Lessons from the Marriage Referendum for the Abortion Referendum

For months the wheels have been slowly turning in preparation for the abortion referendum and soon the campaign will kick off fully. It will likely bear some similarities with the Marriage Equality referendum of 2015, so I think it’s crucial to study the lessons of the last referendum if we want to repeat its success in the next one. Both issues are heavily influenced by the position of the Catholic Church and the No side will again be led by Catholic groups like the Iona Institute. The vote will be split on similar lines, with older and rural people more likely to vote No. Here are some lessons I learned from canvassing for a Yes vote that I think are applicable to the next referendum.

The vote is won on the street, not on Twitter

Social media is useful for a campaign as it spreads the message in an effective, allows contact between activists and acts as motivation. However, the vote will not be won on Twitter. There is no point spending hours arguing with people and following every Twitter trend. The vast majority of people simply don’t care about the site and won’t be reached. By the nature of the site, most people who see your tweets probably already agree with them.

During the marriage referendum, I spent one night arguing for 3 hours with someone, which convinced no one and left me feeling frustrated and angry. In contrast, if I spent 3 hours canvassing I reached far more people, actually swung votes and ended up feeling very positive and satisfied. Twitter can quickly turn into a dead-end where you waste your time on trolls or an echo chamber.


Get out of the bubble

This follows on from the last point. During the referendum, a bubble formed around those who were politically active and campaigning. Every day there would be some new issue that was breaking news on Twitter but the rest of the country didn’t know or care about. They would be treated as extremely important by a handful of people and then forgotten the next day. Don’t get distracted by trivial minor issues, stay focused on the big picture. One example I remember was an egg thrown at a canvasser which was treated as a massive human rights violation and a signal of the death of democracy. Which leads me to . . .

Prepare for the persecution complex

There is one card that was heavily played by the No side during the last referendum that will certainly be played again. A core belief of Iona and Youth Defence is that they are always under attack by people trying to oppress them (hence the militant name). Undoubtedly there will be opinion articles written moaning that Catholics are a persecuted minority and that opponents of abortion are being intimidated. It doesn’t matter whether it is true or not, if so much a single person sends a mean tweet, this will be taken as proof of a national campaign to silence opponents. Prepare to hear a lot about the stereotypical shrill feminist who hates men and screams at everyone who disagrees with her.

During the marriage referendum, the slightest thing would be used to argue that they were being persecuted. If the wind blew down a poster, this was proof that a shadowy group of radicals were destroying democracy. When the marriage equality side had a garda at a stand to help register voters, this was hysterically claimed to be evidence of a police state. The No side threw on its keening shawl and mourned that anyone who defended traditional marriage was being called a homophobe. It got so bad that it seemed like homophobia didn’t exist and was merely invented by the Yes side to slur people with a different opinion. The funniest example was a video the No campaign released arguing for the importance of debate and letting everyone express their opinion – but they refused to let anyone comment on the video!

To an extent this will be unavoidable, no matter how the Yes side behaves, Iona & co are determined to be martyrs. It might seem bizarre that people with opinion columns in national newspapers and who appear on tv nearly every night can claim they are being silenced, but that didn’t stop them last time. It might seem hypocritical that you could be accused of being hostile and also a baby murderer by the same person, but politics can be very strange. The best we can do is to avoid adding fuel to the fire and not deliberately provoke outrage by being too aggressive. It might seem unfair to require a higher standard for ourselves and enforce tone-policing, but it’s the best way to avoid words being taken out of context or proportion to create a backlash.


Fear of the unknown

No matter how strong the support is for any referendum, the no side always gains during the campaign. This is because Irish voters are always afraid of the unknown, a fact that will be exploited. The No side worked hard to warn people of a slippery slope and scare people with vague muttering of a dark future. All sorts of dire warnings were made, like the claim that the Catholic Church might no longer be able to host weddings in churches or people would be forced to recognise same-sex couples against their will.

