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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 14 November, 2018
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Anti-amendment Dún Laoghaire bucked the national trend in '83. We went to talk to locals this week

The ’83 debate was bitter and divisive. Those who lived through it say there’s a more informed debate on the doorsteps today.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Video by Nicky Ryan

Yes canvasser: “You know, if we don’t come out and change this we won’t get the chance again.”
Undecided young man: “Well, we might.”
Yes canvasser: “We might, but not for probably another 35 years.”
Undecided young man: … “Yeah, fair enough.”

NOT ALL THAT many of the Together for Yes campaigners out in Sandycove on Wednesday evening said they remembered the 1983 Eighth Amendment referendum.  Those that do said the tenor of the debate had improved immeasurably in the intervening decades.

For the most part, voters on the doorsteps in 2018 are happy to talk through the issues – and are relatively well-informed. Even when householders don’t hold the same views as the callers, the conversation is usually polite.

“I was around for the last referendum which was very wounding,” first-time campaigner Nollaig Greene said.

That’s why I didn’t want  to canvass – because I was afraid of what would go on, because I remember all the not listening and the shouting at each other and the shouting each other down.

’83 

The 1983 referendum was arguably the most divisive national poll of the last 50 years. In some rural counties, more than 8 out of ten voters backed the contentious amendment that had been championed by pro-life groups.

Even in suburban south Dublin, where I spoke to campaigners this week, there was a more-or-less 50:50 split in the earlier referendum.

shutterstock_1082922572 Source: Shutterstock

Dun Laoghaire, regarded as the most liberal constituency in the country, rejected the amendment by 58% 35 years ago. Four other constituencies in the capital – including three on the southside – also voted against the constitutional change.

“It was an extraordinary campaign,” Alex White, the former minister and Dublin South Labour TD said. He campaigned against the amendment at the time, and was heading out to knock on doors arguing for its abolition this week.

“What happened was the pro-life groups had come together and had persuaded the government and had persuaded the opposition to introduce this proposal to add a section to the Constitution effectively prohibiting politicians and prohibiting the Oireachtas from ever really dealing in any kind of substantive way with the issue of abortion.

It was a very successful move by the way by the pro-life organisation at the time – it was effectively a blocking mechanism on any change ever happening.

White said Ireland was virtually a different country at the time – the Catholic Church was still hugely influential, the economic situation was bleak and the Troubles continued to rage in the North in the post-hunger strike years.

There are so many things that are different about 1983 – and I think it made it much easier for an organisation like the pro-life movement to do what they did.

original (1) A book published by the Family Life Research Centre in the early 80s. Source: Sinead O'Carroll/TheJournal.ie

Dun Laoghaire resident Mairead Hughes, a first time campaigner, chairs the anti-repeal group Cherish All of the Children Equally – described on its website as being a progressive, republican, pro-life organisation.

Hughes wasn’t living in the area 35 years ago, but she’s out canvassing ahead of the this month’s referendum. Judging by the reaction on the doorsteps, she said people shouldn’t necessarily assume that there’s a sweeping majority who want to scrap the amendment in the coastal suburb.

“I’ve met some people at the door who say they’re voting Yes now and that they also voted back in ’83 against the insertion of the amendment.

Equally, we have two men who are canvassing locally who voted against the inclusion of the amendment then but are now voting to defend it.

Campaigners from Save the 8th, the national pro-life umbrella group, were busy handing out leaflets to office workers and shoppers George’s Street, the town’s main drag, on Wednesday afternoon.

Later, I met up with activists from across the area at an estate in Stillorgan, just east of the N11 at the constituency boundary, ahead of their usual weeknight canvass.

Brian Ó Caithnia, local organiser for Save the 8th, is in his early 30s. He doesn’t remember the initial battle for the Eighth.

This time around, at least, the experience on the doorsteps is “very positive”, he said – insisting that the breakdown of votes appears closer to an even split than you might expect in liberal Dun Laoghaire.

