TV debate on abortion gives No side a much-needed fillip

Big viewer numbers for RTÉ referendum debate make it a good night for anti-Repealers

RTE presenter Claire Byrne had to ask members of the audience to 'refrain from calling people liars' after many heated exchanges between audience and panel members. Video: RTE

 

Monday’s televised debate on the abortion referendum has provided a significant fillip to a No campaign that was desperately in need of one.

No campaigners had a bad week last week with the moves by Google and Facebook to cancel or restrict their plans for a huge online advertising campaign in the final days of the campaign.

But they were enthused by the RTÉ debate, and have embarked on a postering and leafleting offensive to complement the final canvassing push as the referendum campaign heads into its final, decisive phase.

Pro-Repeal campaigners responded by vowing to redouble their efforts to reach undecided voters, though the Repeal response to the debate can perhaps best be judged by its decision last night to lodge a formal complaint to RTÉ about the debate.

The group representing parents who have experienced a fatal foetal abnormality and are campaigning for repeal of the Eighth Amendment also complained to RTÉ for not being featured in the debate.

Very strong viewing figures for the programme on RTÉ will further encourage anti-Repeal campaigners.

RTÉ says that the show was watched by 650,000 viewers at some stage during the debate. It achieved a 35 per cent average audience share, peaking at almost 400,000 viewers, with an average of 360,000.

Combative

Significantly – and despite much social media commentary during the show – the audience built throughout the programme, with 100,000 more viewers watching at the end of the show than at the beginning. This suggests that viewers were not turned off by the combative nature of the exchanges, or by the audience participation.

It also means that a lot of voters will have seen a good night for the No campaign.

The No side was better prepared and better organised for the debate and, in Maria Steen of the Iona Institute, they had the best performer on the night. The No supporters in the audience were more enthusiastic for their side’s contributions, and antagonistic to the Yes side’s speakers. In a live environment, this matters: the Yes panellists looked quite taken aback for much of the debate.

This was especially so for Dr Peter Boylan, the obstetrician who has been one of the most prominent Yes campaigners so far. Confronted by an audience that was partially hostile, another obstetrician and the debating skills of Ms Steen, Dr Boylan had an uncomfortable time.

For the Yes side, when the dust settles, campaigners will realise that they retain a significant advantage. The No side still needs a big change

The Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was the best performer for the Yes side.

Reaction

The reaction from campaigners and supporters on both sides on social media yesterday told its own tale. Yes campaigners complained about the format; No campaigners were much happier with the night’s work.

But will it help No campaigners reach the undecided and soft Yes voters they need to talk to? Will it help them change minds? We will know for sure when the next round of polls arrive, but many of the messages that the No side conveyed strongly were messages that will resonate with convinced anti-abortion voters – rather than with the crucial middle-ground undecided and soft repealer voters. The debate sometimes had the feel of a rally for the No side – not an exercise which will win hearts and minds.

For the Yes side, when the dust settles, campaigners will realise that they retain a significant advantage. The No side still needs a big change. But it insists that its research shows the race is tightening, and some closing of the gap between Yes and No is to be expected.

Both sides say the campaign is there to be won and lost. RTÉ plans another debate next Tuesday while TV3 has said it will host a referendum debate next Wednesday, two days before polling. Decision time approaches; expect the heat to rise.