The appointed time arrives: once again, there is a rumble in Ranelagh

There are two points I want to make about the upcoming by-election in Dublin Bay South.

The first, and by far the most important, is that pro-lifers should vote tactically. What do I mean by that? I mean that pro-lifers should be thinking carefully about of how best they can use their vote as a resource to advance the cause of human dignity for all, and voting accordingly – even if that means voting for someone other than the candidate they think is the best in any given election. 

The second point is that when you think about voting this way, it becomes pretty clear what a tactically sound vote in the upcoming by-election would look like. But you might agree with me on the first point and disagree on the second. The key thing is that I think pro-life voting in Ireland has to get a lot more tactical as a matter of absolute urgency.

I’ll get the second point, what I think people should do about the by-election, out of the way first. Then I’ll go back to the deeper question of why people should vote tactically in the first place.

The Dublin Bay South By-Election

While it would of course be fantastic if a pro-life candidate won a seat in this election, in one of the most pro-choice constituencies in the country, that outcome is unfortunately highly unlikely. And all of the major parties are putting forward strongly pro-choice candidates. However, that doesn’t mean that this election can’t deliver positive outcomes for the pro-life movement – it very much can. Winning seats is the best, but not the only good, potential outcome.

What this by-election can do for the pro-life movement is build a narrative and a sense of momentum. If a pro-life party was to do better than expected in this election, it would get them more media coverage, make their activists more enthusiastic, and make the electorate take them more seriously as a real alternative. What will count towards this narrative-building is Number 1 votes. People will barely pay attention to the transfers when all of the anti-abortion candidates will be eliminated relatively early. All that will matter for the narrative is the share of the first-preference vote.

The only way to make this happen is if all pro-life voters row in behind the pro-life party that is most likely to succeed; otherwise we simply split the vote. So which is the pro-life party most likely to succeed? To break through and become a real force in Irish politics?

Well, no Irish party has ever gone from having a non-zero number of Dàil seats to having zero, and then recovered to win more Dàil seats, with the exception of the Greens in 2016, a party with decades of history. So one of the pro-life parties, Renua, is unlikely to return to prominence.

It’s also the case that currently there is only one pro-life party that has any elected representatives, and they currently have council seats North and South as well as a Dáil seat. There is only one pro-life party that regularly polls higher than 1% in national opinion polls. There is one party which is as clearly ahead of the other anti-abortion parties in support in this by-election as it is nationally. There is one party which has a network of local activists and cumainn that substantially exceeds the others in membership.

That party’s success is by no means a sure thing: it did well enough at the last general election to survive and keep growing, but would need to increase its representation in the next local and general elections to ‘break through’ and become a serious force. But it seems to me to be pretty clearly the party that has the best chance of making that breakthrough.

Given all this, there seem to me to be very good reasons for pro-lifers to give their first-preference vote to the candidate put forward by that party, Aontú, in the upcoming by-election. This is my own view and I could be wrong about it. But regardless, if we don’t get serious about tactical voting, the pro-life movement simply does not have a future in electoral politics in Ireland.

Why do I think that?

Why We Need to Vote Tactically

Because the pro-life movement is clinging to a space in Irish politics by its absolute fingertips. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have both, in the space of the last decade, gone from being explicitly pro-life to neutral-in-theory-pro-choice-in-practice (with some genuinely committed pro-life members acting as exceptions to that general fact). This leaves Ireland with no major party with a platform that recognises human rights for all humans.

Sometimes pro-lifers like to talk as though we are a large and influential voting block that is simply being ill-served by the political system. Unfortunately this is an error, and a costly one, because it obscures how bad our situation actually is and makes us less likely to take the moves we need to take to fix it.

Thirty-three per cent of people vote pro-life? More like two per cent

Back in 2019 I wrote a blog post asking the question “why was it so easy for the Northern Irish parties which have a majority of pro-life voters (like the DUP and SDLP), to act against the preferenes of those voters and allow abortion to be legalised in the north? And why did they face so little electoral punishment?”

The answer is, in short, preference intensity. In simple terms, it’s unfortunately the case that just because a person opposes abortion does not mean that opposition to abortion is a political priority for them. Hard as it may be to believe for many of us convinced pro-lifers, a person may oppose abortion but care far more about other political issues, and not be particularly inclined to vote on the the issue in politics. That’s why we’re not seeing the NI parties pay a political cost.

Much the same is true south of the border. Here in the Republic, we often hear some variant of ‘if any political party won as many votes as the No side did in the Repeal referendum, they would be the largest party in the country’. But for many No voters, abortion is simply not a political priority. A Behaviour and Attitudes exit poll taken during the 2016 general election revealed that only 2% of people said abortion was the issue that most influenced their first-preference vote. Two per cent. Only another 2% said it was the second-most-influential issue for them. And that’s counting both pro-life and pro-choice people who said abortion was a priority issue for them.

I wish every pro-lifer in the country would spend an hour just reflecting on that exit poll. Even back in 2016, only two per cent of people, pro-choice and pro-life combined, were voting with aboriton as their most important issue. What segment of that were pro-lifers? One can only imagine that that share has since decreased.

