How To Win Your Referendum

Posted April 7, 2015 in Features, More

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When I was approached for ideas about how to present our support for the Marriage Equality campaign in Totally Dublin, the editor and I tossed around various ways that we could think of that would show TD readers all the good, glorious and gay old reasons to expand the scope of civil marriage to include our LGBT selves, family, pals and peers.

The thing is though, if you care about getting this referendum passed, you already know these reasons. The difficulty is in explaining them to those who are unsure and unwilling.

Being successful in any campaign is just as much about delivery as it is about content. It has been admirable and inspiring to see the LGBT community and its many allies rally with words of support, and reasons why we all should be voting Yes. What we need now, however, is a discussion about how we relay our message, how to talk to yer man next to you in the pub, how to approach this with your Aunty Bridie, how to assure them and, if needs be, how to change their minds.

Talking about the referendum is tricky. Emotions are easily and often embroiled. Anger and accusations of bigotry bubble up. Deep dividing trenches are dug on either side, ammo is fired and suddenly soldiers forget that those on the other side are human. Go back to your Junior Cert History and remember the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914. The British and the Germans along the Western Front dropped their enmity for a day, clambered out of their trenches, and crossed no man’s land for some seasonal chat and a game of footie or two. This was part of the famous ‘Live and Let Live’ phenomenon of World War I, military behaviour and tactics which were characterised by conflict-avoidance and non-aggression. They remembered their opponents were humans, and treated them with respect.


Any debate is a war of words. If we want to win, we need to drop the hate and hostility, get out of our trenches and start to engage with others: those who won’t vote, those are confused and even those who are voting the other way.

Disclaimer: I am not the guy to tell you how to win this referendum. Like much of the Yes lobby, I am a young liberal fighting for his cause for the first time. In comparison, the conservative No side have been at this for years. From the decriminalisation of sodomy, to abortion to divorce, religious institutions and the political right have found a way to influence people that has had profound and lasting effects, long after society steered firmly away from the Church’s control. We are putting up a good fight, but we could no doubt use the help of those who have trod this path before, and what’s more, won against the odds.

Enter Anne Connolly. From illegally importing and selling contraceptives throughout the early 1980s as founder and former director of the Well Woman Clinic and sitting on numerous state boards including An Post, to setting up her own business consultancy firm and the Ageing Well Network, Connolly is a shining beacon of this radical old vanguard, and a mentor from whom we can learn much. Full of Delphic wisdom and contagious energy, rocking a short, spiked, pixie cut and dressed like a Kooples model, Anne is like a Mary Robinson-Annie Lennox lovechild and a total lefty legend.


MalcolmMcGettigan_Anne Connolly_CROP


Between tearing away at the patriarchy and climbing the corporate ladder, Anne was part of the team that helped bring divorce into Irish law. This was during a second Divorce Referendum in 1995, which won by the smallest margin ever in Irish history, a mere 0.6% of the votes cast.

Connolly told me about previous political battles lost, and how she and others responded. ‘I was involved in both the ’86 and ’95 divorce referendums, and by the time it came around to the second, a number of us decided to stand back. We had had the experiences of losing two referendums in the 1980s. It was no surprise we lost in ’83 on abortion, but the surprise was doing as well as we did, getting one third of people to vote No [to the 8th Amendment]. It was different in ’86 though, we shouldn’t have lost the that divorce referendum.’

‘A group of us met together to analyse and get a better understanding of why we lost, and to learn and apply those lessons. We brought together an eclectic group of people, a school teacher who really understood grassroots communities, Michael McDowell, a very senior member of the judiciary, people from marketing backgrounds, people who understood consumers, behavioural and attitudinal analysts, people from different political parties.’ Having assembled her political Guardians of the Galaxy, Connolly set about understanding what had gone wrong. What people said and what people did proved to be very different things.


‘The main issue that came out was that people have a whole range of different fears. Quite often, they’re ashamed to articulate these so, when they’re being surveyed, they may be inclined to say they’re voting one way and then vote the other. They never got a chance to articulate the things they were concerned about.’

