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Thursday 29 September 2016

With 39 days to go, same-sex marriage is far from a done deal

Ring Your Granny. This is the title of a campaign being organised by Trinity College Students' Union, aimed at increasing the Yes vote in May's referendum on same-sex marriage.

Young gay people have been asked to contact their grandparents and explain why a positive result would mean so much to them, with some of the more heartwarming conversations already posted online.

Whether they realise it or not, these students are on to something really important. The same-sex marriage debate will not just be decided by film stars, sporting heroes or the trend-setters who hang around Temple Bar.

It will also be won or lost by the older generation, most of whom were brought up to believe that homosexuals should burn in hell for all eternity.

battle

According to the opinion polls, this battle is already over bar the voting.

With just 39 days left until May 22, virtually every survey shows the Yes side with a massive lead of around 75-25. In fact, both camps expect that gap to narrow dramatically and there are good reasons to believe they are right.

Time after time, the Irish electorate has proved itself to be much less liberal than it likes to pretend. Older, conservative voters are far more likely to show up on polling day.

Above all, many Irish people are instinctively wary about changing Eamon de Valera's 1937 constitution and if in any doubt at all they will vote to keep the status quo. Two examples from the recent past show just how dangerous it can be to make predictions based on opinion polls.

In the 2011 presidential election, we seemed to be on the verge of putting Dragon's Den judge Sean Gallagher in Aras an Uachtarain but at the last moment chose Michael D Higgins instead. A couple of years later, we were poised to abolish Seanad Eireann but ended up giving it a last-minute reprieve.

Could the same-sex marriage referendum deliver another shock?

Either way, it will send out a signal to the rest of the world because Ireland is the first country brave enough to actually put this issue to a national vote.

For the Yes side, marriage equality is fundamentally about love. If two adults are prepared to make a lifelong commitment to each other, the argument goes, their gender should be completely irrelevant. By denying gay citizens the same rights as everyone else, we are essentially treating them as second-class citizens.

The No side's case is a bit more complicated. As they see it, passing this referendum would change the definition of marriage in ways that could ultimately have dire consequences for the nation's children.

Giving gay couples the same legal status as heterosexual couples, they say, will interfere with every child's right to a mother and father.

Although the Yes side's point of view is easier to understand, they also have one major handicap: Since they are the people who want change, the burden of proof is on them to show that it is a good idea. Their opponents only need to sow a little bit of confusion before using a slogan that has been brilliantly effective in other campaigns - 'If you don't know, vote No.'

Like all political contests, this will involve both a ground and an air war.

On the ground, Yes Equality is an umbrella group that plans to hold a series of public meetings around the country hosted by former RTE journalist Charlie Bird. The No side's plans are more shadowy, but it seems a fair bet that the Catholic Church will make its presence felt, particularly in rural Ireland.

For most voters, the airwaves war is likely to be just as important. Yes Equality certainly has a lot more star power, with actor Colin Farrell pledging support and other celebrities likely to jump aboard. However, the No team includes some formidable media debaters from family values organisations such as the Iona Institute and Mothers and Fathers Matter.

One big question remains: Is Enda Kenny prepared to come out and fight for what Eamon Gilmore has described as "the most important civil rights issue of our generation"?

Famously, Enda has been the first Taoiseach to be photographed in a gay bar. As a 64-year-old practising Catholic, he is exactly the sort of voter most likely to have fears about same-sex marriage. The Taoiseach could play a huge role in persuading them to make the same emotional journey that he has, from suspicion to acceptance.

So far, however, all we hear is that some Fine Gael TDs are refusing to go knocking on doors because they believe there is nothing in it for them.

Despite what any poll says, same-sex marriage is by no means a done deal. The grandparents of Ireland better be standing close by their phones.

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