Knocking on doors in hostile territories: What its like to canvass for the referendum when local voting trends are against you
What's it like to canvass for the referendum when historical local voting trends are against you?
Kiem Bielenberg tracks the Yes campaign to Roscommon, while John Meagher joins the No campaign in Dalkey
Roscommon has been portrayed as a conservative backwater after it was the only constituency that voted against marriage equality. So how are Yes campaigners faring on abortion? Kim Bielenberg reports.
On the streets in Roscommon, campaigners for a Yes vote in the abortion referendum are annoyed by the county's portrayal as Ireland's conservative backwater.
The constituency was the only place to vote against same sex marriage in the referendum in 2015 - and there would be no surprise if it voted No on abortion on May 25.
But rather than leaving the Yes campaigners downcast and disheartened, the No vote in 2015 has made them more determined to win the hearts and minds of voters on the abortion issue.
As she joined a large and well-drilled group of canvassers on the Roscommon side of Athlone on Wednesday evening, Doireann Markham from Ballinlough said: "We were not embarrassed by the vote in 2015, but we are more motivated in this campaign as a result of it
"There was a patronising and condescending tone to a lot of what was said about Roscommon. You have to remember that the Yes side only lost by 1,000 votes in the marriage equality referendum."
Back in 1983, when voters first went to the polls in an abortion referendum, up to 84pc in Roscommon voted for the eighth amendment to the constitution, and just 16pc were against.
How far has the vote swung towards repealing the amendment less than a fortnight before the poll on May 25?
In a warren of housing estates and along rows of bungalows in the Monksland area, voters now seem more evenly matched between Yes and No, with a large number of undecideds and inscrutable voters who are non-committal
Approached by the Yes canvassers in the Slí an Choiste estate, a woman in her fifties on the doorstep was typical of voters who are carefully weighing up their options.
"I believe abortion should be allowed in a case where a woman has been taken advantage of - like when she has been raped, or if someone was handicapped.
"What would incline me to vote against is the fact that you are killing something - and I think that is wrong."
Across the road, retired soldier Frank Lacey is also giving the vote careful consideration, but is reluctant to let on which way he is going as a neighbour looks on.
"You don't hear of much abortion around here. I am trying to figure it out - all I know about it really is what I see on the posters."
Wearing a crucifix, he describes himself as a Catholic and he has listened to what the Church has said on the issue.
"They'll say what they say, but I haven't decided yet."
At times, the public face of the referendum campaign can be hard-hitting, particularly on social media - with both sides trading insults and accusing each other of bad faith, improper motives and sinister outside influences.
But at ground level, when campaigners meet up with voters, the tone is courteous and respectful, even when there is a sharp difference of opinion.
When a householder says she doesn't want abortion in any circumstance, other than when there is a risk to the life of the mother, the canvassers politely thank her and move on.
The Yes canvasser Briege Fullam from Roscommon town shows no animosity towards those who take an opposing view, and dislikes the way Roscommon has been portrayed as a conservative outpost.
"We know our friends and neighbours and many of them have conservative views, but they are very good people," says Briege. "It doesn't make them any less worthy."
Among the definite No voters, a woman of African background says she does not want to see an "abortion free-for-all", particularly if teenagers become pregnant.
The canvasser suggests that the average age of women having an abortion is older, but there is no budging this voter on her view of abortion.
Doireann Markham says: "At first, when the campaign started, people were very reticent about talking about the issue, but that has changed as the campaign has gone on.
"People are much more prepared to open up about it now."
The approach of the Yes campaigners is to emphasise that abortion is already happening - either through women travelling to England, or by women taking unregulated abortion pills.
That was the strategy of the Yes side in the referendum debate on The Late Late Show, and it is similar as the canvassers go door-to-door.
Doireann Markham tells a voter: "Instead of women having to travel to England for an abortion, or take illegal pills, they would be able to do it safely in Ireland through their GP. We think it is better if she is properly taken care of by her doctor."
This strategy of offering a choice between abortion in England or illegal pills, and regulated abortion in Ireland, seems to have resonated with voters such as Maggie Harney and her daughter Aileen. They stand proudly on the doorstep of a bungalow with Aileen's nine-month-old baby Patrick.
Maggie says: "People are going to have abortions anyway - so why give money for it to another country for them to do it.
"It's awful that they have to go to England, and even if they don't they can buy the pills. I find the whole thing horrendous. Hopefully it will be changed on May 25."