“We would have slightly more support in let’s say lower income areas – but even in wealthier areas we still get a great response.

It’s difficult to say how it will turn out. It depends who shows up to vote in the end. But if I was a betting man I would say in Dun Laoghaire it’s quite close.

As if to underscore his point, an elderly man heading out for a walk at the next street told the campaigners he was a definite No, adding: “Thou shalt not kill – that’s what the fifth commandment says.”

At others doors, Yes voters gave a polite “no thanks” – and say they’d rather not get into a debate on their doorstep.

And while most interactions are pretty civilised in this particular estate, one canvasser said she had been met with derision and abuse in certain areas.

“I’ve met a lot of angry women, a lot of angry men,” said Jacqui Gilbourne, a Renua member who plans to run in Dublin Bay South at the next election.

I’ve been abused more than I could ever have imagined on the streets, at the doors, and I’ve taken it all. I’ve stood there and taken it and taken it … and it’s worth it.

j Save the 8th campaigner and Renua rep Jacqui Gilbourne. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Gilbourne wasn’t involved in the previous Eight Amendment campaign, and explains that she only really became active politically around the time of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013.

She said she expected to be “flat out” over the remaining weeks of the campaign – and became emotional as she discussed the issue. “This is about human life – this is about human rights.”

I asked if she tried to keep that emotion in check on the doorsteps on evenings like this. Her response:

I don’t try to keep it in check. I want people to see that it hurts.
It hurts babies. I think it also hurts women. I just think the emphasis is off babies on the Yes side totally.

Repeal 

The Save the 8th canvassers are reasonably optimistic about their prospects in the Dun Laoghaire constituency – but over in Sandycove, Brian Ó Caithnia’s opposite number on the Together for Yes campaign says her nightly tallies show the votes breaking much more decisively for the repeal side.

“We’re getting three-to-one and even four-to-one some nights on our tally sheets,” Melisa Halpin, a councillor with People Before Profit, said.

We’d be down to two-to-one on some unlucky nights but I think it’s going to be carried by quite a high percentage in Dun Laoghaire.

Young people are overwhelmingly against the amendment, she said – “to them it’s absolutely archaic” – but a large number of elderly people have also told her they’ll be voting Yes this time out.

Halpin didn’t have a vote back then but she has clear memories of the ’83 debate – she was studying for her Inter Cert at the time, and her mother was part of a group called Catholics Against the Amendment.

“I don’t remember the really nasty battles” – but she does recall being shown a “horrible” anti-abortion video at school.

I would have gone to mass at that stage so it was preached from the pulpits that we should be putting this into the Constitution to protect life into the future – and it was very persuasive to a lot of people… Obviously it was, in that it was put in.

yes0 (1) The Together for Yes canvass in Sandycove. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

I joined Halpin and her fellow campaigners on their final few dozen doorsteps of the night. It’s a mixed area – some smaller terraced cottages, and rows of larger houses.

The reception ranged between polite and overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “I’m delighted to see yis,” one man shouted to them as he passed, raising his fist triumphantly.

After the referendum 

Irish society may have changed virtually beyond regotion in the last three-and-a-half decades, but there’s no escaping that abortion remains an incredibly a divisive issue.

If, as polls suggest, the referendum is passed on 25 May, the focus will turn to the government’s planned legislation in the area.

Campaigners on the No side had told me earlier in the day that they couldn’t bear thinking about what would happen in the event of a Yes vote. Jacqui Gilbourne, the Renua rep canvassing in Stillorgan, said it would be “a very sad day for Ireland”.

Halpin, the Together for Yes organiser, said she hoped those with strong beliefs in the area would get involved in “trying to fight for a better society that cares for everybody in it”.

Ultimately we need the free contraception, we need the sex education, we need all the other bits and pieces that go with creating a sane society where crisis pregnancies are avoided.

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