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Friday 2 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Enda can't just rely on Dubs to drown out 'Silent No' vote

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has attacked banks that were rescued by taxpayers during the crash
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has attacked banks that were rescued by taxpayers during the crash

Ireland is full of people with a dark secret.

They may be hiding in the closet today, but on May 22 they plan to make their voices heard.

They are citizens who refuse to admit that they will vote 'No' in the referendum on same-sex marriage - and right now they are giving the Government a serious case of the jitters.

With just nine days to go, the 'Yes' campaign's confidence is slowly ebbing away. Canvassers are warning that the response on doorsteps is far less positive than they might have expected, particularly in rural areas.

We may be seeing the rise of a new phenomenon called 'Silent No' voters, people who don't express any open hostility to gay marriage but simply refuse to engage.

On the surface, there seems no real need for the 'Yes' side to panic. Opinion polls continue to show that the referendum will be passed by a convincing margin of around 75-25.

The endorsements for gay marriage keep rolling in, from sports stars including Robbie Keane to business organisations such as the IDA.

Like all moral arguments, however, this campaign cannot be won from the top down. It must start from the bottom up, which requires politicians to wear out some shoe leather and explain to their constituents face-to-face why marriage equality is a good idea.

All the evidence so far suggests that this is just not happening - and few TDs have been slacking off on their duties more than Enda Kenny himself.

The Dublin-rural divide is hardly a new phenomenon. Back in the divorce referendum of 1995, almost every single constituency outside the Pale voted No.

Only an overwhelming Yes turnout in the capital pushed it over the line, 50.3pc to 49.7pc - far, far too close for comfort.

When Bertie Ahern held another referendum on abortion seven years later, the same pattern repeated itself. Dublin's commuter belt voted strongly for the liberal position, defeating their conservative country cousins by another razor-thin result of 50.4pc to 49.6pc.

journey

To give just some idea of the gulf in public opinion, 68pc of Dun Laoghaire voters were against tightening the ban on terminations while 70pc of voters in Donegal North East backed it.

This is where Enda Kenny should come in. The Taoiseach claims to have travelled "a personal journey" on same-sex marriage, which is a fancy way of saying that he used to be against it and has now changed his mind.

As a 64-year-old practising Catholic from Mayo, he could be the ideal person to tell 'Silent No' voters why they should make the same journey - but instead he seems to be under the dangerous delusion that victory is already in the bag.

If Enda needs a wake-up call, he should look at last Thursday's UK election upset. Dozens of opinion polls put the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck, but in fact David Cameron triumphed with more than 100 seats over his hapless rival Ed Miliband.

In other words, Middle England is a lot more right-wing than it likes to pretend - and the same is almost certainly true of Middle Ireland as well.

There is another useful lesson that Enda could learn from his British counterpart's triumph. Early on in the campaign, a lethargic-looking Cameron was accused of being "too posh to push".

In response, the Tory toff rolled up his shirtsleeves and held a series of rallies in which he declared himself "bloody lively" and "pumped up".

Some Fine Gael TDs are privately urging Enda Kenny to break his vow and take part in one of the television debates. That might be a double-edged sword, since the Taoiseach is often a notoriously wooden performer when put under pressure.

He has no excuses, however, for not "doing a Cameron" - barnstorming the country and injecting some passion into a campaign that has been pretty lacklustre to date - or at least attempting to.

The smart money still says that same-sex marriage will become a reality when ballot boxes are opened on Saturday week. To be absolutely certain of defeating the 'Silent No' voters, however, Enda must learn how to use his own voice - and sooner rather than later.

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