Yes campaign hopes to narrow the gap in conservative Roscommon
County has ‘a lot of silent Yes voters who are afraid to say openly they will vote Yes’
Sisters Agnes, Ann, Bernadette and Joan Mallon at the meeting of the Yes campaign in the Percy French Hotel in Strokestown, Co Roscommon, last Friday night. Photograph: Paul Molloy
Roscommon-South Leitrim achieved a brief moment of notoriety after the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum when it was the only constituency in the State that voted No.
It was a marginal thing. Other constituencies such as Donegal South West and Cavan-Monaghan had voted Yes by a hair’s breadth. But that cut little slack when the narrative came to be written.
Roscommon is a conservative county, there is no doubt about that. It is predominantly rural and has an older demographic. It has difficulty holding on to its young because third-level education and jobs tend to be on offer elsewhere.
It can be said with near certainty that Roscommon will vote No in the upcoming referendum. Most Yes campaigners cede that reality. That said, there are those in the county who argue that the gap isn’t as marked as some make it out to be.
During the course of a dramatic Friday in the pretty but taciturn Strokestown in North Roscommon, there were two unusual occurrences. The first happened earlier in the day when the town’s Bank of Ireland branch was robbed. And now, late in the evening, Together for Yes is launching in Roscommon at the Percy French Hotel.
Given its status, there was always going to be a lot of attention on how the Yes campaign would be received in Roscommon. That interest was heightened because a controversy arose over one of the speakers, Janet O’Sullivan from the Abortion Rights Campaign. She had tweeted, upon hearing of the death of former Fine Gael TD, Peter Mathews, that she was “glad he was dead”. Mathews’ views were strongly anti-abortion. He had also been a Fine Gael constituency colleague of Minister for Arts and Heritage Josepha Madigan, who was also slated to appear in Roscommon. In the event, O’Sullivan withdrew in advance.
In all, around 70 people attended the launch organised by Roscommon Together for Yes, which came together only in March.
“It started as a Facebook Page,” says co-founder Colleen O’Hara. “It’s been a baptism of fire. We have only mobilised very recently but we feel we are gaining a lot of ground.
We have had a strong pro-life community in Roscommon since the 1983 referendum. We have evolved at different times
“Around St Patrick’s Day we had our first meting of eight people,” she says.
“Since then we have been canvassing to various housing estates in towns, and have set up information stalls in Roscommon and Castlerea and we are planning to do one in Boyle shortly. We are trying to get all the major towns.”
As against that, the No side are well organised and can call on a substantial number of volunteers throughout the county. At the same hotel in Strokestown earlier this year, a Roscommon for Life event addressed by Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran had a very large attendance.
Marylou Doherty from Ballinlough has supported the Eighth Amendment since the 1980s. “We have had a strong pro-life community in Roscommon since the 1983 referendum. We have evolved at different times. A group was set up a year and half ago to become very active in anticipation of this referendum.
“We have canvassed over the past year, once a week initially, but more regularly since then,” she says.
“In the last few weeks we have got to work in small towns and villages. Our approach in Love Both is very gentle. There is no confrontation, we are very respectful of people.”
A majority of local politicians oppose repeal. Among them is Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy. “I believe the Government has made a major error,” he says. “Within Fine Gael, a lot of people are saying nothing who will vote against it on the day.
“Here in the county, there’s been a big canvass by people who want to retain the Eighth. I would say there are very few canvassing for Yes.”
Another No campaigner, Gemma Flanagan, from Strokestown, argues that the “12 weeks limit for unlimited abortion” is wrong, and says it will lead to widespread abortion.
“I am also concerned about the politicians. If we vote Yes, they have free rein on that legislation. I don’t trust them on that.”
Murphy agrees, saying he disagrees with such a matter being left in the hands of 160 politicians, which, of course, includes himself.
The Yes event includes two visually impressive displays. One features 20 different women’s shoes, depicting all those who travelled abroad from Roscommon for a termination in one year.
The other features personal stories from women in crisis pregnancy, part of a project called Everyday Stories, founded by Mary McDermott. One of those stories is that of Tracey Smith from Ballina, also here tonight, who was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality and had to travel to Liverpool. She gives a poignant account of the experience, including having the ashes of her daughter delivered by courier.
McDermott lives in Dublin but comes from Ballinaheglish. “I came home for the launch, I’m very proud to be a Roscommon person,” she says.
We have had some abusive language from the public. We have been called murderers
Asked about the perception of the county, she says: “We have the highest density of people over 65. A lot of people have to leave, there are no third level institutes here. Employment opportunities are not as good as other places. How and ever, when I have spoken to neighbours and friends and people I was in school with, overwhelmingly there is a Yes I am getting. People just feel that it’s unfair to push people when they are in a crisis situation.”
‘We have been called murderers’
Yes campaigner Julie O’Donoghue from Roscommon town, is at the meeting, with her five-month old daughter Ailbhe. “Roscommon is traditionally conservative but a lot of people in Roscommon are ready for change,” she says. “We find there are a lot of silent Yes voters in Roscommon who are afraid to say openly they will vote Yes.”
While O’Hara concedes Roscommon will probably vote No, she is “cautiously optimistic” the referendum will be carried nationally.
She says the campaign has been positive and a good experience but with a few exceptions.“We have had some abusive language from the public. We have been called murderers,” she says.
No campaigner Doherty, by contrast, believes the No side is now gathering momentum. Referring to last week’s Irish Times poll, she says the Government has “actually misjudged the people in the sense that they are down nine points which is a horrific defeat for them”.
“We are hoping that the Eighth Amendment will not be repealed. It won’t be because of a lack of effort on our part.”
She says she not seen a Yes presence in the county yet. “In Roscommon, people in more rural areas are very family-conscious and they cherish their children and adults, and look after their babies, whether they are expected or not.”
The other national politician present along with Madigan on the night is MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan. Harking back to 2015, he said, given the county’s demographics, it was actually an amazing result.
“Look at the people who live here and the age groups. If there is a repeat of that result for this referendum, then fantastic, that means it’s won all over the country, guaranteed.
“Roscommon people voted for me. I would not describe myself as conservative – complicated, really, like people in Roscommon are.”