Retain Eighth campaign seeks to shift key message as vote looms

Focus on ‘hard issues’ replaced by ‘abortion on demand’ and #toofarforme objections

Although Keith Redmond is never shy about sharing his opinion, the phone call asking him to record a campaign video outlining his concerns about the Government's abortion proposals came as a surprise.

Redmond, a councillor in Fingal, was a member of the Progressive Democrats before joining Fine Gael, which he left in 2015 to join Renua, the anti-abortion party founded by Lucinda Creighton.

He is now an Independent and is a voluble presence on social media, where he has been arguing recently that while he favours some reform of Ireland’s abortion laws, what is being proposed – unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy – is too much.

About a fortnight ago, Redmond received a call from a figure from the Pro Life Campaign, which is campaigning under the “Love Both” banner in the referendum.

“They said, ‘Your message will resonate with a middle ground of people.’ It was to speak to a different cohort of people.”

The current proposal from the Government is just too extreme. I believe we need to look at the Eighth, but this isn't the way to do it

The video, recorded at Redmond's home in Howth, Co Dublin, was only posted on social media channels in recent days. The accompanying #toofarforme Twitter hashtag is a clear indication of where the No side in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution wants the battle to be fought as polling day approaches on Friday.

“I’m actually in favour of abortion in certain circumstances,” Redmond says in the video. “But I am voting No in the upcoming referendum. The current proposal from the Government is just too extreme. I believe we need to look at the Eighth, but this isn’t the way to do it.”

The shift in messaging, always likely as the campaign entered its final week, was, according to those on the No side, partly planned and partly developed as a result of canvass returns.

Up to 12 weeks

It has become an obvious theme in recent days, with suggestions now being made that the Government could come back to the people with a proposal that is not as liberal as repealing the Eighth Amendment and introducing legislation to allow for abortion up to 12 weeks.

So obvious, in fact, that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald invited Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to state in the Dáil on Tuesday that there is no way to retain the Eighth and also deal with cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, or the terminations of pregnancies resulting from rape. Varadkar duly obliged.

“It was always one of a number of options for the final week, along with trusting politicians,” one No source said of the new emphasis. “It’s kind of emerged organically as an issue on the doorsteps and is the strongest mover of voters in focus groups.”

It has been driven towards one cohort of voters in particular. Research, not only from focus groups but from online sources such as Facebook and Google, too, has led No campaigners to identify "soft" Yes voters among women who are already mothers.

Retainers know, as do repealers, that if the public mind is focused on allowing for abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities, the proposition will be carried

Although it has been extremely difficult to segregate voters into distinct groupings, No campaigners say they still have to try. New ads were made to target the “soft” Yes mothers, and others in the middle who will decide the result.

“It so much depends on what message the public are listening to in the last few days,” says another figure on the No side, who maintains the “hard cases have been overemphasised by the media”.

Retainers know, as do repealers, that if the public mind is focused on allowing for abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities, the proposition will be carried.

One No source even suggested that Yes could win by 10 points or more if that is where the debate remains until Friday. But the same person argued that No could win by five points if the argument is fought on 12 weeks, “abortion on demand” and #toofarforme.

Redmond’s experience of being cold-called suggests that Love Both is aware of that argument, but others advocating a No vote are not so sure.

The other major No group – Save the Eighth, mostly drawn from the Life Institute – are much more open to changing tactics, according to Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte.

Fatal foetal abnormality

Rabbitte is campaigning for No but says abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, incest or when there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.

The Galway East TD told both Save the Eighth and Love Both they needed to show some more compassion in dealing with these arguments, but says she was met with different responses.

“In fairness to Save the Eighth, they want to save the Eighth,” she said of the group which was more receptive. Love Both, she said, “told me to stick to the script”, adding: “They are so entrenched.”

Other Fianna Fáilers in favour of a No vote believe the tactical change has arrived far too late in the campaign. One possible approach, argued a party TD, would have been to publish an alternative constitutional amendment and make it central to the referendum debate.

“That might have worked. There is the argument now that the Government should come back with a better question, but it should have been done earlier.”

Yet, against the background noise of the change in tactics, it is hard not to detect a rising pessimism among those on the No side.

Phrases such as "the country is in flux" and "Ireland has changed" find their way to the lips of leading No campaigners when they speak privately.

Canvasses have become harder, although it is argued that this is due to a move from what were perceived to be safer areas for the No message to more difficult, “swing” towns, villages and suburbs.

The most striking aspect of canvassing, says one source, is the number of people who will not even answer their doors. “It’s the same on the Yes side too. A lot of undecided voters are quietly making up their minds.”

To have any chance of victory, No must be successful in convincing the middle ground that the Government’s proposal goes too far, and that an alternative is possible.

Even if that argument reaches its audience, success is not guaranteed.

“Let’s be honest here,” remarked a prominent retainer. “We haven’t been ahead in one poll. We need an inside straight to pull this off.”

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