Fine Gael TDs targeted in divisive campaign: ‘I was told I had blood of children on my hands’

Thu, May 16, 2013, 09:54

It has been a strange few weeks for Alan Farrell, a Fine Gael TD for Dublin North. One evening he arrived at his clinics in Malahide and Portmarnock to something he had never seen before: queues of people waiting for him. Usually, there’s a handful at most but Farrell says that this was “the busiest one hour clinic of my career”.

The reason for the rush? Anti-abortion campaigners who wanted to lobby him to reject the legislation his own Government is proposing.

It hasn’t stopped there. In the past month Farrell has also received more than 500 emails as well as many hundreds of pro-forma anti-abortion postcards all arguing against abortion.

“My staff has been hoarding them. We have an entire drawer full at this stage,” he says of the postcards.

Farrell isn’t alone. Regularly, a sackful of anti-abortion postcards swamps the post room of Leinster House. It is clear that the vast majority are targeted at Fine Gael TDs and Senators, many of whom have publicly stated anti-abortion views.

It is part of the most intense lobbying campaign for a generation. In the wake of the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway, much of it came from those calling for changes in abortion laws. But since the Government announced it would legislate for limited abortion in December, the overwhelming preponderance has been from the anti-abortion side, led by the Pro-Life Campaign.

“I have only been in the job for two years and it is the one issue I have been lobbied on more than anything else,” says Paul Connaughton, a Fine Gael TD in Galway East, who has been deluged with correspondence and personal contact.

Visible aspect of campaign
There are several anti-abortion groups

campaigning. The main one is the Pro-Life Campaign (PLC) which has been responsible for the postcard drive. The group is highly motivated, well resourced and says the attendance (which it put at 25,000 to 30,000) at its January anti-abortion vigil shows how well supported the organisation is on the ground.

“Since the expert group report last December, [the campaign] has intensified quite a bit,” says John Smyth of the PLC. “The postcard campaign has been much bigger. It’s a very visible aspect of the campaign. We have been also getting our supporters to meet politicians at constituency level.”

While all of the geographically representative group of 30 parliamentarians have said the vast majority of the lobbying, to which they have been subject, has been respectful, about half said they have faced hostility.

At least a dozen TDs have had regular protests outside their clinics. For some, a small minority of the contacts and messages received have been offensive and even sinister.

One was called a Nazi, another a murderer. And one TD felt she had no choice but to refer two pieces of correspondence to the gardaí.

An unidentified group (not connected with the Pro-Life Campaign) has erected posters in several constituencies. Most have carried an image of the local Fine Gael TD with the slogan: “Do Not Let Fine Gael Legislate for Abortion”.

In Galway East they went up in Loughrea, Ballinasloe and Athenry showing Connaughton and Ciarán Cannon. Both are sanguine about it. But some of the posters went further. “Wanted for Murder”, read one in Kerry which depicted Brendan Griffin and Jimmy Deenihan.

“That was desperate altogether,” says Griffin who also faced protests and wonders if the campaign has any impact.

Fine Gael chairman Charlie Flanagan was so incensed at the faceless group that erected posters of him in Portlaoise that he tweeted they were using Klu Klux Klan tactics.

“If it’s impossible to determine the people responsible for putting up posters then I feel it’s sinister,” he says.

Flanagan has also received photographs of foetuses. “I regard that as in bad taste . . . extremists will polarise the debate in a way that is unhelpful. A poster campaign that goes over the top is counterproductive.”

Unknown activists
Paschal Donohoe has seen both sides. In December unknown activists on the pro-choice side daubed the word

“coward” across the window of his constituency office. Since then the traffic has been the other way, hundreds of emails and postcards, protests and posters – on every lamp post around Croke Park on the day of the league final between Dublin and Tyrone.

“It’s an extremely organised and highly orchestrated campaign,” he says.

“Those who come to me invariably say they won’t vote for me and [will] campaign against me. There is a wide variety of emotion. The majority have been decent. A number of people looked to threaten me and used different phrases. I was compared to a Nazi. I was told I had blood of children on my hands.

“I have no issue with nearly all that has happened to me. People have an absolute right to lobby Oireachtas members and protest outside offices. But I take grave exception to those who threaten me and any attempt by faceless people to force me to adopt a particular position by putting up posters.”

Smyth says the Pro-Life Campaign, whose most prominent public figures are Prof William Binchy and Caroline Simons, has been punctilious in showing respect to politicians.

“We have no role in putting up those posters,” he says, adding that there are a large number of groups campaigning against the legislation.

Independent Senator Ronan Mullen said he has “sympathy with any politician who gets any unpleasant contact on any topic. But without disputing any of the accounts, I believe it is the Government’s spin to portray politicians as taking abuse on this issue . . . what is very clear is that pro-life activists have been very courteous and understanding of pressures that politicains are under.”

Smyth says “we have encouraged our supporters to meet with politicians and to engage in as calm and reasonable a way as possible . . . Most pro-life groups have conducted themselves very well. We do not support the individuals that have not adhered to it.”

Whoever they are, certain individuals have clearly overstepped the mark.

“Some of the emails have been downright outrageous,” says Regina Doherty. “I had to refer one or two of them to the Garda Síochána.”

She says she has been confronted by “a few loonies . . . one who said they would spit at me at Mass”.

Áine Collins also encountered a “bullish” protest outside her clinic in Cork North West, with one protester implying she was a bad parent and another trying to block the door of her car.

“It’s a very emotional issue that runs very deep for people. All have experiences and I understand why people would have such concerns.

“There is a huge misunderstanding about the background to this, how we arrived at the situation. Their case is that [the] Supreme Court was wrong but the fact is the court made a decision. It was upheld by referendums and it is the law of the land. We have to operate within that decision.”

Marcella Corcoran Kennedy of Laois Offaly reflects that the campaign might not have had the desired effect.

“They have used every medium possible to lobby. They have to evaluate at what point we are given enough information, have we actually got the message across? If we keep at this will we alienate people because we are overdoing it?”

Many of her colleagues believe that point has already arrived.