What can Ireland’s marriage equality referendum teach the Remain campaign?

Young voters in Ireland guaranteed a big victory, but it will be difficult to achieve the same here


A year ago today, the Republic of Ireland became the first (and so far only) country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote, making international headlines.

The large margin of victory — 62 per cent supported the referendum — was partly attributed to extraordinarily high engagement levels among young voters, over three quarters of whom voted ‘Yes’.

Indeed, the campaign was so successful in getting young voters engaged and registered to vote that Britain Stronger in Europe has been taking lessons, since young people are much more likely to support remaining in the EU referendum, but less likely to vote.

Its ‘Talk to Gran‘ campaign, which encourages young voters to speak to their grandparents about why EU membership is important to them, is an exact replica of the ‘Ring Your Granny’ campaign launched by students in Trinity College Dublin last year.

Ryanair’s ‘Fly Home To Vote Remain’ offer is another callback. In the days and hours before the polls opened in Ireland, the hashtag #HomeToVote lit up, as thousands of young Irish people living abroad returned to cast their votes.

However, there is little evidence that the EU referendum has captured the imagination, or even the interest, of young people in the UK.

According to Universities UK polling, 63 per cent of university students don’t know what date the referendum is taking place, over half don’t know in what month it’s taking place and 56 per cent are registered at their term time addresses, and may not be there to vote.

Polling published today by the Evening Standard suggests that 20 per cent of young Londoners are not registered to vote.

It is tempting to blame the lack of youth engagement on the various arms of the Remain campaign and they do bear some responsibility. In Ireland ahead of the marriage vote, campaigners convinced young people that marriage equality was the civil rights issue of their generation, calling on them to be a part of history.

This kind of narrative has been almost completely absent from the Remain campaign, with its relentless focus on the economy and individual benefits of a Remain vote.

However, there are also fundamental differences between the two campaigns that can’t be overcome.

Firstly, the Yes Equality campaign in Ireland was pushing an open door. Marriage equality was already an issue with which many young people were highly engaged. As a result, many of the most successful youth outreach initiatives did not come from the central campaign organisation, but from organisations and individuals at the grassroots.

Secondly, a campaign for marriage equality — a straightforward but inspirational legislative step — is inevitably more emotive and engaging than the procedural debate over EU membership.

While young people may call their grannies to discuss EU membership, they’re not going to burst into tears when their grannies agree to vote Remain, like this Irish activist did when his grandmother promised her support.

Similarly, while it is positive that artists in the UK have signed letters to the newspapers expressing their support for EU membership, it rather pales in comparison to the explosion of murals, videos, comedy sketches and music that was produced in Ireland last year.

That’s no one’s fault, it simply reflects that a vote for the EU status quo is not as picturesque as a vote for people’s happiness.

This day last year, thousands of Irish people gathered together in Dublin Castle to watch the count and celebrate the result. As footage broadcast around the world showed, the courtyard was filled with rainbow flags and, when the final result was announced, the crowd burst into tears and cheers.

No one will feel that kind of overwhelming joy if a Remain vote is announced 24 June, not even the most passionate Europhiles.

Rather, we will breathe a sigh of relief that we have managed to dodge the bullet David Cameron fired when he promised this referendum, and return to worrying about all the other political challenges facing the country.

The Remain campaign is right to focus on young voters, to continue its voter registration drive and to attempt to present a more inspiring version of what Europe is and could be.

But ultimately, the next month will be a hard slog, and the best we can hope for is that young voters will be persuaded, even if it is by fear, that the vote on 23 June is a vote for their future.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

Like this article? Left Foot Forward relies on support from readers to sustain our progressive journalism. Can you become a supporter for £5 a month?

Leave a Reply