Tuesday 25 October 2016

Terry Prone: The 'Yes' campaign's moral high ground may just cost it a win

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD and sports star Fine Gael Councillor Kenneth
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD and sports star Fine Gael Councillor Kenneth "Kenny" Egan calling for a Yes Vote in the Marriage Equality Referendum at the Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin

The most recent opinion poll on the marriage equality referendum is bad news for the ‘Yes’ side. Despite the poll putting the number of people eager to vote ‘Yes’ far ahead of the number of those wanting to vote ‘No’, the gap is far too narrow for comfort.

If Ursula Halligan hadn’t come out last week with her account of a life lived “in prison” since she was 17, the gap between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ might be even narrower.

Halligan’s story was so simple, so unaffected, so agonisingly honest – especially when she said she herself was a homophobe and at 17 had been appalled to find herself in love with another girl – that it hit the public pause button. It stopped the hurtling along of this issue and made people stop to wonder what it must have been like to spend your life in terror at the possibility of being found out as being something you couldn’t change.

It made people want to hug her and it made them realise how a ‘Yes’ vote would tell people like Ursula Halligan that they belong and are valued in Ireland.

But for her intervention, there’s a good chance the poll results would have been worse for the ‘Yes’ side, and that would have been no surprise.

The ‘Yes’ campaign has been blessed by the presence, eloquence and impact of people like Tom and Finnian Curran, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn and Daniel O’Donnell. But it has been damned and very nearly downed by the strident arrogance of some of the more prominent voices emanating from the campaign. Those voices are the voices of liberals – liberals who have been driven nuts by the success of the ‘No’ campaign in raising issues that the ‘Yes’ campaign knows have nothing to do with the referendum.

But instead of concentrating on disabusing the voters of the vague fears raised by the ‘No’ campaign, these liberals have ignored the most obvious rules of communication and instead gone for contempt and personal abuse.

The first demand of communication on an emotional and moral issue is that you assume the person opposing you to be as honest and values-driven as you are. That hasn’t happened.

The ‘No’ campaigners have been reviled as homophobes and fascists. It has become clear that the ‘Yes’ side believes nobody could vote ‘No’ unless they are morally regressive, uncaring, fundamentalist, manipulative and unfit to share the high moral ground occupied by good liberals.

Big mistake. Huge. Voters don’t like to hear courteous people on mainstream media programmes stereotyped and caricatured.

Even worse, this lordly “how could you even think that” tone has allowed the negative propositions made by the ‘No’ side to gain traction. More to the point, it has allowed unaffiliated voters to look at both sides and – as indicated by the poll – make the decision that they like those promulgating the ‘No’ side a hell of a lot better than they like those promoting the ‘Yes’ side.


The sheer scale of the coverage hasn’t helped. At this stage, Ireland is almost in a foetal crouch, afraid to turn on its radio for fear it will get another belt of the equal marriage debate, controlled, in a weirdly narrow version of “balance,” by presenters clutching stopwatches.

Someone on the ‘Yes’ side got sense last week. The new posters have none of the arrogant coercive liberalism of which the electorate had enough.

Instead, they went to the heart of every family in Ireland, with ordinary men and women pointing out that they represent your auntie, your sister, your daughter and asking to be allowed to get married.

If the coercive liberals shut up in the last days of the campaign, the ‘Yes’ side might bring home a win.

The biggest danger, at this point, is that anxiety will drive that side of the campaign into overdrive. In which case, the ‘Yes’ side is goosed.

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