I have no doubt that there will also be slippery slope arguments and claims that this vote will open the floodgates until everyone is getting abortions. Prepare to hear people claim that if we accept abortion up to 12 weeks it will be increased until abortions will be available at 40 weeks. Even though the campaign will last months, there will still be those claiming the decision is being rushed and we don’t fully know the consequences. In response to the fear-mongering so people will feel it’s just easier to leave things as they are. Undecided voters often end by voting for the default, which in this case is a No vote, so extra effort must be made to win them over.

Expect the unexpected

The Catholic Right rarely challenges an issue head on, instead they prefer a surprise attack on an issue you’ve never considered. For example, during the marriage referendum they didn’t fight over whether two people who love each other should be allowed marry, instead they focused on a completely different (some would say irrelevant) issue of adoption and surrogacy. Before the campaign begun, would anyone have thought that adoption was the core issue of the marriage equality debate? Absolutely not, but that is where they focused most of their attention and tried to shift the debate.

This will certainly happen again. The No side will not let the pro-choice side choose the terms and ground of the discussion, instead they try to shift to something completely unexpected in order to throw their opponents off guard. This has already begun and it seems they will spend a lot of time talking about children with down syndrome, even though this has little to do with abortion. Down syndrome is rarely diagnosed before 12 weeks and is not grounds for abortion afterwards, but that doesn’t matter, the important thing is that they have changed the debate from being about choice, to one that makes the pro-choice side seem heartless and cruel.

Token supporter

The stereotypical image of the Catholic Right is of elderly, rural conservatives who want to tell you how to live your life. This is why they work extra hard to counter this image and use token supporters. During the marriage referendum, prominent position was given to Keith Mills and Paddy Manning, two openly gay men who supported a No vote. This was done to directly to combat any claims they were homophobic and their argument seemed stronger if even gay people were voting No. These token gay supporters were a powerful shield for the No side and were used to deflect criticism that they were anti-gay.

This will also happen during the abortion referendum. Campaigners work hard to make sure that young woman are chosen as their representatives to the media and are always at the front of the marches. If women oppose abortion, then it can’t be a women’s right issue, right? If young people oppose it, then it can’t be an outdated opinion, right? The funny thing is that the main target of this tactic is actually elderly men who know feel they have permission to vote no because they have been assured that age and gender doesn’t matter. They work hard to hide the elderly supports with overt religious symbols (and often refuse to let people use homemade placards during marches).

This is the not demograghic of the average No voter, which is why campaigners work hard to make sure all photo-shoots are dominated by young women

Likewise, non-religious people will also be used to counter-claims the campaign is run by the Catholic Church. Expect to see lots of “I’m an Atheist but I’m voting no” articles and there is an attempt to set up an Atheists Against Abortion group. The media loves these kinds of articles because they’re different to the common perception, so for the sake of novelty they will publish any amount of “I’m a young, cool liberal and I’m voting No”.

A good way to combat this is to use the same tactic in reverse. The endorsement of people like Daniel O’Donnell greatly helped the Yes side in reaching traditional voters and the campaign by students to contact their grandparents was very effective. Including elderly people in the campaign will broaden the appeal and combat the stereotype of the campaign being run by lesbian feminists with dyed hair from South Dublin who only care about looking good on social media (it’s ridiculous how popular that stereotype is).

Show the human face

Crucial to the victory of the Marriage Referendum was the openness of gay people. This isn’t easy because no one wants to be used a political pawn or have their identity used to score points in a debate, but putting a human face on the issue was essential. It’s much harder to talk of the dangers of gay people marrying, when you know a gay person who just wants to marry someone they love. The campaign was massively helped by celebrities who came out of the closet and people who shared their personal stories. It wasn’t so long ago that homosexuality was seen as bizarre or just the butt of a joke, so combatting this image was essential. When gay people were viewed as the same as everyone else, then it was hard not to let them marry like everyone else.

This will be essential to abortion vote. It’s much easier to oppose an issue if it is abstract and hypothetical, so the Yes side will have to show these women are real people, not merely a faceless statistic. It will be painful and difficult for many to share their abortion stories, but voters must see the human face of the issue. They must see the women as real people who want to make choices about their life. It’s easy to condemn an imaginary slut who uses abortion as a contraceptive or just wants to murder a baby, but if you know someone who had an abortion, that completely changes your perspective. If the focus of the referendum is on women, then the Yes side will win.