Connolly noted that this was as much a product of their previous political lobbying as it was social phenomenon: ‘We had effectively created an environment that shot down these fears, or positioned these as being luddite, conservative, reactionary or unsympathetic to the plights of people who found themselves in broken marriages. We had been effectively saying, “You’re uncool if you want to vote No to divorce”. The more we created a confrontational, conflictual positioning, the more we were actually pushing them into a No vote mode. We needed to get a deeper understanding as to what those fears were about, and not just poo-poo them.’

These are pitfalls any lobby should be wary of. The force of their first campaign had proved to be abrasive and alienating. A new route was needed.

‘Our second move was about tone. It had to be a lot warmer, more inclusive and understanding, more aimed at the mainstream. We had to position what we were saying as “You don’t necessarily want this for yourself – and that’s fine – but it is possible to be very generous and think of other citizens who want to behave differently”. It was then about collecting people who could then speak to those fears… theologians across most faiths, journalists and social commentators. And we just facilitated a discussion.’

When I asked Connolly how we could apply these lessons this time round, both in campaigns and in a personal capacity, she said that you need to know who you’re talking to and then work out what you’re likely to achieve.

‘You need to work with an assumption that there’s a hard Yes vote and a hard No vote. You’re not interested in those. But there’s also a soft Yes and a soft No, and then a soft “don’t know”. This is your territory. The first step then has got to be insight into why people might be considering voting No. Get an insight to what the fears and concerns that they feel embarrassed to articulate are about. Nobody wants to be seen to be anti-gay any more. It’s just not on, and people know that. 20 years ago it would not have been an inhibition.’


The name of the game is respect and understanding. Righteousness and anger alienate. Changing opinions and convincing someone is a process. ‘If they’re attacked before they’re given a chance to go past a gut instinct, they just go on the defensive. People close down if they feel like they’re being put under attack.’ It’s about getting on the same level as someone, allowing them to feel safe so they can voice their concerns. ‘People need to go on a journey with these things,’ said Connolly, ‘and we need to help them by facilitating revelation and providing reassurance.’

What Connolly says sounds simple, but achieving it is undoubtedly a difficult feat. There are layers of emotion, vulnerability and the fear of strange, new changes to contend with. These truths have been affirmed from a most-unlikely source: a convert. Following Dublin Pride 2009, Brenda Power contended in a Sunday Times piece on July 5th 2009, entitled ‘You Can’t Trample Over the Wedding Cake and Eat It’, that, ‘Marriage is a legal and religious union between a man and a woman. That’s a definition, in the same way as Irish stew is a dish made with lamb, spuds and turnips. You can, of course, substitute wild boar, aubergines and pilau rice, and you will have a perfectly delightful meal that will satisfy more sophisticated palates. But it won’t be Irish stew.’ The distaste for same-sex marriage in her writing is evident, along with a readily patronising attitude. Power later summarised this article, and its fallout, as having ‘caused a bit of a stir.’

During a piece on RTÉ Radio One’s Drivetime on Friday 13th February this year, Power came out as a Yes vote. Allegorising an apocryphal tale about the USS Lincoln, Power told a cautionary tale to the Yes lobby. The American air-craft carrier was ploughing full steam ahead toward a set of small lights in the distance and demanded that it change it’s course 15 degrees North. ‘Divert your course South 15 degrees’ comes the reply from the small lights. Upon barking This is the USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the Atlantic Fleet. I demand you divert your course or countermeasures will be taken!’, the small lights respond, ‘This is Cobh Lighthouse. Your call.’

Power renders her point clearly: ‘No matter how important and unstoppable you think you are, no matter how much righteousness and authority you have on your side, it is always good idea to know what you’re up against.’

She articulates a pitfall what she thinks the Yes lobby are often liable to fall foul of. ‘Anyone who dares voice a dissenting view is attacked as a homophobe, “soft in the head”, at best suffering from an irrational fear of gay people… The problem is demonising an opinion you do not like, does not change it, it just masks it.’


Falling in line with what Anne Connolly and her comrades detected in the referendums gone by, Power feels shaming and attacking push real concerns and truths into the shadows. ‘As long as the Yes lobby continue to deride its opposition, the No side will grow stealthily, staying below the radar until it is too late and too large to avoid. If you can’t see what you are up against, you will not know when you are heading full steam for the rocks.’

Spanning decades, issues and the political spectrum, the message is the same: berating and shaming achieve little. An electorate becomes estranged by righteous name-calling and political one-upmanship. It is only empathy, personable interaction and human assurance that can effectively change and convince the confused or wary. To quote Power, ‘This referendum will be won by whomever shows the most respect for the opposing view, rather than the one that mocks it most gleefully.’

This tactic is not freshly-minted. In fact, it has successfully underpinned entire political movements in other countries, including what is arguably the most politically-polarised in the Western world, the United States. Researchers from Columbia University and the University of California have recently empirically shown the worth of this style of political lobbying in relation to canvassing undertaken in the aftermath of Prop 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage by popular vote in California in 2008.

Using a group of activists volunteering with the LA LGBT Center led by Dave Fleischer, the study showed the enduring power of persuasion which human interaction can have on the undecided and the unwilling. Going from door-to-door in strategically chosen neighbourhoods, volunteers conducted structured but highly personal and intimate interviews with voters on the issue of same-sex marriage. One tool often deployed was the interviewer coming out to the interviewee as LGBT, in order to connect on a deeper emotional level. This key moment of vulnerability was often a turning point in the persuasion process. Lasting on average 20 minutes, these conversations fostered a safe environment where real feelings and issues could be divulged and dealt with. Studied against control groups over time, the study showed that Fleischer’s teams proved to have profoundly lasting and exponentially affecting impacts on interviewees, as well as their families and neighbours.

MarriageRef_FuchsiaMacAree_Spot08 MarriageRef_FuchsiaMacAree_Spot09People are starting to have the difficult conversations. Trinity College’s Student Union recently unveiled the #RingYourGranny campaign encouraging students voting Yes to pick up the phone and call someone near and dear to ask if they’re voting, which way and why. In the video launching the campaign, a number of students put their phones on loudspeaker and make the call. The responses are, in turns, encouraging and telling. One grandmother’s ambivalence shows her fears around the difficulties same-sex marriage faces when it comes to parenting. After having engaged with her grandson and confirmed that she plans to vote Yes, the woman sagely says ‘people have to be informed and be given the other side…’ and warns to ‘not let people be self-conscious about it’. Answering her queer daughter’s question of whether she will vote Yes, one Mam reassures simply, almost scoffingly, ‘of course I will!’ Her response is poignant enough to reduce any viewer to the weepy-face emoji.

We need to learn from the lessons of the past. Gaining insight into people’s fears in order to speak to them got divorce over the line in 1995. We have been scolded for bad behaviour this time round and learned, as Brenda Power would suggest, ‘It might be a good idea to show some respect for [others’] views, rather than taunting them as backward and ignorant.’ We can look further afield and abroad and see that engaging humanely and appealing with respect, sincerity and heartfelt emotion can have powerful enduring effects.

It’s time to climb out of our trenches. To your next-door neighbour, namecheck Fr. Iggy O’Donovan, who recently concluded in the Irish Times, ‘respect for the freedom of others who differ from us is part and parcel of the faith we profess. For these and for other reasons I will be voting Yes’. Explain to your local, well-meaning Helen Lovejoy that ‘there is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation. That is, lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children’ as recently affirmed by The Psychological Society of Ireland.

Be persistent, but be kind. We all have to live with one other, now and after Friday 22nd May. This referendum will not wave a magic wand to change Irish society. But it will be a big first step. There will be other battles, and we will have to fight another day, so ultimately, it would be astute to make humans of those at the other side of the trenches.

Words: Jack Gibson

Illustrations: Fuchsia MacAree

Portrait: Malcolm McGettigan


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