Some of the high-profile cases - such as that of Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis after being refused a termination - are having an influence on voters.
Apologising for the yapping of his dog, a man in his fifties out in his garden operating a leaf blower, said: "There have been some terrible cases. I believe a woman should be allowed to have an abortion when she is sick."
There is also an attitude among a considerable number of men that they should not be the ones who decide if a woman can have an abortion.
Indicating that he was a Yes voter, a mature gentleman on his bungalow doorstep said: "Last time I looked, I wasn't able to have children. So why should I have a say in it?"
On these doorstep canvasses, younger voters are hard to reach - and most of those who answer the door are over fifty.
Roscommon has an older age profile than most other counties, with a large number of younger voters leaving to find work or to go to college.
While the under-thirties are considered the strongest supporters of Yes, the core group of campaigners out on Wednesday evening were mostly over thirty. Women outnumbered men by about five to one.
The core group of Roscommon Together for Yes canvassers were joined by supporters from across the Shannon in Westmeath, allowing the team of over twenty sweep through the large residential area in a couple of hours.
While Sinn Féin and smaller parties are out campaigning for Yes in Roscommon - and the canvass was joined by independent MEP Luke Ming Flanagan - there is no sign of a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael presence.
Many of the canvassers, such as Julie O'Donoghue, have never been on a campaign before, but feel strongly on this particular issue.
Carrying around her six-month-old baby Ailbhe on the canvass, Julie says: "I just believe that women should be able to make the decision themselves and deserve healthcare through their doctor."
By 8.30pm, with the sun beginning its descent over the gentle hills of Roscommon, it is time for the Yes canvassers to head for home.
Experienced campaigners advise that by this hour, it is best stop knocking on doors and ringing doorbells.
As Doireann Markham puts it, "There is one sure way of guaranteeing a No vote, and that is by waking up a sleeping baby."
Dalkey is at the heart of what's long been regarded as the country's most liberal constituency, Dún Laoghaire. And yet the No campaigners are received politely at doors.
It is a beautifully sunny Tuesday evening and Dalkey is looking especially resplendent. Shops are closing on Castle Street - the prosperous coastal town's main drag - and crowds are gathering outside The Queen's Bar and Restaurant to enjoy an al fresco drink.
Just before 6.30, a row of cars drive into the church car park and soon a group of 15 gathers. There are eight women and seven men and while there is a healthy proportion of senior citizens, some are in their 30s too. Red bibs bearing the logo of Save the 8th are put on and the group - under the leadership of local woman Mairead Hughes, founder of Cherish All the Children Equally, talk about which parts of the town they will canvass tonight. Armed with a stack of flyers each, they leave the car park and head for the pretty residential streets immediately behind The Queen's.
They are strategic about how many houses they can visit in 90 minutes - the feeling is that 8pm is about as late as they can knock on doors. Paul Twomey, who is out with his wife Elizabeth, has studied the maps carefully and issues friendly orders.
The campaigners go to each house in pairs - usually a man and woman - and there's no answer in about half. But when the door is opened, and the occupier sees the canvassers, there's politeness, irrespective of whether they intend to vote yes or no.
Donegal native Claire Duffy says she enjoys the experience of canvassing and advocating a no vote. Like her colleagues, she does not try to convince those who say they will vote yes, but thanks them for their time and wishes them well.
Few people are undecided, but it seems as though at least half of those who open their doors say they will vote against the right to have an abortion. Most of them are older people. Duffy urges them to encourage similar-minded friends to get out to vote and asks them if they would like to take a car sticker promoting a pro-life message. Most accept one.
Dalkey is in the heart of what's long been regarded as the country's most liberal constituency, Dún Laoghaire. In 1983, 58pc of voters here rejected the amendment to the constitution that gave equal rights to the unborn child and the mother. It was one of just four constituencies in the country that rejected the amendment - all were in Dublin and Dún Laoghaire was by far the highest.
The same sex marriage referendum of 2015 saw almost 72pc of voters in the constituency give a yes vote - significantly higher than the 62pc national average. But it wasn't the most liberal constituency - other Dublin areas with a younger age profile voted yes in higher proportions.
"I don't like the word 'liberal'," says Bernard Roche, an 80-year-old volunteer who has been canvassing in the Dún Laoghaire constituency for months. "What it is is permissive."
