Councillors for No stand firm despite row over all-male photo

'When that photo was taken – it wasn’t a criminal offence to be a man. The reaction told a story to me'

Members of Waterford City and County Council who stood for a group photo to highlight their support for a No vote. Photograph: Darren Skelton/Waterford News and Star

Members of Waterford City and County Council who stood for a group photo to highlight their support for a No vote. Photograph: Darren Skelton/Waterford News and Star

 

For many, it was one of key photographs of the abortion referendum campaign: a group of 14 male councillors standing outside Waterford City Hall, holding three posters calling for a No vote.

The photo, taken early last month by local newspaper photographer Darren Skelton of the Waterford News and Star, of the men, nearly all of them middle-aged, went viral on social media, being viewed 300,000 times and attracted a huge reaction, most of it derogatory.

One of the mocked-up versions of the photograph of the councillors that appeared on social media before the referendum
One of the mocked-up versions of the photograph of the councillors that appeared on social media before the referendum.

“Some of the comments were very harsh and outrageous – they tended to come from what you might call the keyboard warriors or even the keyboard cowards. There was a barrage of abuse, frankly,” said Independent Waterford City Councillor Joe Kelly.

Kelly, one of the organisers of the photo, said he had “some very strong disagreements” with friends after it was taken. “But that was the choice I made and I stand by it.”

Dunmore East Sinn Féin councillor Pat Fitzgerald, who also stood in the photo, said: “I was absolutely devastated. I’ve always been pro-life and we voted to remove the right to life of a section of society.

‘Unnerving’

“I find it unnerving, actually. Whether I’m out of step with people, I don’t care. I don’t care politically either. Like, people have dismissed 1,600 years of Christianity,” he said.

“In my own family I’ve two daughters, and one was voting Yes and the other was No. They had some very heated debates to the extent that I had to step in and try to defuse it.”

Asked if he now felt out of touch with the majority, he shrugged: “Well, yeah. I can’t change what I am. I haven’t become this beautiful Yes butterfly, I’m still an old No caterpillar.”

Dungarvan-based Independent Séamus O’Donnell said the result came as “a hell of surprise” to him.

“I didn’t expect the Yes to win by so much. I’m disappointed it went that way. We’re gone that way as a country, I suppose,” he said.

Grounds for termination

“It’s out of our hands now, really. We can do no more on it. It’s the end of everything, in a way. Ten or 15 years down the road it could be that there’ll be no more Special Olympics.”

He rejected the assurances given during the campaign that disabilities or Down syndrome will not be used as a grounds for termination in the abortion system that will be be put in place.

“Who’s going to tell you or tell me what’s happening? They’ll just say to their doctor that they won’t want this child, they want to abort them instead. We don’t know what’s coming down the road,” he said.

Unlike others, Fianna Fáil’s John O’Leary from Kilmeaden stood in for the photo even though he believed then the No campaign would lose, and lose badly.

“Personally I figured it’d be a Yes vote but I didn’t think it’d be pushing 70 per cent. I thought it’d get over 60 though. The vote was decisive. A big mandate has been given to Oireachtas members to go ahead now.

‘No middle ground’

“My reason for being in that photograph is that as an elected member, my supporters were entitled to know where I stood in on it. The photograph was requested so I chose to stand in it.”

He had voted No because there was “no middle ground”, he said, in the proposals that came either from the Citizens’ Assembly, or the Oireachtas committee that followed it.

“I would have favoured for crisis pregnancies to be dealt with with pills for up to six or eight weeks. I couldn’t vote Yes because I couldn’t accommodate everything that was being proposed.

“I didn’t want abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. I was also concerned and I suppose a bit nervous about if disability was allowed to be a clause somewhere down the line. That’s something I personally wouldn’t be in favour of.”

Rejecting the criticisms of the all-male line-up in the photo, Cllr Seán Reinhardt, an Independent councillor and Metropolitan Mayor, said there are 32 people on the council, four of whom are women.

“Three [of them] had already declared they were voting Yes while one was undecided. You have to appreciate the time when that photo was taken – it wasn’t a criminal offence to be a man. The reaction itself told a story to me.

‘Head torn off you’

“Even thinking about voting No, you’d get the head torn off you and it made it all the harder to debate,” he said. “If the referendum had been about the hard cases only, there wouldn't have been 14 councillors in that photo.” *

Fianna Fáil’s Jason Murphy, another organiser of the photo, spent the count day tallying votes from ballot boxes from Ballyduff Upper and Cappoquin.

“If you had said beforehand they’d be returning clear, decisive Yes votes, you’d be told you’re off your head. But that’s what happened,” said Murphy, who said “the point” of the photo had been lost.

“It was supposed to show that there was this cross-party grouping that had come together. Instead, there was a lot of comments made about it, some of which struck quite close to home,” he said.

His daughter had been upset by some of the abuse directed at him. “She was very concerned about the hard cases. If she had a vote I think she might have been, maybe, a Yes voter.”

* This article was amended on June 2nd, 2018

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