Yesterday, the day after Leo Varadkar’s coming out, the first shots of Ireland’s marriage referendum campaign were fired.
What the day’s discussions across national radio and television revealed – to me, at least – is that the Yes campaign is wholly unprepared and has been outmanoeuvred at the outset.
Although there are four months of this to go, the initial skirmish has undeniably been won by the No advocates.
The debates yesterday demonstrated that the No side has, as in other debates in the past, mastered the three key elements needed for success:
Already, the Yes advocates are on the back foot. This seemed apparent to me in the morning, listening to Newstalk FM.
By midnight, it was absolutely beyond doubt, in my view, that Monday, 19th January 2015 saw a resounding victory for the No campaign – before the campaign has even begun.
Here’s how I think they achieved that.
Obviously, the opportunity that presented itself here was Leo Varadkar’s disclosure about his sexual identity.
It was irrelevant (and largely unmentioned) that Varadkar was effectively forced out of the closet by elements of the media who were looking for the story in his personal life.
Once he had made the statement that he was gay, it was inevitable that this would be one of the major news stories for the next 24 hours at least, given that (save for any major news event) the Monday papers were highly likely to lead with the story.
In particular, once the question was put to him about political issue of the marriage referendum, that was the signal for campaigners to act.
To me, this was the most striking aspect of yesterday’s events.
Although the referendum campaign hasn’t formally begun yet, David Quinn seized the opportunity to respond to Varadkar’s disclosure by shifting the focus of debate back to the topic of marriage, and by arguing what he viewed as the central issue.
This is framing.
He and his colleagues in Iona had also done their research and were well-versed in their speaking points for broadcast media appearances later in the day.
Both Quinn (on Newstalk FM in the morning) and Breda O’Brien (on te inaugural Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ One in the evening) referred to Varadkar’s statements in Dáil Éireann in 2010 concerning proposed Civil Partnership legislation (referring to the same excerpt, and qualifying the quotation with a disclaimer to the effect of, “Varadkar’s views may have evolved since then”); that the Constitutional definition of marriage will be redefined; and they both introduced topics relating to children, the right of a child to know their biological parents, adoption, surrogacy and IVF treatment.
This is framing.
I noticed on Twitter, during the Claire Byrne Live discussion, many Yes advocates complaining in relation to points advanced by Quinn, O’Brien and others.
Such as: complaints that issues around family relationships will be dealt with in separate legislation; complaints that marriage is not defined in the Irish Constitution; complaints that red herring and straw man arguments were introduced, such as incest and polygamy being the consequences of same-sex marriage; complaints taht none of these arguments are relevant to the question that will be put to voters on referendum day; and so on.
All of those complaints are entirely valid. And all of them are entirely irrelevant.
It does not matter whether or not the No advocates writing or speaking today were correct or accurate.
It matters that they got their message across to a wide audience. And it matters that they did that repeatedly.
These two things they achieved, and achieved thoroughly.
This is framing.
Moreover, in framing their arguments in these ways, these advocates tapped into fear. And where there’s fear, there’s uncertainty. And uncertainty means No votes.
This applies to people and resources, both material and moral.
In terms of material resources, the most obvious is money.
Taking Iona as an example, for some reason their finances are not disclosed under SIPO rules, so it’s difficult to be precise. I think it is without doubt, however, that Iona is very well funded indeed.
Elsewhere, information on finances is even less forthcoming, so I can only guess that this also applies fairly well to other organisations campaigning for a No vote.
If we look at what is produced by organisations like Iona, Catholic Comment, and so on, we find high quality websites, multimedia, paper materials, premises. It may be reasonable to infer that, with the costs involved in producing these outputs, these are well-financed organisations.
If they are lacking in finances, though, these groups can readily rely on teams of dedicated, committed and well-connected individuals to carry on the work. They can also easily attract like-minded individuals who are seeking direction.
In terms of moral resources (in the sense of non-material resources), there is no shortage here. Whether religious or secular, the dedication of those participants is clear and well-motivated.
They will also be aware that their goal is short-term with a definite time-frame: just a few short months until polling day.
Additionally, as distinct from many on the Yes side, those campaigning for a No vote are not personally invested in this campaign – to the same degree or quality as someone who regards this referendum as a struggle for their personal rights. Since the personal costs are lower, the campaign may not be as emotionally draining for those individuals on the No side.
Written 2:30am. Last updated 3:00am. Published 7:00am.
20th January 2015.