The search for Middle Ireland view on Eighth Amendment

Galway canvass: Smattering of Yeses, Nos, lots of Don’t Know, and many unanswered doors

Aoife Flaherty speaking with Noel Carroll at his home during a Together for Yes house to house call in the Knocknacarra area of Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

During elections in Britain, the media converge on Nuneaton, a city with a population of 80,000 in Warwickshire. The reason: it is seen as the classic bellwether place, middle England, a good indicator of the country’s mood.

Labour Party councillor Niall McNelis has found his Nuneaton for Galway City. It is Laurel Park in Newcastle, a grass-verged estate of semi-detached houses from the 1970s.

“There is a mix here that reflects the broader city he says: a lot of students; a lot of young families and then people and families who have been living here since it was built.”

If Laurel Park is representative of the mood of Galway City, then that mood is one of confusion and ambivalence. When the canvassers, party diehards, hit the doors they get a smattering of Yeses, a smattering of Nos, a heck of a lot of Don’t Knows, and a majority of unanswered doors.

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Harry McGee talks to campaigners on the Yes and No side in Galway.

And it’s not that they are not at home. When the door bell rings, you can see a curtain flicker, or someone inside playing musical statues. There is a big group of non-engagers out there.

The ground war is hard work. Some conversations take up to 10 minutes. At one door McNelis says a woman held his hand and recited a decade of the rosary. At the same time, he says: “I think it’s really important to be out knocking on the door. It’s still a very personal decision for people.”

“I think it’s going to pass but it’s going to be down to my mother’s generation. The younger people will have to vote. And those who say don’t know will have to stop believing in “If you don’t’ know, vote No”. That does not work any more.”

Change

Every county in the State has its own Laurel Park. These represent Middle Ireland, those who want change but don’t want too much change.

Some 20 per cent of voters tell pollsters they are undecided but trying to pinpoint this cohort to a place or age group is elusive. Middle Ireland is in Dublin, it’s in rural Ireland, it’s among the old, among the young, among rich and poor.

Both Yes and No campaigns in this referendum on the Eighth Amendment look at the world through their own prism. The Yes side say they are hitting their targets in Dublin and doing well, surprisingly, in rural counties such as Donegal and Waterford. A senior strategist for No says it is not lording it totally in rural Ireland but neither is Yes in Dublin. He points to Dublin working-class estates where No is doing well.

But what’s most evident among the returns is the high amount of Don’t Knows and no answers. The most interesting statistic of a canvass recently in Swords by the No side was not the 36 Yeses, or the 15 Nos or the 46 undecideds. It was the 96 unanswered doors.

Past experience has underscored the importance of personal contact. It’s gruelling but vital. That partly explains why all campaigns have launched big “roadshows” in the past week or so, travelling circuses on a hectic tour of the State. All are heavily branded with the same purpose: to make their campaigns visible everywhere, to allow “real life” stories be told, to get through to Middle Ireland.

Volunteers canvassing for a No vote at the Love Both rally in Eyre Square in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Katie Ascough of the Love Both roadshow, which began earlier this month, says it will continue until May 23rd. Last Wednesday afternoon it was in Galway after having visited Roscommon earlier that day. Some 40 supporters, mostly young congregate in Eyre Square, to listen to a pep talk from Ascough and then pan out along Shop Street. There is also a Yes Stall and canvassers there. For both sides it is mostly handing out leaflets with the odd conversation.

“The campaign will be fought in the media, on social media and on the ground,” Ascough says. “We need to do everything to encourage the public to see how extreme the proposal is.”

“I think the Irish people are starting to realise how extreme it is. We cannot be complacent over the next two weeks,” she says.

Bursting

Over in the western Galway suburb of Knocknacarra, the Together for Yes canvass team move along the pretty new estates that meet country roads bursting with yellow-flowered whins. Only a minority of doors are opened. And of those, the unsure outrank the Yeses and Nos.

Kevin and Aoife Leen tell canvassers they have made up their minds but will keep it private. “We have done all the reading. We have also spoken to our children which was very important. We are not saying how we are voting.”

Noel Carroll of Cúl Aitinn in Galway, easy-going in manner, says he is still undecided. “To be honest I would not like abortion to be open in every situation or become a free for all.” At the same time he recognises there are hard cases and circumstances.

“A lot of people keep their views to themselves,” he tells canvasser Aoife Flaherty. He also points out nobody is talking about abortion rather about the cervical cancer scandal.

In the next estate, canvasser Jenny Roche encounters the same, a woman who baulks at abortion on demand but has pity for young women “who get themselves pregnant and are not able to look after themselves never mind the baby”.

Roche engages pleasantly contending the foetus at four, five or six weeks old in the womb is not a baby yet. When they part, it’s hard to say if what she said had an impact.

Martha McInerney is an experienced campaigner with a good eye for body language. A man takes a leaflet but won’t talk.

“That’s a No,” she says as we walk away. “You just know it when they take the leaflet but won’t engage.”

Brusque

Later she encounters an elderly man who asks will abortion be brought in if he votes Yes? He is a bit brusque but that’s his manner. After explaining it all patiently, McInerney uses the modh díreach herself. “You have it all now!” she declares. “That is the reason I am standing here. I have two beautiful daughters and I do not want them to be put at risk. Consider that now.”

She winks as she she walks away, saying you sometimes have to talk to them in their own language.

The canvass has been organised by Detta McLoughlin. “Some people are enthusiastic Yes. Some people are No. The vast majority are ‘Maybe’. It’s very hard to gauge,” she says.

I would say it is positive in Knocknacarra. In other areas of the city it might not be as much,” she comments.

Over in Laurel Park, there are plenty of don’t knows. A retired lecturer Edward says he would favour repeal for hard cases. “It’s just the issue of the 12 weeks. It has to be clarified a little more,” he says.

Down the road, Emmet Hope, a qualified lawyer who is veering towards No, has a long engagement with canvasser Kathleen Lough.

“It’s one thing to amend the Constitution to provide for fatal foetal abnormality and for cases of rape but to strip human beings of their right to exist is taking it too far.”

“Once you have it in the constitution it is very hard to change any law,” says Lough. “With rape it’s very hard to prove within 12 weeks.”

At another door, Joan, a Yes voter, says she has had a hard job convincing her two grown-up sons on the matter, but has now changed their minds. “All they saw were the posters and the babies,” she says.

So much counterintuitive and nuanced evidence. The verdict of Middle Ireland remains – right now – imponderable.