Monday, 17 February 2014

Super Serious Analysis: Is there any chance Ireland won't pass the Gay Marriage referendum next year?

Next year the people of Ireland will get to vote on whether or not to legalise gay marriage. In the 77 years since the Irish Constitution was enacted we have had 33 different referendums and, judging by our recent, farcical performances, we're still getting to grips with the whole constitutional amendment thing.

But surely this referendum will be passed? Yes? I mean, we like to think of ourselves as a modern country. A progressive, secular nation accepting of people from all walks of life. We are no longer, as the character of Sir John in The Wind That Shakes The Barley put it, a "priest infested backwater", are we? Are we? There's no chance we'll reject it. Is there? Let's do some quick (desk-based) analysis and try and work it out. 

Generally when a news or media outlet is trying to gauge public opinion in the run-up to an election or a referendum the first medium they use is opinion polls. So what do opinion polls on gay marriage in Ireland say? Well they tell us Irish people like the idea of gay people marrying. They like it a lot. 

Last November a Red C opinion poll commissioned by Paddy Power showed that a whopping 76% of likely voters would vote Yes to Gay Marriage and, when the "don't knows" are excluded, that figure rises to 81%. This is broadly on par with other opinion polls held in the last 5 years with polls conducted by The Sunday Times, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and The Irish Times showing similar margins. 

But opinion polls are a bit too black and white. These particular opinion polls have not been held in the run-up to the referendum and so they haven't been influenced by external factors like campaigning or televised debates. One would imagine in the run-up to next year's plebiscite that Ireland's conservative lobby and, more pertinently, the Catholic Church will be doing their level best to swing a few heads their way. You can bet your bottom dollar there'll be plenty of oratories from the pulpit proclaiming doomsday in the run-up to the referendum and it's difficult to measure how strong an effect they will have, particularly in rural Ireland. 

A similar issue to gay marriage, in that it divides people along roughly the same lines - religious/non-religious, old/young, urban/rural - is abortion. So it's very valuable what we can learn from public opinion and abortion. It was about this time last year that those lovely chaps over at the Youth Defence started their sabre-rattling and drum-banging when a bill that legalised abortion in the case of a woman's life being in danger came before the Oireachtas. 

Opinion polls in the lead-up to the bill being debated were pretty unanimous - these two here and here will do as examples - and they showed that Irish people were keen for such legislation to be instituted. But Christ almighty didn't Youth Defence and those aul biddies from the Catholic Church put up one hell of a fight. Around 50,000 people marched on Dáil Éireann in protest at the bill in question in July of last year. 50 fucking thousand. Few demonstrations in the last decade have been so well-attended or so passionate and, bearing in mind what's happened in the last ten years - financial armageddon, corrupt politicians, Jedward - that's as astounding as it is sad.

Youth Defence are known for having similarly enlightened views on gay marriage so expect them and the Catholic Church to stage similar demonstrations closer to the referendum date next year. This doesn't mean that they are representative of all of Ireland or all of Rural Ireland or, even, all Catholics. It just demonstrates the clout these organisations have that they can mobilise such a large number of people when, as the surveys from only months earlier seem to suggest, this issue, theoretically, should have little opposition. 

History can help with our guesswork too. Let's take a look at referendums on similar issues which have been held in this country. The most relevant plebiscite is surely 1995's referendum on divorce when, after 58 years and one previous rejected referendum in 1986, divorce was finally legalised in Ireland. Again, like abortion, it divided people along the lines we would expect gay marriage to in next year's referendum.

Divorce is now rather quotidian and it never ceases to amaze me that when I was born divorce was illegal. It seems so quaint in a sort of horrible way. What's even more astounding is the margin that the Divorce Referendum was passed by - in short, it was a bloody close one. Out of 1,633,942 votes cast, the yes side won by just over 9000 votes. 50.28% voted Yes while 49.72% voted No. The voting patterns that emerged from the result were rather easy to spot and the most obvious one is illuminated in the map I have attached below.

Do you see it? Virtually no constituency in Rural Ireland passed the motion. The entire West Coast rejected it and all of the Midlands too. The only reason it passed nationwide was because the margin of victory in Dublin was so emphatic. The only other places it passed were urban centres like Limerick and Cork and three counties in Dublin's commuter belt Kildare, Wicklow and Louth. This illustrates the difference between Rural Ireland and Dublin. While I don't expect Rural Ireland to be so vehement in its rejection of Gay Marriage it has to be expected that there will be plenty of constituencies, particularly in the West of the country, that will reject this referendum. 

You can already see the lines being drawn. The recent Pantigate scandal involving drag queen Panti, the Iona Institute and RTE was big news in Dublin and online, particularly Twitter. But I can say this with certainty, as someone who lives in Rural Ireland, the story did not register as much as a blip on the richter scale here. It wasn't a hot conversation topic nor did Panti engender much sympathy among anyone I spoke to here. For a lot of young voters and urban voters, gay marriage is a hot button issue. If a candidate in Dublin openly expresses opposition to gay marriage, he/she will be roasted alive at the polls. This, however, is not the case for much of the more conservative and more religious Rural Ireland. 

And that brings me on to another point; religion. The Catholic Church's influence on constitutional matters and government policy has been on the wane since the 70s and church attendance has fallen dramatically in the last two decades but it would be churlish to underestimate their influence on certain demographics, namely the old and the rural. 

The best graph for determining their influence is the most basic; mass attendance. Even though Ireland's mass attendance has dropped off by an estimated 50% since 1990, Ireland has one of the highest rates of mass attendance in the Western World. A 2011 survey by the Irish Bishop's conference stated that 42.1% of the people they queried attended mass "once a week" while a survey from a less bias source, The Irish Times, in 2012 found the figure to be around 34%. That is still a healthy chunk of the electorate and, though I haven't got the figures handy, you can be sure the rate is considerably higher among older people. Why is this important? Well, for the same reason that protests by pensioners are much more likely to be effective than protests by students, old people are a lot more likely to vote.  

Again, there is quite a broad rural/urban divide in mass attendance. A 2011 survey found that a mere 18% of Dubs attend mass on a weekly basis. Now when we consider that Dublin makes up 1/4 of our population and that the national average is hovering around the 40% mark, it shows that rural Ireland is quite keen on mass. It's important to clarify that just because someone is a church-going catholic, it doesn't necessarily mean they will definitely vote No to the referendum. In fact, The Irish Times survey I linked in the first paragraph stated that 66% of the catholics they surveyed would vote Yes to Gay Marriage. One would venture to guess, however, that the Catholic Church will do their level best to swing the heads of that 66%.  

The referendum should pass next year. Indeed, at the moment, it wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that it could pass by a double digit percentage margin. But we shouldn't underestimate the power of the lobby that will be opposed to it and the numbers they can mobilise, both population wise and monetary. It could be closer than we think. In Rural Ireland it's going to be very close, especially since the ratio between old people and young people has widened considerably in the last 5 years thanks to emigration.

To answer the question I ask in the title; There shouldn't be. I predict that this referendum will have an inordinately high turnout among young voters and this, and Dublin's inevitable passing of the bill will mean it should sail through. But this is no time for complacency and the lessons of the past tell us that the other side aren't going to go down without a fight.  

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