'There are so many undecided people'
The sunny weather has lifted the spirits of everyone. "It's lovely tonight," he says, "but I've been out in all weather. I think it's important to get our point across because there are so many undecided people out there."
The latest opinion poll, published in the Sunday Independent last weekend, showed that 18pc of respondents are undecided and the proportion saying they will vote yes has declined sharply, and now stands at 45pc.
Like many in the group, Roche says he encounters people every day who are concerned about what's being proposed. "It's not just repealing the amendment," he says, "it's allowing abortion up to 12 weeks for any reason - and that's something that really is bothering people."
He says he remembers when abortion laws were liberalised in the UK in 1967 and the "sea-change" that followed. "Before then, 20,000 abortions happened every year in England," he says. "Within a few years it had gone up to 40,000 and today the figure is at 200,000. They're having abortions for reasons like affairs and the idea that it will impact on careers. That's what that word 'permissive' is all about."
Therese Kelly, from Sligo originally, but long resident in Dublin, is also canvassing tonight. "I'm introverted by nature, so it's quite difficult for me to go up and knock on doors but this is something that I feel very strongly about.
"I used to be pro-choice," she adds, "up to the age of about 23 [she's 33 now], but then I discovered what abortion really is and I just couldn't support it. My belief is that all human life is to be valued, including the unborn, and if you really hold that view then you will oppose abortions in every circumstance, even in hard cases."
'Hard cases' is a term that's mentioned quite a bit this evening in reference to pregnancies that result from rape or incest, for instance, but the feeling is that any life - irrespective of how it was created - deserves human rights, too.
It's a message some Dalkey residents do not wish to hear. One man, on seeing what group he has opened the door to, immediately shuts it. Later, when the canvassers have finished, Review returns to his address. "The no side have been acting in a disgraceful way over the past few months," he says, "and I've no interest in even pretending to listen to them. It would be a waste of my time. Did you see what they were up to again today? Bringing those huge graphic posters to Holles St [maternity hospital] yet again. How insensitive is that to anyone who might have had a miscarriage?"
'I don't really like shock tactics'
It's a tactic that bothers some of the canvassers too. "I don't really like shock tactics like that," says one lady, who declines to be named, "although the other side don't even want to accept that a baby has been conceived. But it's going way too far to stand outside Holles Street and be as confrontational as that. Unfortunately, the extreme factions on both sides have forgotten the meaning of the word respect."
Claire Duffy says people tend to be respectful when canvassed directly, but she has noticed aggression when she hands out leaflets on the street with other Save the 8th campaigners. "It's almost as if the anonymity of being on the street makes it okay to verbally abuse someone," she says.
She had a particularly combative encounter recently. "It was outside Pearse Street Dart station and one person was very aggressive to me," she says. "It was a pregnant woman, funnily enough, and she was so angry that I noticed more people coming up to take leaflets than normal. It was almost as if passersby were offering me support - in that they'll at least accept that there's another point of view and not dismiss it completely."
Therese Kelly says she has had to contend with other women telling her that she's letting her gender down. "One told me that as a woman, she was ashamed of me. But surely I'm entitled to my own opinion, just as she is?"
In one of the many houses that say they will vote no, a couple in their 50s explain their rationale. "I would vote to allow abortion in the case or rape or fatal foetal abnormality," the husband says, "but what we're asked to vote on is going too far. I hate the idea of someone terminating a pregnancy for lifestyle reasons, and I think that would happen if you simply allow people to have abortions in the first trimester for any reason. It is abortion-on-demand."
His wife's views are not as clear-cut. "I've wrestled over what to do," she says. "I probably would have voted in favour if we didn't have children of our own, but when you first learn that you're pregnant you immediately start thinking of a new life growing inside you.
"Some of those from the yes side who've canvassed here don't seem to want to think about that at all - for them, it's simply about women having the right to do what they want with their own bodies. But it's much more complex than that."
An 80-year-old woman seems delighted to open her door to anti-abortion campaigners. "It's about human life," she says. "I lost a child when he was 31. I think about him all the time. Life is so special."
Later, when speaking to Review, she says she hopes abortion will remain prohibited in Ireland. "Abortion is murder," she says. "It's as simple as that."
At first she is happy to give her name. Then she declines. "Maybe it's best that I don't bring trouble upon myself. People would probably say 'Why should that old wan have any say on abortion?' But I've as much as a right to anyone else and I know that talking to people around here an awful lot feel the same. And they're not all my age."