Campaign for Yes vote runs into wall of apathy

Thu, Nov 1, 2012, 00:00

ON THE CANVASS:Out on the road, it’s eerily quiet, with no coherent opposition and uninterested voters safe indoors with their soap operas, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

“NO! DON’T say that,” implores an alarmed Frances Fitzgerald. What, what? The first Sligo canvassee and there’s trouble already? We edge closer to the door. But all a benign Peadar O’Donnell had said was: “It’ll fly through.”

If there is a statement that keeps this Minister awake at night, that’s the one. Others she can handle – such as the contention that children in care are four times more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder than soldiers leaving Afghanistan; or that four out of five girls leaving care at 18 are either pregnant or already have a child; or that a child in care is six times more likely to die than one in the general population. Once she hears them, she researches them and carries the results in a binder. It’s a fairly bizarre collection of statements but one she prefers not to publicise for fear of giving them legs.

Tonight as she emerges from a Fine Gael public meeting in the Sligo Park Hotel, she learns that Kathy Sinnott has repeated the child death claim on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

It’s coming up to 11pm, with the long road to Dublin ahead, but rebuttal is necessary. The binder is produced. “The death rate for children in care is broadly in line with the general population,” says the Minister.

In fact, the figures show that in five of the past 10 years, fewer children in care have died per 10,000 than children in the general population. An occasional jump in other years might be explained, she says, by multiple death car crashes, for example, in which victims were “known” to the HSE but are categorised as being in “care”.

However exasperating such statements may be, the irony in this non-event of a campaign, is that without such eruptions, there would hardly be a campaign. Voters are safe indoors with their soap operas. There is no coherent opposition. Party activists admit that little is happening on the ground.

People give out about the adversarial factor in the coverage of politics, she says; the Catch-22 is that without it, there is no debate in the public arena, so people are less informed.

On the canvass with the Minister and a dozen Fine Gael councillors and activists, Senator Imelda Henry wonders whether people are even interested. “There are so many other things going on in people’s lives and that’s a problem,” she says, as heads all round nod in agreement.

The fear is twofold: that complacency or apathy will defeat the amendment, or that one or more of the binder statements grows legs in the final days. In Sligo, a Mass-going woman has presented Ms Henry with a copy of Alive!, the Dominican Catholic monthly, edited by Fr Brian McKevitt, with “240,000 copies nationwide”, according to its banner.

The woman was concerned its referendum commentary would “confuse” a lot of Catholics, with its front page splash “Politicians and social workers to be given the role of parents?” and sub-heads inside such as “Parents ignored”, “Secret decisions” and “Forcible adoptions”.

“Forced adoptions” has gained a little currency. The Minister has been asked twice about it on radio shows. On the canvass, a 32-year-old civil servant says she has heard it being discussed among colleagues and by her father, who has concerns about “people like us sitting in armchairs making decisions about people whose backgrounds or challenges we know nothing about”. Sadly, there is no sign of him to put the question to the Minister. Peader O’Donnell, a retired schools inspector who has actually read the amendment document, wonders about the age at which a child might be a given a say in its future.

For the most part, it’s a benign, thoughtful canvass in the dark evening, under cold, spitting rain. This is a leafy area and no one openly expresses opposition or wants to start a row, although sometimes the signals are clear: two couples seem stuck for a comment – any comment; an elderly woman’s bizarre remark that she isn’t bothered because her children are “all gone, so there you are . . .”; the occasional unsmiling urgency to close the door.

More than 70 turn up for the public meeting – mostly Fine Gael politicians and activists, plus enthusiastic representatives from organisations like the Family Resource Centre forum, the county childcare committee and the Child and Family support agency. Val O’Kelly, a retired social worker from the northwest, speaks before the Minister and talks sympathetically about the families that have come to their attention, about how “the majority of parents want to be good parents”, but that there are “exceptional cases – where all efforts to support the family have failed”.

The Minister refers to the 2,000 children who have been in care for more than five years. She reminds her audience of the Roscommon and Kilkenny reports, the Kelly Fitzgerald case and the so-called west of Ireland farmer case (“only out the road”, as one woman put it afterwards). Her mission to address the rotten branding of “State care” is evident.

“The word ‘State’ is used to imply that the children are in some kind of gulag,” she says afterwards.

“I keep saying that the ‘State” actually is foster parents . . . It’s really important not to stigmatise those who have come into the care system. Ninety-one per cent of children in care are with foster families, so people have to be careful about how we talk about those children who come into the system through no fault of their own.”

There are questions about a purported link with abortion, about wilder suggestions of “enforced vaccinations” and birth control.

“We don’t even have a legal obligation to have vaccinations in Ireland,” Fitzgerald replies.

It will be after 1am by the time she gets home. Next day there is the TV3 debate and another 10 days of explaining, rebutting and refuting the same points over and over . . .