Same-sex referendum not guaranteed to pass

Article by Brian Hayes MEP published in the January Edition of GCN

In November 2013 I was proud to be part of a Government that committed to holding a referendum on same-sex marriage in the first half of 2015. Many people present this as an issue forced on Fine Gael by the Labour Party in government. They are wrong. Fine Gael’s position and our support for same sex union is there for all to see. We want the Irish people to support this referendum and will campaign for it. We have an active and thriving LGBT group in our party made up of LGBT members working closely with Ministers, TDs and Senators. It was the Fine Gael LGBT group who were responsible for An Taoiseach’s appearance in Pantibar before Christmas. Some raised an eyebrow at this, but Fíonnan Sheahan got it right in the Irish Independent when he said the following day.

“Sorry, but this is significant. Never before has a Taoiseach been at a function in a gay bar. Never before has a leading political party had a group for gay members. Never before has a government put a question on gay marriage to the people.”

The work towards that referendum day is ongoing. The recent register to vote campaign run by “Yes Equality” was outstanding. Tens of thousands of new young voters were registered right across the country. For me the key part of this success was the number of groups working together, endorsements from across the political spectrum and across all sectors of Irish society. Of course the core of Yes Equality is GLEN, ICCL and Marriage Equality but special mention should go to BeLonG To Youth Services and Students’ Unions for a great job done.

We should not be complacent about upcoming referendum. I believe we have a real job of work ahead. We must remember that just 18 years ago, divorce was constitutionally banned in Ireland. That referendum passed by the narrowest of margins, 50.3% to 49.7%.  Recent opinion polls show that 67% of the Irish public are in favour of introducing same sex marriage. That will predictably change as the campaign begins on both sides.

The LGBT community in Ireland needs no reminding that Ireland is still a socially conservative society. While the cafés and bars of our cities might laugh at the thought of the same-sex marriage referendum falling, vast sections of Irish society have not fully considered what the referendum is about and are unsure. Together we must work to engage with these voters. People cannot be taken for granted. It’s all about a proper explanation in language that is clear and helps everyone to understand what this means to those who are currently not equal before the law.

Too often campaigns focus on the hard edges of the debate and ignore the ordinary voter. It is often those on the fringes that shout loudest and the temptation is to talk about their issues and their concerns.

Every referendum in Ireland is won in the centre ground. The referendum can be won by appealing to moderate voters who just want the best for their friends and family. It would be a disaster if this referendum fell. A disaster for our LGBT citizens. A disaster for our international reputation.

It is for this reason that I am calling on the LGBT community to work with those politicians and parties that want this to pass. Simply put, how do you get thousands of posters up across the country in a short period of time? How do you “get out the vote”? How do we focus on the issues that matter and side-line extremist views? The answers to these questions comes second nature to politicians.

The importance of the LGBT community and politicians working together goes deeper than that. While some feel that this issue belongs to the LGBT community, the truth is that this issue belongs to us all – regardless of sexuality. We must, as a united society move forward together. Equality is in all our interests. Explaining that this referendum is not about children, religion or church marriage is vital. It’s especially important that older people who have seen their children, in loving and long term relationships, find their voice and explain what this means to their own children. But language is important and making people feel comfortable in making their own arguments.

Nearly 40% of people don’t read a daily paper, the vast majority don’t listen to national talk radio and fewer still watch current affairs shows. This is where politicians can help. The stock in trade of Irish politicians and political parties is talking to all areas of Irish society to promote a policy, attract votes and most importantly getting that vote to go to the polling booth. We must do this together; no longer can LGBT rights be a niche issue or a minority concern.

But when voters go to polling stations on this issue, they will have lots of more pressing concerns on their minds then this issue. It’s important that we reflect on that. Campaigns are won by appealing to that silent majority, who may well have a difficulty in expressing their views about this.

By working together we can make Ireland more tolerant and more compassionate. By working together we can support long term relationships and make Ireland a better place to live in. Encouraging people to live their lives together, no matter what their sexuality is, helps to build a more tolerant and a more caring society. Let us try to keep in mind the people we are trying to persuade.

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