendum most similar to it both sides planned for a similarly close finish.
Voters could be forgiven for not knowing that there was a second referendum, as the ballot on the presidential age had no campaign launched either for or against it, and received essentially no air time, which was probably related to the issue seeming almost laughably trivial compared to the other item on the ballot paper. There was essentially no polling done on it either, but almost all expected it to be heavily defeated.
The by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny, a predominantly rural constituency in the South-East of the country, was somewhat unusual, as almost every party had reason to expect to do reasonably well. FG was defending the seat and ran a local councillor, but this was also the area that FF received the highest percentage of the vote nationwide in their 2011 wipeout and were running a former parliamentarian for the area, and both Carlow and Kilkenny were among Labour’s best areas nationally in the last local election. SF was also polling exceptionally well nationally, and this was one of the few areas nationwide where the Green Party had a well-entrenched local councilor. The newly founded conservative ‘Renua’ party also managed to recruit a local councilor off FF, and hoped for a strong showing.
|Results – Marriage Equality Referendum|
|Invalid or blank votes||13,818||0.71%|
|Results – Presidential Age Referendum|
|Invalid or blank votes||15,938||0.82%|
The Marriage Equality passed resoundingly, with only one of 43 constituencies – Roscommon-South Leitrim, in the west of the country, rejecting the proposal. By contrast the Presidential Age referendum lost resoundingly. It failed to win a single constituency nationwide and had the lowest Yes vote of any referendum in Irish history. FF won the by-election, being well clear of FG in the final count.
While the Yes vote in the Marriage Equality was lower than most polls suggested, it was still well in line with what they were suggesting. Indeed it was the highest vote in favour of same-sex marriage anywhere in the world by nearly 10%. Based on previous form with referendums and polling this was considered extremely surprising and a result near stunning victory for YE. David Quinn effectively conceded for the No side within less than hour of the votes being counted and suggesting a near-landslide in Dublin.
The reason for YE’s near total victory can be seen in the extremely high turnout figure – which is near, albeit not quite at, general election turnout numbers in Ireland, and is the referendum with the highest turnout since divorce. While a high turnout the level of enthusiasm for actually voting surprised nearly every observer. Huge numbers enrolled on the electoral register for the first time – with nearly 67,000 voters ending up on the supplemental voting register – a resource for those who register after the deadline for the main register which is historically almost never used. Unofficial tallies of the boxes these votes were cast in suggested that they almost unanimously supported Yes. Ireland has no postal voting (which is likely related to large numbers of residents of Northern Ireland and the US who have Irish citizenship but have never actually been resident in Ireland), and in the final days of the campaign #hometovote started trending globally on twitter. With Ireland’s economic difficulties since 2008 a considerable number of young people left the country for jobs and opportunities elsewhere. A considerable number of them returned from very afield in order to vote on the proposal – with virtually all of Ryanair’s flights to Dublin the day before the vote sold out weeks in advance, and with individuals coming from considerably further afield than that (two friends of the author returned from New York and Mozambique to vote – these are extreme but not actually particularly uncommon examples).
However there was still a geographical split. Urban areas, and particularly Dublin, were noticeably more in favour of the proposal than rural ones, with areas in the North and West of the country having particularly low Yes votes compared to the national average (indeed the only No constituency was in this region, as were the next seven closest constituencies). This sort of split is not particularly unusual in Irish referendums.
What was unusual however was the internal breakdown of areas. Normally middle class Southern Dublin leads the way on issues relating to Europe and on social reform. Here the picture was much more mixed. The highest Yes constituency was indeed Dublin South East – an extremely wealthy constituency home to most of Dublin’s south city centre and the base of most of Ireland’s tech companies – making the constituency have an extremely high student and young professional population that naturally favoured a Yes. However what many of the other most favourable constituencies for Yes in Dublin share is being predominantly working class. By contrast Dublin South, a middle class area of suburban lawns and golf club memberships, which is usually very high on these measures, scoring among the lowest Yes votes in Dublin. While surprising to observers this was certainly not news to Yes campaigners, who regularly reported having a more difficult time in such more ‘settled’ areas, with an older population, more Church influence and less exposure to non-nuclear families generally. Turnout in Dublin was much more uniform than normal between middle and working class areas, suggesting that the latter was more interested in this than normal.
Cork and Limerick were also decisively favourable and above the national average, though with Yes votes below even Dublin’s lowest constituency. This is, again, normal on social issues in Ireland.