Stay on message

The most important lesson from the marriage referendum is to stay on message. The No side tried hard to distract and disorient people by dragging them into technical debates about side issues, but the Yes side won because they strayed focused on the core issue – the right of two people who love each other to marry. Everything about surrogacy, persecution etc was all forgotten after the vote because it was irrelevant.

Likewise, the Yes side must keep the focus on the core issue – a woman’s right to choose. If the referendum is fought on the issue of choice and women, the Yes side will win. The Yes side already has some good branding in the label of pro-choice, which should always be used to keep the discussion on topic. The No side knows this as well, which is why they will do everything they can to change the debate and talk about literally anything else. Don’t get bogged down in twitter spats or nonsense no one cares about, stay focused on the core message and we will win.

6 thoughts on “Lessons from the Marriage Referendum for the Abortion Referendum”

  1. Since I don’t live in Ireland, in a sense this is none of my business, but nevertheless you have got me thinking.

    On homosexual marriage, I would be neutral, it seems a bit silly, bizarre even, but what harm can it do? Abortion OTOH is more complex an issue.

    I’m assuming contraception is now legal in Ireland, I can remember when it wasn’t, so in a sense any pregnancy, rape aside, is now intentional. So how would you react if people like myself came forward, people who in all probability simply wouldn’t exist had abortion been easily available back in the day? My generally liberal mind-set should make me in favour of abortion, but wouldn’t I then be wishing myself into oblivion? Perhaps I should just lock the door and slash my wrists?

    You say make it personal. So what if a crowd of us formerly ‘unwanted babies’ came forward and asked whether or not you think we deserve to exist. OTOH the very sight of us might convince you ‘NO’ (LOL!) After all there are probably far too many people in the world as it is.

    All in all, I’m glad not to be Irish, so I’m not confronted by this moral dilemma, but I wonder what the response would be from those of you who are. (Well you did say to “show the human face”!)

    1. In reply to Marconatrix: I understand your position, but please understand that we are all just incredibly lucky to be alive at all. Here’s my story: I’m the younger of two siblings, however there was another pregnancy in between the ones carried to term. This pregnancy came way too soon after the first baby. Had my mother not decided to risk her life (and also a prison term), and have an illegal abortion, I wouldn’t be here. It works both ways, and we are on different sides of this story. However, that doesn’t make us adversaries, we are both human beings and have a right to exist and enjoy our lives.

    2. That argument doesn’t really make sense. I mean if your parents had used contraceptives you wouldn’t have been born, does that mean we should ban contraceptives? If all the people from unplanned pregnancies had shown up and asked if they have a right to be alive, would that convince you that condoms should be banned?

      1. Well I just wanted to point out that the whole thing is a moral dilemma with no single simple answers.

        However, I did not exist as a distinct ‘unique’ individual before fertilization. So stopping that one lucky sperm from meeting the ovum would be no different from somehow arranging things so that my parents themselves never met or copulated. That would be their problem possibly, but not mine since I would never have existed.

        As it is I was conceived, born, but not wanted. It’s hard to explain, it’s not that my life has been in any way terrible, just that I’ve always known, and will know to my dying day, that I was ‘surplus to requirements’, simply an unfortunate mistake. A sort of dead end, blind ally, on the map of life.

  2. 3.86 (of 4.77) million Irish declare themselves Catholic. Catholic doctrine states life begins at conception. Killing a foetus by any of the three methods ( cutting up, chemical, or hoovering out) is, thus, by definition, in their belief system, a murder. 280,000 Irish declare themselves atheist. They are free to vote as they wish. For Catholics, even the child of a rapist and his victim has a right to life which is not cancelled by the vile crime to which the mother has been subjected . Thus a Catholic, observant of her/his Church’s teaching cannot countenance approving of abortion, or even most effective methods of contraception. The views of adults born from rapes may be worth hearing.

    1. I’m an atheist but I also believe that human life begins at conception simply as a biological reality. Killing a human being should always be a matter of the utmost seriousness.

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