to the streets

'They're confused - they don't know what to believe': Canvassing for hearts, minds (and votes) in the Dublin commuter belt

We joined the trail in Drogheda and Ratoath with Save the 8th and Together for Yes. / YouTube

Video by Nicky Ryan

IT’S HARD ENOUGH. I tend to be online all the time – I never kind-of turn off or switch off. But it’s something that I’m really passionate about and we only have, I think, 40 days left in this campaign – so I don’t want to be there on the 26th of May thinking that I didn’t do enough.

By now it’s a familiar routine for Christine D’Arcy – battling the late rush hour traffic to make it to the agreed meeting point, handing out booklets and leaflets to assembled campaigners, and spending the evening calling to doors in areas like this one.

Today, we’re on the outskirts of Drogheda, in a modern, neatly kept estate of semi-detached houses. It’s Wednesday 18 April – just over five weeks out from referendum day.

D’Arcy, who’s in her 20s, is a full-time student at DCU. She also helps coordinate the Save the 8th campaign in Leinster. The rest of the canvass group – there are almost two dozen out tonight, all decked out in custom high-vis vests and carrying stacks of booklets – range from around student-age to retirees.

There’s a base of around eight people in Drogheda who head out three nights a week, rain or shine, D’Arcy explained. Numbers may have been swollen a little by the fine weather this evening – it’s the first real sunny day of the spring, and temperatures are still well in the high teens. As we talk, the backdrop to our chat is a typical suburban scene – streets full of children out playing, and householders out pottering in their gardens.

John McGuirk, who’s heading up communications for Save the 8th, describes Louth as a “bellweather constituency” in the referendum campaign. The area is a mix of longtime locals and newer residents who made the move up the M1 from Dublin at the height of the Celtic Tiger property boom.

If the Yes campaign were going to win you’d expect them to run up the margins in Drogheda and Dundalk – therefore it’s important for us to get a good canvass in places like Drogheda and hold down their numbers.

McGuirk says the organisation – essentially an umbrella group for local pro-life campaigns that were already active – has seen an increase in volunteers coming forward in recent weeks.

D’Arcy agrees: “It’s got very urgent in the last two weeks – lots of people are getting in contact and want to take part and want to get involved.”

c1 Christine D'Arcy Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

Similar scenes are being played out across the country. The organisation says it has up to 1,000 campaigners out on weeknights at the moment, and hundreds more at weekends. is not the only media outlet along this evening – reporters from the BBC and The Irish Times are also here.

By 6.30pm the local campaign organiser, a middle-aged man sporting a slightly unseasonable beanie hat, is keen to get going. He shouts out commands to the team: “Start down here on the left hand side – and stay left”.

“What about a prayer?” asks an older man, who has just arrived. The organiser’s response appears to be in the negative – but we’re not close enough to hear it clearly.

“Alright, that’s okay,” the older man concedes. Says the organiser: “You know how that could come out.”

It’s early in the evening, and many residents still aren’t home from work. Others simply aren’t too keen to talk to people calling to their door to ask their views on abortion.

There are, however, plenty of people who are willing to engage. “The No vote is locked down – they won’t change their minds,” one Save the 8th campaigner says. “The Yes vote is quite soft and I think once we discuss and debate the issues with them, I think we’re changing votes by doing that.”

65 Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

McGuirk himself is pitching in tonight, calling up to doors with a female volunteer. But four doorsteps in he admits he’s having a poor run of luck so far. One woman says she’s a firm Yes, another is “on the post” but leaning Yes – and at a third house a man with a foreign accent says he’s not eligible to vote.

The two campaigners soldier on. At the next door a mother in her late 30s says she needs to drop her kids out to training soon, but is more than happy to hear what they have to say.

She crosses her arms as the two make their pitch. It wouldn’t take an expert in nonverbal communication to figure out that she disagrees profoundly with almost everything she’s hearing.

Several minutes in, she’s relishing the opportunity to argue her point – but is clearly battling to keep her emotions in check as the exchange continues. She has an argument ready for every point McGuirk makes.

The ad-hoc debate goes on for a good ten minutes. No minds are changed. McGuirk – a seasoned media performer – is respectful throughout, and pleasantries are exchanged all round as the interaction ends.

The voter (she said she’d rather not give her name) actually seemed intent on trying to convince the campaigners to change their opinions, I put it to her afterwards. She agreed. ”I want to change them all – I do want to change their minds.”

“I know a lot of women and it has caused a lot of problems in their families – women who are not willing to carry a dead baby to term, not willing to carry a baby that’s not going to survive outside of the womb.

Why, why would you want to do that to yourself and then have to go through having the labour and everything?
This country is so weird. Why are we sending women abroad for these situations? It’s a tragedy already.

That fleeting mention of a pre-canvass prayer aside, there had been no mention of religion during the evening so far. But the woman said several times that she was a Catholic and that she was, frankly, sick of being preached to at mass each Sunday.

“The priest was harping on about the foetus and the size of the foetus … I actually had to get up out of the mass because I felt sick. I couldn’t listen to it, and these are people who think they’re doing the right thing – but at the same time they’re hurting women and they have done through the years.”

She concluded:

I think there’s going to be a resounding Yes and I hope to God there is.

shutterstock_328021529 Shutterstock / Sarah Marchant Shutterstock / Sarah Marchant / Sarah Marchant

By the time I catch up with the canvass they’re finishing up in the estate. We’re back in the cars and on the way to another one, just a short drive away.

