Tempers fray among Sligo-Leitrim abortion campaigners

As referendum day looms this most contentious of issues polarises opinion on both sides

The mountain spoke on Wednesday but appeared to have changed its mind by Friday, or at least decided to resume its majestic silence. Tommy Banks declared himself well pleased by the publicity that his giant No on the side of Ben Bulben attracted before it vanished on Thursday night.

He had a bale of national newspapers and pointed out that there were “lovely photos” of it in many of them. “It was a cry from the mountain for the future babies of Ireland,” he says.

The huge letters were made from plastic sheeting and were visible for miles around. He said they had been put up by a group of men accompanied by women who made tea and sandwiches. An “angry and aggressive woman” came and told them it would be taken down, he continued. He had taken her car registration number.

“Then a gentleman came, though he did not deserve to be called a gentleman,” he said. He did not know who removed it.


Like leftover pockets of snow

“We had someone watching it and he rang me and said he heard lathes being broken at about 2am. He didn’t go up. He thought it might be the wind.”

By daybreak there was nothing to see but a few streaks of white, like leftover pockets of snow.

Banks was speaking after a two hour live broadcast debate hosted by Ocean FM radio in Sligo’s Glasshouse Hotel. During the debate he was agitated, shouting “killers!” and “bull!” and holding aloft a booklet of photographs of babies and aborted foetuses while pro-repeal panellists spoke. He clapped loudly when one of the anti-repeal speakers contributed. When anyone used the word foetus, he exclaimed “baby!”

He was reproached several times by one of the production team.

“I just feel passionately about the unborn. And about pregnant women who are pressurised into taking the easy way out,” he said afterwards.

He said a relative of his had rescued an aborted baby from the sluice room of a London hospital. The baby had survived. Two women approached.

“Tommy does not speak for all of us,” said Síle Quinlan. “I represent Love Both, Sligo.”

Banks said that he spoke for Sligo for Life. “Well you don’t speak for us,” said Quinlan.

Afterwards Banks said the other groups were “just jealous” over the mountain protest.

Love Both declined a proposal that this reporter should spend some time out canvassing with its team.

“You should investigate what is happening in relation to the electoral register,” said Quinlan. “Large numbers of people are having their names taken off it and a lot of foreign students have mysteriously been given votes.”

The anti-repeal movement in Sligo-Leitrim has been troubled by some of its more zealous proponents.

In Carrick-on-Shannon, Independent Cllr Des Guckian sent an email to constituents claiming that if the Eighth Amendment was repealed, sex slavery would be normalised. "Hitler would be very happy," he wrote. Euthanasia would follow, he warned. He declined by telephone to speak to The Irish Times.

After Friday’s debate, Mary Bohan of Love Both said that Guckian did not speak for the majority of people voting No, or for Leitrim councillors.

She felt that there was 'a lot of confusion'

“I want to dissociate myself completely from him,” she said. “I have no time for people talking about this in terms of God and Satan and Hitler or any of that.”

Having canvassed extensively in the villages and towns around Leitrim, she said that Love Both was getting “quite a good response”. She felt that there was “a lot of confusion” and that the vote would be close.

One woman attending the debate was warmly welcomed by a group of women who invited her to sit with them. She told them she no longer shared their views. There was a silence. “You’re not voting to get rid of the amendment, are you?” one of them asked her.

“I am,” she replied. The women looked at each other, visibly shocked. “What happened to you?” one of them asked. “I lived a life,” she replied. “I travelled a journey.”

The women looked at each other again. “Well you’ll have to travel it back again,” one told her. She answered them that she did not think she would.

She said she had campaigned for the amendment in 1983, but had changed her mind since then.

There were three panellists on each side of the debate. For the No side Declan Ganley said this vote was not about women's health.

“This is about the killing of unborn babies,” he said. Fellow panellist Bernie O’Hara said that 98 per cent of abortions in England were carried out for “social” reasons. These included, she said, “someone wants to go on their holidays and this upsets their plans”.

It was 'a disgrace that I am being asked to end the life of patients'.

Asked about cases of rape, she replied that in 2016 there were just seven Irish babies available for adoption: “Why not give birth and give the baby up for adoption?” The third anti-repeal panellist, Eilish Dolan, said that 98 per cent of abortions in the UK were carried out on “vague mental health grounds”.

From the audience, a doctor, Maria O’Donovan, said it was “a disgrace that I am being asked to end the life of patients”.

At one point Ganley accused Ocean FM on air of cutting off one of the microphones on the No side. “Nobody’s mic was cut,” retorted presenter Niall Delaney.

Among those attending the debate was Martin Ford. He predicted “terrible consequences” if the amendment was repealed.

“Ireland was depopulated after the Famine,” he said. “If we allow abortion it will be like the Famine all over again. Then they’ll have to get foreigners in to run the place. You don’t see many Muslims voting for babies. Don’t get me wrong. I am not being racist. These are the facts. The native Irish will become a minority. We’ll become strangers in our own land.”