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Thursday 8 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Why have most politicians bottled out of vote debate?

Saoirse Ronan pictured with Eamon Farrell at the launch the Yes Equality Your Yes Matters campaign under the clock at Clerys on O'Connell Street. She is encouraging people to get out and vote Yes in the Marriage Referendum on May 22.
Saoirse Ronan pictured with Eamon Farrell at the launch the Yes Equality Your Yes Matters campaign under the clock at Clerys on O'Connell Street. She is encouraging people to get out and vote Yes in the Marriage Referendum on May 22.

The great Irish-American politician Tip O'Neill liked to tell a story about why he lost his first ever election.

After the result, he bumped into his next-door neighbour and was shocked to learn that she had not voted for him. When he demanded to know why, she simply replied: "Because you never asked me."

Enda Kenny's government might have good reason to think about Tip O'Neill this Saturday. As opinion polls show the same-sex marriage referendum getting uncomfortably tight, one obvious reason is that TDs are just not working hard enough.

In other words, the political establishment will deserve precious little credit for a victory this weekend - and most of the blame if it all goes wrong.

Government sources insist that they are still confident of winning by a margin of around 60-40. Even if they are right, that is a far cry from the 80-20 landslide that appeared to be on the cards just a few weeks ago.

Whatever you think of their tactics, the 'No' side has clearly had a good campaign - partly because so many residents of Leinster House have failed to show up.

How did Fine Gael and Labour botch this so badly? For a start, they left their homework until the last possible minute.

The Children and Family Relationships Bill, which deals with such sensitive areas as gay adoption rights, was rushed through the Oireachtas just a few weeks ago - while the even more controversial issue of surrogacy has not been legislated for at all.

As Roy Keane famously said after leaving the World Cup in Saipan, "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail." The Government's sloppy groundwork has been a godsend to the 'No' campaign, allowing them to sow all sorts of confusion about how same-sex marriage might impact on children's rights.

It has also allowed them to win the battle of the posters, with their cute baby photos making a far greater emotional impact than the political parties' bland appeals.

At a time when the Government is trying to promote the virtues of marriage, it doesn't help to see Fine Gael and Labour squabbling among themselves. This week there was a silly row over whether Leo Varadkar or Alex White should represent the 'Yes' side in a crucial Primetime debate.

The openly gay Labour TD John Lyons has complained that while his colleagues are out knocking on doors every evening, Fine Gael is just not pulling its weight.

In fact, the problem is even more fundamental. Anecdotal evidence suggests that backbenchers from all parties are choosing to sit on the sidelines, scared of the response they might get from their more conservative constituents.

Officially, these TDs may be all in favour of same-sex marriage as a basic human right - but unofficially they are far more concerned about alienating voters in the run-up to a general election less than one year away.

Tanaiste Joan Burton has encouraged 'Yes' supporters to "take a selfie" outside polling stations and send it to their friends with the message "I've voted - have you?" While social media is all very well, however, most of the electorate still needs a more personal touch.

Just like Tip O'Neill's neighbour, they like to be asked face-to-face - and if that doesn't happen they start to wonder why they should bother at all.

Motivated

This is a crucial factor in predicting the referendum result. By now it should be obvious that while 'No' voters are a minority, they will also be much more motivated to show up on Friday.

The Government probably needs a turnout of 50pc to be sure of winning, while anything less than 40pc could spell real danger for them.

Enda Kenny claims that the 'Yes' side "has lit a fire in the hearts and minds of Irish people". If the Taoiseach really believes that, he may need to get out more. He lost the apparently unlosable Seanad referendum in 2013, partly because his troops were too lazy to fight - and there must still be a lurking fear that the same thing could happen again.

Enda also says he has no desire to become a gay icon. If his Government's limp and uninspiring campaign ends up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, this is probably not something he will ever have to worry about.

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