Abortion campaigners face a gruelling battle of the Boyne

Canvassers from both sides are working hard to win hearts and minds in Drogheda

Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee joins both the 'yes' and 'no' camps in Drogheda as they look to sway voters their way in the upcoming referendum on the eighth. Video: Harry McGee

 

On either side of the River Boyne, two small armies in day-glo bright uniforms move with military precision.

The two campaigns representing the Yes and No sides in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment have amassed impressive numbers of dedicated canvassers in Drogheda, which is as good a bellwether as any for what middle Ireland represents.

With Dublin a little more than 50km away on the M1, the town’s population has increased to 50,000 and part of its status these days is as a commuter town, or “exurb” for the capital.

In the new estates, mostly on the south side of the river, the registration plates of the cars betray the roots of the homeowner – D in most cases, but also a fair smattering from around the country – people from elsewhere who work in Dublin but have settled here for lifestyle reasons. But then, of course, there is the old town and the generations-settled residential areas, the “auld stock” as one person puts it.

On a serene spring evening with blue skies, two teams of about 30 canvassers each work their way through housing estates in different parts of the town. Together for Yes are at the quaint mid-century John Boyle O’Reilly estate north side near Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. On the southern banks, members of the Save the Eighth group work their way through Lagavooreen Manor, a newer estate with large houses and large green areas, where droves of children are playing.

Immediately obvious from the Yes side is that the playbook of the phenomenally successful Yes campaign of the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum is being used. You can see it in the the design of the logos, the jackets, the button badges with the on-trend Irish ‘Tá’. You can also see it in the way canvassers engage at the door: respectful, listening, explaining, relating to voters on a visceral level on parity.

But this is not going to be a rerun of the 2015 campaign, not by a long shot. For one, the lessons of the 2015 playbook were not lost on the Save the Eighth  campaign either. Its volunteers also sport bright jackets, an eye-catching logo and a similarly respectful approach on the doorsteps. They even have the trendy button badges as Gaeilge proclaiming ‘Níl’.

In the 2015 referendum, Drogheda voted a strong Yes and it might be expected the Yes would need to carry here for repeal to happen nationwide.

This time it’s different. They might not have the numbers in bigger cities, but the No campaign is present everywhere and more visible outside Dublin. “In our national campaign we have double-digit numbers of canvassers going out ever night,” says Christine Darcy of Save the Eighth, a 24-year old student.

‘Don’t knows’

As yesterday’s Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll indicated, the outcome, though leaning Yes, can not be predicted with any certainty at this stage. Spending a few hours in the company of local canvasses, both report very positive feedback and believe their side will prevail. What is apparent is the large number of “don’t knows” or the most tacit softest expressions of support. “Wavering Yes,” says Stephanie Lord of Together for Yes after a conversation with a voter at a doorstep: that probably sums up the state of play of the whole campaign.

Jim Garvey, wearing a wool cap with a big “Save the 8th” badge, is coordinating the No canvass in Lagavooreen Manor. The group has been canvassing three times a week since Christmas, with 150 homes each night.

“Split up into groups of two, with one man and one woman,” he instructs as the group pans out across the estate.

“I think in Drogheda the vote will be No from the feedback we are getting,” he says as he walks briskly, predicting a 70 per cent No vote. He adds a rider: “There are a lot of people still on the fence just beginning to discuss it.”

He suggests money used for abortion would be better spent to help victims of rape or incest, or women who are diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).

Those “hard cases”, he argues, “don’t present a reason to open up abortion on demand in Ireland.

“We will be up to 15,000 or 16,000 abortions per year in Ireland very quickly if it goes through,” he asserts.

At a doorstep, D’arcy speaks of the “reality” of abortion for any reason up to three months and for “vaguely health reasons” after that.

“A lot of people do not realise that,” she says. “People are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of abortion on demand. Abortion on demand will lead to demand for abortion.”

As she walks away she explains a core strategy of the No campaign: “From our side, we do not have to convince people to be pro-life. We just have to convince them to vote No.”

‘It’s murder’

The messages on the doorsteps revolve around arguments about abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, its assertion that one-in-five pregnancies in Britain are aborted, and the high abortion rate when Downs Syndrome is confirmed. Several speak about 1.3 million abortions per year in the US.

Some residents, like Shirley Collins, are unequivocal. The Cork native is clear. “I’m voting No. It’s murder at the end of the day. A life is a life.”

But most have comments similar to Carol Grant, originally from Dublin, who is minding her daughter’s home. “I have just not made my mind up. I need to read and study the proposals,” she tells the canvassers.

There are a smattering of strong Yes’s reported by canvassers but they all believe the Nos have prevailed.

Maimie Ahern (R) canvasses Orla O’Connor in Lagavoreen Manor, Drogheda, Co Louth, on the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Barry Cronin
Maimie Ahern (R) canvasses Orla O’Connor in Lagavoreen Manor, Drogheda, Co Louth, on the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Barry Cronin

By contrast, on the north side, the Labour Senator Gerard Nash is on home turf with Boyle O’Reilly. The age profile of this estate is older but he says that that does not mean a No majority.

“We should never assume because a person is older or voted a certain way in 1983 that they have stayed the same and haven’t changed their views.

“People change their views because of direct family experience.”

Canvasser Mark Hoskins observes: “You would be surprised. The [age division] has been broken down. The Lourdes Hospital is notorious for poor handling of maternity cases. Every woman in the area have experiences or knowledge of cases.”

The campaign is being coordinated tonight by the ever-upbeat Lord: “It’s a big job to cover the whole town but we are getting there. We knocked on a 1,000 doors on Saturday afternoon so we are making progress.

“Everyone is working very hard. I think people are engaged and there is a strong Yes vote there. We have seen undecideds and it’s good to chat and engage and answer the questions they have.”

There are a few in the big team on their first canvass. Among them is Jacquie Jago. “I was not sure what canvassing would be like but it has been super positive. People thank us for coming out,” she says.

Alongside her is Emma Kearney: “I came out because a woman in a crisis pregnancy really has no choice. I want her to have a choice,” she says.

Short shrift

At a doorstep Hoskins engages with a young father, ambivalent about his intentions. “A No vote will keep it exactly the same, with a woman having no control over her body,” he says. There will be no change for rape or incest or FFA.

“It will mean nine woman a day travelling for abortion or using pills that are not regulated or under safe medical supervision,” he says.

Nash talks to Martin Keegan, a retired neighbour: he hopes he will go towards the Yes side. “It could happen to anybody,” says Keegan, who remains undecided.

A few doors down, a man of a similar age, Raymond Green, tells Nash: “I do not know what to say myself. To me it’s a tricky subject.”

Nash sets out his case and concludes: “We deal with the facts, the other side are using shock tactics.”

Nash and his canvass team believe Yes will prevail here, but not without effort. “We are coming across a considerable amount of people who remain to be convinced but are open to persuasion about the merits of our argument.

“This is an occasion when we must put compassion into our Constitution and put the healthcare of women first,” he says.

This battle of the Boyne for hearts and minds has yet to be decided. Less than five weeks to go and it still seems too early to make any conclusive assumptions about how people will vote.

Patricia O’Connor, an ebullient No canvasser from Bettystown, gives a salutary reminder on this very theme.

“You would be surprised. An old fellow came to the door the other day with a big oxygen tube up his nose. I thought to myself, ‘This will definitely be one of ours’.

“He definitely was not one of ours!” she says with a hearty laugh as she recalls the short shrift she got.

Abortion: The Facts

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