The process starts again. At households where people aren’t keen on talking, the canvassers ask them if they can leave their colourful 20-page booklet with them instead. Many accept.

The cover page is illustrated with a woman and her toddler in a sun-dappled meadow. On the back, in black and white bullet points, the arguments are set out. Repealing the Eighth means giving politicians total control of our abortion laws, it says – allowing the government to introduce their “extreme abortion proposal”.

I’m due to meet up shortly with a group from the other side of the debate – but there’s time for a quick check-in with McGuirk before setting out.

“It’s kind of as expected,” he says, assessing the night so far.

Talking to the team there are a lot of undecided voters. There are a number of hardcore Yes voters and number of hardcore No voters – but we think it’s very much all to play for.

The kind of debate he’d just had in the previous estate, he says, is to be expected. It’s a sensitive issue. People have strong views.

I personally would never seek to end the conversation or to move away from it. I think if you call to somebody’s door, you’re knocking on their door, you’re disturbing their time. And if they want to have a conversation to explain why they feel a particular way the least you can do is listen respectfully to that.

referndum 137_90542770 Referendum posters in Dublin city centre.

Around a half-hour drive back into the Dublin commuter belt, a Together for Yes canvass is still under way in fading light.

Their high-vis vests are yellow instead of pink, but otherwise the makeup of the group is similar – a spread of ages, and a mix of men and women.

Lucy Keaveney is helping coordinate the canvass in Ratoath. At around 10,000, the town is around a quarter of the size of Drogheda. And with over a month to go, they’ve almost called to every home so far, she says. The team will join up with volunteers in Ashbourne and Dunboyne once they’re done here.

Keaveney, a retired schoolteacher, is keeping a running total of the Yeses and Nos, she explains. Those in the ‘undecided’ category might expect a call back closer to referendum day.

“A lot of people will tell you how they’re voting. A lot of people will say it’s personal as well – of course I respect that.

We’ve got a lot of Yeses here in Ratoath. A few Nos but a lot of undecideds. If you stay talking to the undecideds you’ll know that they’re leaning towards the Yes. You can put the arguments to them. There’s no response to the arguments that we put to them.

l1 Lucy Keaveny and the Together for Yes campaigners. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

Keaveney has always been against the Eighth Amendment, she says – but she’s a relative newcomer to active campaigning.

“In 1983 I would have been very much against the insertion of anything to do with women’s health into the Constitution but the Eighth Amendment was particularly bad.

“At the time I was working and I had two small children so I wasn’t in a position to canvass. This time around my kids are grown up, I’m retired.

The Eighth Amendment was brought in to prevent abortion coming to Ireland. It has done nothing of the sort. It has hurt women.

Keaveney and I have been talking for a few minutes. As we hurry to catch up with the rest of the team, they’re almost at their last few houses.

The volunteers are keen to introduce themselves and chat about their efforts. One woman, Ciara Coniffe, says she’s been campaigning to have the Eighth repealed for years. Even so, she’s pleasantly surprised the current government has actually moved to deal with the issue decisively.

I first got involved when I was about 17. I was 12 in 1983 so I didn’t have the vote and I’ve a 17-and-a-half-year-old daughter now so she can’t vote, so it’s important that I look after her future.

It’s 12 months since the Citizens’ Assembly made its recommendations on abortion, and the panel of TDs and senators tasked with examining the issue published its report in December. Just before Easter the referendum date of 25 May was finally confirmed.

Despite all the political and media debate that came along with those milestones, however, Coniffe says it seems that people on the doorsteps are only now starting to engage.

They’re confused – they don’t know what to believe. They think it’s a black and white situation but it’s not – it’s grey. It’s a grey situation, life is grey. Life throws things at you that aren’t black and white. You have to make tough decisions sometimes and we have to support people with those decisions.

I had hoped to call to some houses with the Yes side too – but there are no doors left un-knocked in this particular estate, and it’s far too late to start in another at this hour.

456 Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

Clipboard in hand, Keaveney talks through the week’s work so far as the group gathers to compare notes before heading home.

“Generally the Yeses are way ahead,” she says.
Last night we were out and it was 38 Yeses, eight Nos. The other night it was 39 Yeses and four Nos. About 20 a night would be undecided.

Keaveney’s raw tallies paint a more positive picture for the Yes side, compared to the one shown in the latest national opinion poll published yesterday. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI survey showed 47% in favour of repeal and 28% against.

It also showed an increase in the number of people uncertain about what they’ll do – a rise of 5% to 20% since the last comparable poll in January. As tends to happen in referendum campaigns, both sides found positive angles to spin from the results.

Polling expert Richard Colwell, who heads up Red C, wrote in the wake of his company’s latest survey that undecided voters are far more likely to opt for the status quo (in other words, vote No).

And as campaigners cross off the remaining days from their calendars, neither side is underestimating the importance of the old-fashioned door-to-door canvass.

The real campaign will be played out on streets across the country, not on Facebook and Twitter, McGuirk had told me earlier.

A January tweet by Leo Varadkar, he said, had been the most popular of the campaign to date. As of Wednesday night, that tweet (above) had almost 5,000 retweets and over 17,000 likes.

“If each of those likes represents an individual, that’s not half the population of Dun Laoghaire. The vast majority of people are not on Twitter, they’re not paying attention to the online back-and-forth in the referendum.

An awful lot of voters we find are not even sure the day of the referendum is on, so it’s important to go out and talk to people.

Read: Nearly half of people in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, latest poll finds >

Read: Can’t find yourself on the Don’t worry, it’s highly likely you’re still able to vote >

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