A few weeks before the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment kicked off, I was invited to address a faith group about it. 

They were having a day-long meeting with various speakers and they wanted me to tell them, as an old hand at referendums, what was likely to happen.

Brief speech and then questions and answers. 

I suggested the group wouldn’t like what I was going to tell them. Fine, I was told.

They didn’t like what I told them. I told them the vast majority of voters had made up their minds long, long ago. That the majority had decided to end the Eighth. 

The faith group was wonderfully civil about being told there was nothing they could do to prevent an oncoming yes vote. 

One of the audience suggested that keeping the hierarchy out of it might be useful. Another vented about media bias. 

But, although they were genuinely sad about the prospect of terminations happening legally in Ireland, they harboured no unreal hope about persuading the electorate to vote no.

As the campaign progressed, however, and the opinion polls proliferated, that almost abandoned hope seemed to get picked back up by the no side.

Polls skewed hope for no side in an inevitable win for yes campaign

What the opinion polls established was a downward slide in the yes vote. Not precipitate, but pretty constant. 

As we now know, that slide didn’t exist. 

What was happening was a build-up of enthusiasm and resolution even stronger than in the marriage equality referendum.

So what the hell was going on with the polls and why does media go into every contest making only mild noises to the effect that polls have been known to get it wrong? 

Let me tell you why: Opinion polls substitute for research; they give a good story — even if they’re complete hogwash.

The single most noticeable aspect of these opinion polls was a huge number of undecideds.

‘Undecided’ is the term for people who, having made up their mind to vote for a candidate or cause that may not be popular, lie to opinion pollsters. 

They’re also, sometimes, called ‘Shy Tories’ because in one British election where the Tories did much better than expected, the political post-mortem established that many of those planning to vote Conservative were not prepared to expose themselves to the obvious or covert contempt of the opinion pollster by confessing their evil intent in advance. 

A shut mouth catches no flies, Confucius said, and ‘Shy Tories’ weren’t in the business of catching flies by mouth.

Tally keepers from both sides of the campaign at the count centre in Dublin’s RDS. Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Tally keepers from both sides of the campaign at the count centre in Dublin’s RDS. Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The logical conclusion of the massive chunk of undecideds in each of the opinion polls throughout the campaign, one might have thought, was that it was made up largely of no voters who believed the prevailing consensus ran against their wishes and who figured that silence was their friend, at least until polling day, when they might toss away the cape and announce themselves as the heroes who swung it.

That belief — that a load of no voters were lying in the long opinion poll grass and that they might just reverse all expectations — inevitably informed the narrative of commentators. But it was totally wrong, too. 

The overwhelming nature of the end result of the referendum indicates that the Shy Tory vote, in this instance, was on the yes side. 

Who would have thought that so many people still felt bothered enough about the possible reaction to their intention that they denied it to pollsters? 

And — before we forget the earlier definition — they weren’t undecided at all. They’d made up their minds months or years ago. However, we didn’t know that until after the poll.

While canvassing was still going on, as far as the yes side, that sliding downward figure of yes support was irrelevant. 

Colm O’Gorman told me at the weekend that it had been anticipated, that the referendum had been won before it ever started, and that the erosion of yes votes revealed by opinion polls didn’t touch the reality, which was a solid, unbeatable core vote in the affirmative.

That, of course, is not how the no side saw it.

Colm O’Gorman
Colm O’Gorman

They looked at the scissors-like movement downward of the yes vote and upward of the no vote and hoped against hope that time was on their side, that the two would meet by polling day and that the covert no voters would push the thing over the line.

What actually happened is that someone broke the scissors. Something happened about eight days out from that day that nobody has thus far managed to pin down. 

Something that radically changed the mood and sense of possibility on the no side. An unpublished opinion poll? Who knows.

Whatever it was, it made a radical difference, tipping determination into desperation. 

Suddenly, Maria Steen had to replace Cora Sherlock on the RTÉ debate, and the no side were so obdurate about this that when RTÉ grew a pair and told them they’d do the debate with Simon Harris and Peadar Tóibín and no other panelists, the pro-life side didn’t backtrack.

As it turned out, they did all of us a favour. Over-populated panels are a constant problem, and setting Simon against Peadar allowed for riveting clarity and great viewing. 

Not that it changed the outcome. No offense to either man, but the reality is that no matter how well or badly either performed on the night wasn’t going to make a significant difference to how the voters voted. That was decided years ago.

Since I make my living out of preparing people for media appearances, it’s not good for my business to suggest that media interviews and debates were largely irrelevant in this particular insurance. 

Polls skewed hope for no side in an inevitable win for yes campaign

But irrelevant they were, to the extent that not even the reportedly stellar performance delivered on the night by the Minister for Health can be credited as changing the minds of a significant number of voters.

What his performance did was cement existing intentions. And that works both ways. 

Rónán Mullan’s almost episcopal dispensation of the right to be loved to the young woman who shakily told the story of her abortion probably did little harm to his cause. 

Those already on his side wouldn’t have been shifted. The two thirds already on the yes side might have been outraged, but they were outraged in a way that impacted not a jot on their voting intentions.

A lot of money was spent, because in any political campaign, even when you know you have it in the bag, you spend like crazy lest you be subsequently blamed for arrogance and complacency. 

Which may explain why I was driven nuts by no campaign advertising getting in my way on social media. I assume I was targeted because of age, and I resented that like hell. 

But it didn’t matter. Any more than the posters climbing every lamppost mattered. 

None of it mattered. Minds had been made up eons beforehand.

The arc of the moral universe had, as long ago as five years previously, bent towards the inevitability of yes.

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