Fail to prepare, prepare to fail: Ireland’s marriage referendum


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:

  • Political opportunity
  • Framing
  • Mobilisation

    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.


    Political opportunity

    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.




    1. Interesting stuff Joan. How do you think the Yes side can respond to the second problem as you outline it? What you call framing is perhaps more honestly described as lying, and the No side will continue to lie from now until the end of the campaign. We see this from them every campaign (Coir in Lisbon 1 and 2, all the abortion and divorce referendums, etc). When they decide to lie, how can we counter that? Lie back? Call them liars publicly and loudly? This has been a serious problem for a long time now, and one that I have not seen a decent solution to yet.

      1. Hi Ed, many thanks for your comment.

        Unfortunately, while I may be long on analysis, I have to confess I’m short on ideas.

        One of the key obstacles, I think, for the Yes side is the lack of resources. I don’t intend the above to be a criticism of those who are campaigning on the Yes side (just in case it came across that way). One of the issues around lack of resources, I think, is the small number of people involved in the Yes campaign. To my knowledge, it is a very small and dedicated group, including many activists from the ’80s, 90’s and ’00s. That may not be too much of a problem when you’re flush with money and other material resources, but with the lack of funds (as I understand it) on the Yes side, I think those activists risk really burning out.

        As for the framing issue (and I’ll stick to calling it that!), it’s very difficult. The problem as I see it is getting ahead of the debate being framed in this way, rather than reacting. When you’re reacting, you’re losing. Obviously, though, this has already happened, which is why I say the Yes side is on the back foot. The only thing I can think of is to counter the red herrings and straw men by continuing to emphasise and shift the focus back onto what the referendum is about, and not get drawn into discussions around what the referendum isn’t about (and I think that happened quite a bit yesterday). Even though the referendum question hasn’t been published yet it is clear (from statements in the Dáil and proposed separate legislation) that it will be confined only to dealing with same-sex couples accessing marriage.

        I hope this answers your queries!

    2. I think, Ed, you need to set out what you call “lying”. What are the lies? I would like to know. If they are indeed lies, it will be easy to expose them as such and discredit the liars. So, go ahead, what are those lies?

      1. Hi Tony, thanks for your contribution.

        I don’t purport to speak for Ed, but I think there he was referring to what I described above as the red herring and straw men arguments, i.e. those that are distinct from the specific issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples.

        1. Nice of you to defend Ed, Joan, but it doesn’t wash. Whatever red herrings and straw men are, they’re not “lies”.

          C’mon, Ed, come on out of the woodwork and tell us what the actual “lies” were. Or retract your accusations.

          Oh, and Joan, I would in any case not accept that red herrings and straw men are being invoked, if you are referring to discussions about children, parenting, adoption, surrogacy etc. These issues will be impacted immediately and negatively should marriage be redefined into something other than the union of one-man-one-woman.

        2. Hi Tony, No defence, fear or favour of anyone here, rest assured. My comment was based on Ed’s reference to my post (where he said, “What you call framing”). Hence my clarification to you earlier of not purporting to speak for him.

          Regarding your last point, the only issue which will be put to the people in the referendum will be the issue of same-sex couples marrying. Events have moved on somewhat since this my piece was published, and the government has since announced that the Children and Family Relationships Bill will be progressed in advance of the referendum. Your concerns relating to children, parenting and adoption are relevant to that proposed legislation. (The issue of surrogacy has been removed from the general scheme of the Bill.)

        3. Hi Tony, Joan (and btw Joan didn’t realise if was your blog when I left my first comment – I’m Ian’s Ed, we met a fair few times – hey again!).

          The lies I was referring to where any attempt to move the discussion on the simple legalisation of marriage for same sex couples (which is the only thing under consideration in May) onto a discussion of parenting rights, which will be handled in legislation, (with both governing parties support it and their majority overwhelming). If one has a problem with protecting the rights of children of same sex couples (as a friend of mine is), then they can lobby against this bill all they want. But if they try and bring it into the referendum debate to try and sow doubt and confusion in the minds of the electorate, then I’ll be right there to call them a liar, because that’s what they’ll be.

        4. Hi Ed, No-one will object to you complaining about other issues being brought up in the SSM discussion – that is all part of the normal cut and thrust of healthy debate.

          But what you have enunciated are not “lies”. I am sure I don’t need to remind you that a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood” (

          No lies were made. If you persist in calling them lies it is you yourself who are the liar.

        5. It would entirely fit that description – it is a deliberate attempt on the part of the no campaign to create confusion. It is not accidental, it is not mistaken, it is a deliberate falsehood and it will form the backbone of the no campaign from now until polling day. A campaign based on lies, because they know that nothing else has any hope of stopping a yes vote. It worked in the Lisbon campaign, it worked in abortion and divorce (well, the first one at least) and it’s their hope it will work in this one. It IS intentional, and it IS a lie.

      2. Ed, saying that something is a falsehood does not make it a falsehood.

        Despite your bluster, you have not been able to point out a single falsehood, only items that are true but that you evidently do not like hearing. Calling a truth a falsehood is itself a lie.

        If you are intellectually unable – or simply refuse – to distinguish truth from falsehood, then it is impossible to conduct any kind of rational conversation with you. So goodbye.

    3. Nice one, Joan.
      Smart and ultimately depressing analysis. Hopefully your provocation has the desired effect.

      Something missing here is a consideration of how government parties and their members will play their support. Labour – for so many reasons – desires and needs a win and will presumably muster its troops accordingly. Its campaigning effectiveness is moot given the universal cynicism and disenchantment it suffers. FG has a slightly better chance when it decides to bring out the big guns. However I quietly despair.

      1. Hi Toni, many thanks indeed.

        Yes, that’s true – I was a bit bleary-eyed at 2:30am! There are definitely many more issues that could be included in my piece, or points to elaborate. If I get the chance (and I may, over the course of the next four months!), I’ll try to return to this topic. But yes, you make some very important points (some which I had included in a piece I started writing before Christmas, but alas it languishes in my Drafts!).

        I think that, although there seems to be broad support (officially, at least) from the major political parties, I wonder whether their input will be a help or a hindrance – despite what the polls say, I don’t know whether many people in Ireland hold them in high regard any longer!

      1. While there is scientific evidence, and I promoted it myself for use in the constitution convention, I don’t think it will be of much use in this campaign. It was fine there where members were sitting around in groups, listening to presentation, but if we start citing journal articles in a radio or TV debate, we’ll send people to sleep.

        To Joan’s wider point, I very much agree. Already I worry we might have taken quite a hit in the polls. It might be dreadful timing that the Children and Family Relationships Bill hasn’t been published yet, now that the amendment wording is out, but we have to live with that. For anyone outside our bubble, referring to the Bill would be like a debate on the budget where members of the government kept saying, “That’s a matter for the social welfare bill, I’m here to discuss the Finance Bill”. We need to explain what’s in the Bill clearly, while also clarifying that it’s not what people are voting on. People need to stop sounding evasive!

        But there’s plenty of framing for us to do too yet.

    4. Interesting piece Joan.

      Yes a bit worring and depressing, all the more reason to put it out,perhaps it will light a fire under the Yes voters.


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