So we need to banish from our minds the idea that there’s a third of the electorate just desperate to vote for pro-life candidates. Most No voters don’t care all that much about abortion, and most of them were happy to keep on voting for who they have always voted for once Repeal happened. Only a tiny fraction of No voters are the sort of ‘pro-lifer’ that you think of when you use the term. We hear a lot about soft Yes voters, but the soft Nos are just as important.

One obvious implication of this is that we need to do a lot of work changing people’s minds before we can expect to achieve much in the political sphere. That’s what we spend most of our time in the Minimise Project trying to do.

But another implication is that in the meanwhile, committed pro-lifers have to change the way they engage with the political system. We should realise, for example, that most politicians in the mainstream parties, even pro-life ones, have very little incentive to do anything for the pro-life movement. There just aren’t many votes in it.

How to punch above our weight in the political system

How might we change that? Well, it’s worth thinking about how another movement coped with a similar situation. The environmental movement, like the pro-life movement, has a lot of people who theoretically support its goals, and a vastly, vastly smaller core of people who are motivated to do anything about those goals other than maybe recycle some of their rubbish. How does that small core of committed environmentalists engage with politics? Well, almost every democracy in the world has a Green party. Those parties leverage the limited political power that actually committed environmentalists have by getting some of those people elected to positions where they can raise awareness about environmentalism, as well as make environmental issues prerequisites for supporting governing majorities at the local and national level.

You can see the success of the Green Party in this country by one of the things that people say in criticism of them: that all the major parties have green policies now and so the Green Party proper isn’t that distinctive. Reasonable people may differ on the extent to which that is really the case, but it’s certainly a lot more the case now than it was in the past. One of the reasons why it became more the case is that parties became afraid of losing voters to the Greens unless they adopted some green policies. They became scared of losing the small but committed environmentalist vote, because that vote actually has somewhere to go. So the existence of the Green Party made every other party that bit more likely to actually do something green.

The analogy should be pretty obvious. If there was a country-wide pro-life party in this country with elected representation and a real presence in national political debates, it wouldn’t just keep the pro-life position alive in those debates. It would make other parties more afraid of losing votes to that party. Thus someone like Mary Butler in Fianna Fáil could say to Micheál Martin “we need to give these voters something or they’ll go to party X”, and have much more of a chance of actually getting a hearing.

Party X really has to be a party. Political parties have already “priced in” Independents, of all stripes, in every constituency. There is no incentive for the large political parties to be attractive to someone who might otherwise vote for a pro-life Independent, because there are just too many reasons that people vote Independent. Therefore a handful of independents alone, even if they are excellent representatives and do a lot of good work, will never provide the kind of systemic threat to a major party that would incentivise it to change course on any issue.

So who might Party X be? There are in Ireland several small parties with anti-abortion positions in their platforms. It seems very clear to me that given the facts on the ground there is only ‘room’ for one to actually be successful (as in, get enough council and Dàil seats to actually be a real player in the debates of the day and threaten other parties in the way that the Greens have). Why only room for one? Several reasons:

* Setting up a new party in Ireland and getting it established as a real contender in the minds of voters is extremely difficult.

* There is only so large a pool of enthusiastic volunteers, canvassers and the like. Splitting that pool will reduce the chance of any pro-life party succeeding.

* There is only so much media coverage that any pro-life party is likely to get: in case you haven’t noticed, the media is not fond of us!

* In order to actually get council and Dail seats, a party needs a lot of number 1 votes. It’s no good getting transfers if you’re eliminated too early to use them. Remember, the committed pro-life vote is very small. Any pro-life party will need to reach far beyond it to be successful: that means that the last thing the pro-life movement needs is to split that ‘base’ stock of number one votes between a number of small parties, likely dooming all of them.

Given all this, there are very strong reasons to support the pro-life party that has the best chance of breaking through and becoming a national political force. That’s the case even if you prefer one of the other parties. The likely outcome of splitting pro-life votes, time, and energy is not that the party you like best will ultimately succeed. It’s that no pro-life party will succeed. Remember, it is extremely hard to set up a new party: and every time a pro-life party fails to break through that will make people less likely to join or support the next one and more likely to give up on pro-life politics entirely. There are not an unlimited number of chances here – in fact, we might already be on our last one.

Expressive voting, voting for the party whose policies fit you like a bespoke suit, is not a luxury that the pro-life movement can afford in these circumstances.

Obviously this is not a blank cheque. If you think the pro-life party most likely to succeed is so far apart from your values that you can’t bring yourselves to vote for them, you shouldn’t (I for instance could never vote for any party that advocates for racist policies). But if the party most likely to succeneed has policies that are not your absolute favourite, but you can live with them, then you should vote for the pro-life party most likely to succeed. In the upcoming by-election, I think any objective reading of the evidence available suggests that that party is Aontú. But if we’re thinking about elections and voting tactically, we’re already much closer to achieving whatever political success we can.


NB: Full disclosure, I’m a member of Aontú. I’m not paid by the party in any capacity and never have been, and I have no intention of running for any elected office, so I don’t think I have anything personally to gain from the party doing well.