Mixed reaction in Cavan to pro-choice canvassers from North
Polls apart: ‘I hope you don’t get to kill many’; ‘We’re both definite Yes voters’
Jade Farrelly of Cavan Pro Choice and Emma Wallace of Alliance for Choice, Belfast speak to Joe Doherty and Jackie O’Neill (with Ruby the dog) about a Yes vote in Cavan town. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan
The coach pulls away from St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast at 9.30am on Saturday, heading south. Those on board, 25 young women and men, are travelling with the Alliance for Choice to support repeal volunteers across the Border in Cavan.
The accents on the bus are a mix of Irish, Northern Irish, Spanish, Australian and English. We pass just one banner on the journey through the North – facing the Border, it has a big freshly-painted red hand of Ulster and has “No Pope here” on it, ancient prejudice preparing for the future. But as the driver steers us through the steep and narrow streets of Clones we have time to survey the posters on every lamppost. There are a lot of foetuses begging from the womb to be saved by a No vote. Decidedly fewer posters urge a Yes and for women to be trusted.
The chat on the journey is both personal and political. One woman, worried about going up garden paths, talks about her irrational fear of dogs, and tells a story about being attacked by one. “That’s a rational fear, then,” says the woman beside her. Someone else describes a conversation with her mother, who is anti-repeal. “She says it’ll lead to euthanasia,” she says. “She says I could have her put down.” Maria Guelbenzu is excited. “This is a historical moment,” she says. “I’m from Spain, but after 18 years Belfast is home.”
For artist Laura O’Connor and adult education teacher Elaine Crory, Cavan used to be home. Both grew up here. “I’m mildly nervous,” says Crory. “But also excited. I’ve two wee girls at home in Belfast. I want change for them.” O’Connor’s new exhibition, Uncomfortable State exploring themes of Ireland as a woman’s experience of Ireland, is on at the Ballina Arts Centre in Co Mayo. “I don’t have a vote so it seems important to come back here and inform people,” she says. Cavan had a high vote in favour of the amendment in 1983.
Alliance for Choice campaigns for reproductive rights in the North, and is part of pro-choice coalitions on an all-Ireland basis. The British 1967 Act was not extended to Northern Ireland, and prohibitive guidelines from Stormont in recent years all but shut down the availability of abortion in the North’s hospitals, where it used to be provided in strictly limited circumstances, including to women referred from the Republic. In the past year, funding has been made available for women to go to Britain for terminations, and there are means-tested travel grants.
If the referendum is passed followed by the anticipated legislation it will have implications for women in the North. With a European E111 health form, they can avail of GP treatment in the Republic. Post-Brexit the situation is uncertain. “We aren’t doing this for ourselves,” says Danielle Roberts who is co-ordinating the cross-Border canvassing work. “This is about international human rights and solidarity.”
‘Light on facts’
Artists Jackie O’Neill and Joe Doherty with their nervous red setter, Ruby, are crossing Cavan’s featureless Market Square when the Northerners arrive in their high-viz “Vote Yes” jackets. “We’re both definite Yes voters,” says O’Neill. Doherty says it’s good to see the Belfast people. “The more awareness that’s raised the better,” he says. Cavan for Yes workers arrive with leaflets and plans.
Terry Moore lives in rural Cavan and is worried. “There are priests saying that they aren’t telling people how to vote but that if they vote Yes they needn’t bother coming for communion,” she says.
Adam Kelly is a final-year student at St Patrick’s Boys’ Secondary School and became a Yes supporter after hearing about women’s terrible experiences, including that of his great grandmother. He’s enthusiastic about a debate he and others have organised at the school, after anti-choice speakers were allowed in to give a talk. “What they said was heavy on emotion and light on facts,” he said. “One of my friends was going to vote No but after the talk he changed his mind – he’s a critical thinker.” Kelly got a lot of his classmates to register to vote.
A retired trade unionist, Irene Donegan campaigned against the amendment in 1983. “There was a guy followed us around and when people opened their door to us he’d shout, ‘Don’t be talking to them – they’re murderers’. It was very trying.” This time around she says that most people want to discuss the issues. “A lot of women are talking about the cervical smear scandal too. They’re angry about it.”
As Donegan takes some of the canvassers to her car to go out to the housing estates around the town, a woman she knows comes up to her angrily. “You might as well shoot a child in the street,” she says. “If you don’t want girls to get pregnant tell your daughters not to have sex. It’s not the baby’s fault.”
Donegan says the woman is a settled Traveller who is trade unionist who has done great work for women. “The Travellers are voting No,” she says. “One Traveller man said to me, ‘get away from my house – you’re doing the devil’s work’.”
‘I have teenage daughters’
The sun is shining on Swellan Lake and the estates around it is full of summer sounds, children playing, the hum of lawnmowers. A lot of people are out or don’t come to the door. At one house a middle-aged woman says she will vote Yes. “I just want fair play for women. It’s not right they have to go away,” she says. A young woman with her baby in her arms says she’ll vote No, but doesn’t want to talk about it. Her mother, the other woman’s sister, arrives. “I don’t know – I’ll decide on the day,” she says. At another house, a woman glares and puts the leaflet in the bin.
One man says he and his wife have talked a lot about it. “I was one of those babies that was given no hope of survival,” he says. “And my son’s lungs collapsed at birth and he wasn’t expected to live – he’s inside there and he’s 10 now. But saying that, I think women should have the right to decide. I’ll vote Yes.” His neighbour takes the opposite view. “I hope you don’t get to kill many,” he says. “Hang your heads in shame.”
A young man says he doesn’t have ovaries so he won’t be voting. Another young man says he probably won’t bother to vote at all this time. “Whatever the Government says, I’ll do the opposite,” he says. “What’s with these ones down from Belfast? Sure they’re from the occupied six counties. They can’t even vote.”
A smiling man with a tea towel on his shoulder comes to the door. “You’ll have no bother getting Yes votes in this house,” he says. “I have teenage daughters. Work it out for yourselves.”
The Northerners meet where the street becomes a country road. “The Cavan people said they had some huge estates for us to do,” says Roberts. “I think their idea of a huge estate must be a bit different to ours.” Some of the canvassers say they had mostly positive experiences but O’Connor is a bit shaken. “A woman ran after me in the street with a book full of pictures of dismembered foetuses,” she says.
Donegan comes to take us back to the bus. She sighs: “Ireland was never a great country for women and it still isn’t,” she says.