Non-urban areas however behaved somewhat differently in the details than they have in the past – again similar to Dublin. The gap between urban and rural was much smaller than in divorce. Many Dublin constituencies moved little from their Divorce vote – in spite of the liberal side winning 62% in contrast to 50.3% then. The most liberal constituency then – Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, went from 68% in favour to 71% in favour this time. Rural Ireland seems to have distinctly moved. There also in this contest a regional divide in the rural constituencies, with the North and West being distinctly less in favour than the South and East. In previous contests rural areas in Cork have been among Ireland’s most conservative – Cork North West had the highest No vote in divorce (Only 34% in favour) and returned enormous margins against abortion. This time it the liberal side of the issue won 58%. Rural areas anywhere near a commuting distance to Dublin saw enormous Yes wins (69% in Kildare North, 66% in Kildare South, 68% in Wicklow), although even areas outside of the pull of the capital were decisive.
No constituency in Connacht or Ulster were above the national average, and the only loss for Yes occurred in this region. Roscommon-South Leitrim, an inland Western constituency with a very poor economy, has traditionally not been the most conservative constituency – albeit it certainly leaned in that direction. What seems to have happened was a near total lack of support for YE among local politicians, combined with a knowledge that this was not actually Ireland’s most conservative constituency ensuring it got no special attention. Nonetheless the defeat in the area was quite narrow.
Much better bets for No constituencies actually returned a Yes vote – both Donegal constituencies in the far North-West and Cavan-Monaghan on the border of Northern Ireland, where local politicians supported YE campaigns seemingly determined the defy the conservative reputations of the area.
What the rural areas in the North and West seem to share – and that contrasts them with the rest of the country – is the near total non-existence of the Labour Party there at any level at almost any point in Irish history. Labour was for most of its existence predominantly a rural party in the South and East, and the party still has support and can return parliamentarians there even after becoming an urban force. Nonetheless this relationship is not total, and certainly does not explain the narrowing gap between Urban and Rural Ireland on social issues just as Labour has become more urban.
Another explanation is the institutional strength of the Church in certain areas, with No being stronger where they continue to have sway. This seems likely, but does not bode well for for the Church’s future sway over Ireland – particularly since, as the Archbishop of Dublin noted, 90% of Irish young people have spent nearly their whole lives in Catholic educational institutions, and these were the individuals most likely to repudiate their stance.
The Presidential age referendum had essentially the same geographical split, with the highest Yes again being Dublin South East, followed by other Dublin constituencies. The defeat was extremely heavy however, which likely reflected the perceived frivolity of the vote.
FF won the by-election – but their percentage of the vote (28%), was exactly the same as what they won in the area in the General Election, which does not strongly indicate a party in recovery and more reflects the struggles of FG, who both have reason to be disappointed. Renua did quite well – and with a vote only slightly above the 9.5% they received in a by-election perceived as a contest largely between FF and FG they would likely win a seat. One of the more striking features of the contest was the poor performance of Labour and the comparatively impressive percentages of the various minor Left parties. Labour were strongly associated with the Marriage Equality referendum that got all of these voters to the polls in the first place (and clearly carried Carlow-Kilkenny) and were certainly not rewarded by the electorate for it. By contrast first time voters seem to have rewarded the minor left parties without the established local history that Labour has, but also without Labour’s coalition baggage.
The result turned most of Dublin into a sort of spontaneous joyous street party for much of the day of the count. The most comparable moment in Irish history for such celebrations was Ireland winning through to the soccer world cup quarter-finals in 1990 (which also provoked the same sort of reaction and is still considered arguable the finest moment in Irish sporting history).
Following on from the referendum FF Senator Averil Power resigned from the party, saying that the party lacked the courage to stand for anything by its (effective) refusal to campaign as a party on the issue, in spite of the efforts of many party activists. This fairly quickly deflated the party after their by-election success and much of the subsequent discussion became whether the party had misread their now predominantly rural base by not engaging in the campaign.
The government has followed up the referendum victory with a gender-recognition bill for transgendered individuals. The combination of such legislation, combined with Ireland’s first ever (albeit extremely restrictive) abortion legislation means that the government can make a reasonable case for this being one of Ireland’s most socially progressive governments ever, something that both constituent parties are likely to try to capitalize on in a general election that is now likely less than a year away.