Friday 20 September 2019

Hitting doorsteps in hostile territory

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

Save the 8th: Elizabeth Twomey with Campaigners for the No Vote in the upcoming referendum on the 8th Amendment, canvassing in Dalkey. Picture:Arthur Carron
Save the 8th: Elizabeth Twomey with Campaigners for the No Vote in the upcoming referendum on the 8th Amendment, canvassing in Dalkey. Picture:Arthur Carron
Therese Kelly used to be pro-choice, but is now canvassing for a No vote. Photo:Arthur Carron
Claire Duffy and Oliver Shanks, Campaigners for the No Vote in the upcoming referendum on the 8th Amendment, canvassing in Dalkey. Picture:Arthur Carron
John Meagher

John Meagher

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."

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