Former polls give indication of how Cork may vote on Friday

OVER the last 35 years, Cork voters have been part of a gradual liberal shift in Irish politics. David Linnane looks at how societal changes have impacted voting behaviour in the city and county. 
Former polls give indication of how Cork may vote on Friday

Ballyphehane Community Centre Count for the 1983 referendum on abortion.

ON FRIDAY, voters will be asked if they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment — one of the last major standing stones of conservative Ireland.

People might tell you that it’s all to play for in the coming week, but, in reality, the biggest shifts in this campaign have taken place over decades rather than days.

The polls have consistently shown a strong majority in favour of repeal, and a slimmer but still significant majority for the government’s proposal of a 12-week window of unrestricted access to abortion.

Those polls say a lot, but we can also learn a lot from the other social referendums that have taken place since the Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983.

Referendums on social and moral issues have seen voters clearly move away from traditional Catholic conservatism and towards a more secular liberalism.

Graphic showing election results in Cork for previous referendums on social issues.
Graphic showing election results in Cork for previous referendums on social issues.

But while the whole of society has started to shift, it hasn’t been all at once, and there are still significant differences in the behaviour of different demographics.

By looking back at various different referendums, we can see that urban areas have always been more liberal than rural areas, even as the whole of Ireland becomes more liberal.

We see correlations between earning and education and voter behaviour, with higher income, more educated people being more likely to vote for social change.

The three referendums that have the most to say about how Ireland will vote this weekend are the original 1983 Eighth Amendment referendum, the 1995 divorce referendum, and the 2015 marriage equality referendum.

Obviously, the 1983 poll tells us what voters did when the Eighth was originally proposed.

That was a tense campaign, with significant opposition from figures in the political establishment and various different campaign groups, but there was an overwhelming campaign in favour of introducing the amendment.

This was a time when the church wielded far more influence over Irish voters, and we were still an incredibly conservative country, and the vast majority of the political establishment favoured the amendment.

Voters clearly favoured it too, which reflects the Ireland of the time.

This was an Ireland where contraception was barely legal, so allowing abortion was out of the question for most voters, with people voting two to one in favour of inserting the amendment.

Cork was not too far out of step with the national figure, with every constituency returning a no vote. You could see the rural-urban divide between constituencies though.

Cork North Central voted in line with the national poll, but Cork South Central was significantly below it, with a slim majority in favour.

The more rural constituencies were far more conservative, with Cork North West returning one of the highest yes votes in the country, one of nine where it was over 80% in favour of the Eighth.

But that was 35 years ago, and it’s incredibly unlikely that you would see voters do the same again now.

The 1995 divorce referendum is more similar to what we are voting on this week.

Polling day in Ballymun for the first Divorce Referendum in 1986. Pic: Photocall Ireland
Polling day in Ballymun for the first Divorce Referendum in 1986. Pic: Photocall Ireland

It was a campaign to remove a constitutional ban on an issue where Irish society had moved on, and where Ireland was out of step with most other countries.

Like abortion, the issue had also been brewing for years, with serious campaigns to introduce divorce going back to the 1980s and the previous divorce referendum in 1986.

The players on either side were similar too, with the religious and conservative groups and some politicians backing a no vote, and the more liberal groups and major political parties backing a yes.

If that referendum can tell us something about this weekend, it’s that the vote will be incredibly tight.

That referendum passed by less than half a percent — just under 10,000 votes nationally.

In Cork, Cork North West was again the most conservative constituency.

The rural-urban divide was less clear though. Unlike the 1983 referendum, Cork North Central went close to passing divorce, rejecting the proposal by just 3%.

Still, four Cork constituencies did not pass the referendum, with the richer, higher educated and more urban South Central the only Cork electoral area to pass divorce on a 5% margin.

While that referendum had similar circumstances, it took place more than 20 years ago — closer to the 1983 eighth amendment referendum than the 2018 one.

The marriage equality referendum from 2015 has some more recent lessons though.

It was the most recent referendum we had — along with a failed referendum on lowering the age of eligibilty in Presidential elections.

That issue had been brewing for sometime as well, and society had begun to move on it after the introduction of civil partnerships a few years earlier.

There are some differences though.

The yes campaign in this referendum is very similar, with many of the same people involved and a lot of the same tactics, but there was no significant no campaign in 2015 in the way there is now, with big groups, well-known politicians, and plenty of money behind it.

It is also incredibly unlikely that this will be a landslide in the same way as marriage equality was. Just one constituency — Roscommon-South Leitrim — voted against it.

But you do see the same patterns as before in how enthusiastic Cork constituencies were.

Cork South Central had the highest yes vote again, followed by Cork North Central and Cork East — which has significantly urbanised in recent decades due to the growth of Cork’s commuter belt.

Cork North West was not the most conservative here either, with Cork South West having a slightly higher no vote but still both passed the proposal.

That could be down to the Cork North West’s urban vote in the Ballincollig area, where Cork South West is now the only constituency that doesn’t contain any part of the city or a significant commuter belt area.

Based on Cork’s voter behaviour in the past and the current polls, a result similar to the 1995 divorce referendum would not be surprising in Cork.

According to the most recent Irish Times poll, likely voters are 58% in favour of yes and 42% in favour of no.

There is a clear difference in rural and urban voters — a 62-38 yes-no split for urban areas and a 52-48 yes-no split for rural voters.

The reason for the rural-urban divide is fairly clear from that poll too.

Young people and higher earners are leaning heavily yes, while older people, lower income people, and farmers are all leaning no.

There are far more young people and higher earners in cities, and far more older people, lower income people, and farmers in the country.

Looking at that poll and taking things along the lines of previous referendums, Cork North West and Cork South West might slip into the no side, Cork East would hover closer to the 50-50 mark, leaning yes, while the referendum would be safely carried in Cork North Central and Cork South Central.

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