From top: Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty; Derek Mooney
“Standing right now, if nobody does anything, I don’t think this referendum will pass”
This was Minister Regina Doherty on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics last Sunday. Her comments were, as we have come to expect from the outspoken Social Protection Minister, forthright and clear cut.
Ms Doherty was responding to the results of the two latest opinion polls, showing both a narrowing of the winning margin for the Repeal the Eighth side and a growing concern about the proposed 12-week threshold.
Her observation that there was still a ‘job of work to do’ to win support for the abortion proposals led the radio and TV news for the rest of the afternoon.
By the time the RTÉ Six one TV news came around the Government sources who were reportedly concerned by her comments appeared to have gotten their way.
RTÉ’s Justin McCarthy was not only able to report on the Minister’s original comments, he was also able to tell us all about a clarification that the Minister had just issued which made it clear that the Minister did not in fact think that the referendum would fail, but rather that she was sure it could and would pass.
It was almost painful to watch, especially as the misspeak that the clarification was intended to clean up was not that much of a misspeak.
Yes, Ministers should all look and sound like they are on the same page and should try to always exude a positive air of confidence in their own invincibility, but they should also look and sound credible and give the impression that they can hear what people are saying.
In my view this is precisely what Minister Doherty was doing pre-6pm on Sunday. She was telling the public that the government is taking nothing for granted in this referendum and that it is aware that many voters – and let’s be crude about it, many of them are Fine Gael leaning – are unsure about the 12-week part.
It seems that this was Senator Catherine Noone’s view too. Senator Noone, who expertly chaired the Oireachtas Committee that considered the referendum proposals, told Breakingnews.ie that she thought Minister Doherty was just being realistic about the possible outcome and that: “Every day, those of us who understand and believe that the position should be changed legally in this country have a job of work to be done to communicate that”.
Ms Noone added:
“Any referendum even the Children’s Rights referendum, where it was a really positive thing, it wasn’t won by any major majority, so it’s a fair comment that the Minister made.”
Unlike many of those who may have been behind the “clarification”, Minister Doherty has practical and painful experience of what it is like to fight a referendum that looked set to pass, only to fail at the last minute, having served as the Deputy Director for Fine Gael’s ill-fated 2013 Seanad abolition campaign.
To her credit Minister Doherty gave her all to that campaign from the very start and fought it with a lot more zeal and tenacity than many of her party colleagues. She learned the hard way that opinion polls in referenda can be deceptive.
An Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll taken at the end of September, just one week before polling had those voting yes to Seanad Abolition at 44% those voting No at 27%, undecideds at 21% and won’t vote at 8%. On the day the No side won 51.7% to 48.3%.
Clearly the issue this time around is far more difficult, far more personal and a lot more emotive. Many more people go into this campaign, on both sides, with deeply and sincerely held views than was the case in 2013, but Minister Doherty is right at this point to signal clearly to the undecided and the soft retain the 8th voters alike that she and other ministers recognise that they need to explain to people how the proposal to allow for terminations up to 12 weeks was arrived at. I know, as I am one of them.
There is also another important factor. Since 2013 we have seen nature of campaigning move on a pace.
We saw the results in the Trump and the Brexit campaigns where voters were convinced to doubt and reject the counsel of the established experts and to go with their newly informed, or should that be inflamed, guts.
The deployment of data analytics played a big role in both those campaigns, a lesson not lost on the Keep the 8th side who reportedly have retained the services of Kanto a UK data analytics company associated with the UK Leave campaign.
I am not saying that data analytics alone will swing the campaign one way or the other or even that only one side with be using them. Undoubtedly, both sides will use all the campaign tools available to them from traditional, to online to social media.
I am merely making the point that in today’s ever more volatile and perhaps even disruptive political environment, it is vital not to be complacent and to think that everything and everyone with play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
It is why I welcome the Transparent Referendum Initiative, a project run by volunteers with an expertise in social media and online marketing, that aims to enable an open and honest referendum debate by making the use of targeted, paid political ads on social media more transparent. It should not to up to volunteers to do this, this is something that should be done by the platforms and the State.
Indeed, if the government had acted last year, well ahead of the referendum, and accepted the Private Members Bill prepared by Fianna Fáil’s Science and Technology spokesman, James Lawless TD, (and let me declare that James is a friend of mine) that provided for transparency in the disclosure of information in online political advertising, then we wouldn’t need TFI to take up the slack.
But, alas, it didn’t.
Which is another reason why I think Minister Doherty was right to send up a warning flare now and call the situation as she sees it and why those unnamed sources in the shadows – the ones who tried to fix her supposed misspeak – are the ones who really misspoke.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney