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The 11 standout moments of the Eighth Referendum campaign

The campaign this year had some highlights. Here are some of them.

SO IN THE end it was a landslide as the Irish electorate voted roughly two to one to repeal the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution.

In reality it was, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar himself put it as the results were coming in, the culmination of a campaign that was years in the making.

The personal stories of women who said they’d suffered because of the Eighth Amendment resonated with the electorate, from Savita Halappanavar to the nine women who travelled to England every day, from Michelle Harte to the women who ordered unregulated abortion pills online.

But, as the campaigning truly got under way in recent months, the efforts to repeal or retain the Eighth Amendment really began to gather momentum.

Here are some of the standout moments from the campaign:

Micheál Martin backs repeal

The Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment had given its report recommending repeal in December 2017, but things quickly gathered pace in the new year.

It was backed by senior Fine Gael ministers, most of Sinn Féin and a large number of other TDs but the speech given by Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin backing repeal in January 2018 was hugely significant.

The leader of the opposition, unbacked by many within his own party, stood up in the Dáil and said how, “after a long period of reflection”, he had decided that the Eighth should be removed.

“Because the Eighth Amendment has been shown to cause real damage to Irishwomen,” he began.

Because it has caused real harm to the quality of care available to pregnant women at critical moments; because it has not and cannot change the reality that abortion is a present and permanent part of Irish life, because it seeks to force women to carry a pregnancy to term when they have been the victim of a rape or incest or when they have received the diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality, because it requires that pregnant women and doctors are faced with criminal sanctions.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Especially given the results of the RTÉ exit poll, which had a very slim majority of Fianna Fáil voters voting No, the intervention of Micheál Martin early on in the campaign was seen as hugely significant.

Campaigners take to the streets

Within days of each of other in early March, campaigners from both sides took to the streets of Dublin in large marches.

On 8 March, marking International Women’s Day, Yes campaigners called for the government to set a date for the referendum, and to provide the wording for the vote.

Two days later, the Rally for Life brought thousands to the streets of Dublin. The campaign claimed that 100,000 people attended today’s rally, and said that attendees came from all over the country.

rally for life 987_90539410 The Rally for Life in March Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Government publishes draft heads of legislation

The government had promised to give details of what the abortion laws would like in the event of a Yes vote in the referendum.

At the end of March, we finally got to hear what that would be.

health 428_90526117 Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Most of the provisions had been well flagged as the government had already signalled that, if repealed, legislation would be introduced to allow for abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The proposed legislation seeks to make terminations lawful where an appropriate medical practitioner has certified that the pregnancy has not exceeded 12 weeks.

A period of 72 hours must elapse between certification and the termination being carried out.

Beyond that period of pregnancy, termination will only be available in exceptional circumstances, such as the risk of serious harm to the health or life of the woman, in emergency situations, or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

In all other circumstances, abortion will remain unlawful after 12 weeks.


A contentious part of the debate were the campaign posters that were put up around the country, campaigning on both sides.

The No side were quick off the mark, populating streets early with posters bearing campaign slogans relating to the number of abortions in England, and the number of babies with Down Syndrome that are aborted.

Dublin City Council confirmed in April that it had received 30 complaints over the posters.

The majority of the complaints made were about the content of the posters, but authorities can only remove a poster if its hung incorrectly or doesn’t have its publisher’s name and address on it. They do not have any power to control what appears across the signs.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, DCC said that the majority of complaints it received were about the content of the posters.

Posters also became a flashpoint for claims of vandalism with claims being made of signs from both sides being taken down.

And, in some cases, complaints were made about the posters being misleading.

original (9) TheJournal.ie received a number of contacts from people complaining about the existence of this poster Source: Sent in by a Dublin reader.

Complainants have said that the poster is misleading as the question being posed in the upcoming referendum is about abortion without restriction up to three months of pregnancy (12 weeks), not six (24 weeks).

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, Save the 8th spokesperson John McGuirk said that he wasn’t aware of any complaints related to this poster specifically.

“We do receive occasional phone calls from members of the public who are voting yes who wish to make their views known – but no specific complaints about this poster have been brought to my attention.”

Other controversial artwork came in the form of the Repeal mural in Dublin’s Temple Bar.

original (10) Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

The poster was painted over in April (again) after the centre who hosted it was told it may lose its charitable status because of it.

The Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar had previously painted the artwork on the side of its building in 2016, but it was found to be in violation of planning laws and was removed.

Earlier in April it returned to the side of the building, located on East Essex Street, as it fell under the category of ads for referendums and elections, meaning it did not require planning permission.

However, the Charities Regulator issued the centre with a warning last week  that it would risk losing its charitable status if the mural remained.

Together for Yes crowdfunder

original (7)

The Together for Yes fundraiser, and how it raised so much so quickly, was a signal of the groundswell of support for a Yes vote in Ireland.

In just four days in April, the campaign group managed to raise over half a million euro.

The target of €50,000 was reached within hours and was revised upwards throughout the week, before finally being put at €500,000.

The group said that the money would “put posters across the country”. It added:

“[It will also] fund additional advertising and promotional materials in other key outlets for a positive outcome on the 25th May. If we raise more than is needed for posters your donations will go towards other ways to fight for a Yes vote.”

Save the 8th, a campaign to retain the Eighth Amendment, said it has been raising funding for its campaign for a number of months.

Speaking at a Save the 8th press conference earlier that week in April, campaign spokesperson John McGuirk said that they have exceeded their target of €400,000.

Late Late debate

The first televised debate came at the end of April, when Ryan Tubridy hosted both sides on the Late Late Show.

Dr. Peter Boylan, the former Master of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street was representing the Yes side, with the support of general practitioner Dr. Mary Favier.

On the No side, were broadcaster Wendy Grace and Love Both spokeswoman Caroline Simons.

Boylan spoke about the availability of abortion pills having created “backstreet abortion” here in Ireland, and how taking them were potentially risky for women.

Grace said that the proposed legislation in the event of a Yes vote would legalise the abortion of “healthy babies”.

Contributions from the audience of their own stories of abortion set the tone for future debates.

Tracey Smith, whose daughter Grace had a fatal foetal abnormality, told her story of having to go to Liverpool for an abortion. On the other side, Mary Kenny spoke about how she became pregnant unexpectedly at the age of 19 but was persuaded to carry on with her pregnancy.

Graphic adverts

icbr-320_90544119-390x285 People block the ICBR posters outside the Rotunda Hospital Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

From April into May, fringe groups drew the ire of campaigners on both sides of the referendum by displaying extremely graphic imagery outside Dublin maternity hospitals, despite requests that they don’t.

The Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (ICBR) displayed the graphic imagery showing foetuses outside the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street, the Rotunda Hospital and the Coombe Hospital.

The imagery was placed very close to the entrances of both hospitals, which meant that passers-by and those on their way into the hospital would have full sight of their content.

The group – which is opposed to abortion – had a number of individuals stationed at the hospitals holding up the large signs.

The Rotunda Hospital issued a statement on social media outlining that “despite previous pleas to refrain from protesting” outside the hospital entrance, the group was again displaying graphic imagery in the building’s vicinity.

Obstetrician Mary Higgins – who advocated a yes vote in the referendum – tweeted that women who may have experienced miscarriage from a previous pregnancy would have to walk right by the signs on the way into the hospital.

Online ad ban

A major intervention from online tech firms that affected campaigning in the referendum came at the beginning of May.

The first came when Facebook decided to ban all ads on its platform related to the referendum that are from advertisers based outside of Ireland.

Then came Google’s decision to ban all Eighth-related advertisements, including ads on Youtube and Google Adwords.

Concerns had been raised about the unregulated nature of online advertising and how people can be targeted in the context of the upcoming vote.

The No side, however, said that the ban from the tech firms was an attempt to “rig” the referendum in favour of the Yes side.

save 838_90544581 McGuirk was critical of the action taken by Google at a press conference. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

At a press conference, representatives from Save the 8th, the Pro Life Campaign and the Iona Institute accused the government, the media and the Yes side of orchestrating the Google ban to scupper the No side’s chances.

In a statement, the groups said: “In this case, it means preventing campaigns that have done nothing illegal from campaigning in a perfectly legal matter.

Online was the only platform available to the No campaign to speak to voters directly. That platform is now being undermined, in order to prevent the public from hearing the message of one side.

The Claire Byrne Live debate

The first of two infamous debates in the run up to the 25 May referendum was RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live debate on Monday 14 May.

The format was criticised by some with loud cheering and clapping throughout the programme leading to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald comparing it to a football match.

Catherine Noone, who was chair of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, yesterday described the show was “poorly planned, disorganised and quite frankly like a circus”.

original (8) Noone speaking at a Together for Yes event. Source: TheJournal.ie

Noone added that there was a particular aggression in the tone of people from the No side who participated in the programme:

I thought that at the mention of Savita Halappanavar’s name the jeering, despite the context, I thought it was reprehensible. I felt it was a demeaning environment to be in honestly and the level of aggression, particular I have to say on the No side, it’s hard to relate to. I think Claire did her best in the circumstances, I think the programme could have been organised a lot better and I would hope other programmes could learn from it certainly.

Termination For Medical Reasons (TFMR) said they felt “dehumanised” after members were invited into the audience but were not given a chance to speak.

RTÉ confirmed that it did receive complaints about the programme but declined to give details about the number until after the referendum.

The broadcaster added that 650,000 viewers tuned in at some point during the programme on Monday night.

The Benbulben sign

An iconic image of the campaign was the image of the famous flat-topped Benbulben peak in Sligo having a giant No sign erected on the side of the mountain last week.

Speaking to local broadcaster Ocean FM from the mountain, Tommy Banks of Sligo for Life said that about 20 people were involved in putting up the sign.

He said the ‘N’ in the sign was 100m tall and that the sign was made of cladding. Banks said that the sign was temporary and will be taken down after the referendum.

However, the sign was short lived as it was removed overnight.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service had called for its removal, stating that: “The insinuation of alien materials such as this onto a special area of conservation is insensitive  to its conservation status and incompatible with the habitat.”

An Taisce also submitted a legal complaint to Sligo County Council regarding the sign.

Another short lived sign was placed on the Dublin mountains ahead of the vote.

Prime Time debate

There was controversy before RTÉ’s Prime Time debate in the week running up to the vote.

Health Minister Simon Harris and Professor Mary Higgins for the Yes side were due to take on Cora Sherlock and Sinn Féin TD Peader Tóibín for the No side.

After Sherlock was pulled from the show at the last minute, Save the 8th claimed that their nomination to replace her – Maria Steen – was prevented from going on the show by RTÉ.

It accused RTÉ of trying to “intervene” in the referendum debate and tell No campaigners who can appear on RTÉ.

original (8) Source: RTÉ Player

The Prime Time debate went ahead featuring Minister Simon Harris and Tóibín and was watched by 738,000 viewers, almost half of whom watched the full show.

Following the non-appearance by Sherlock on the RTÉ show, the campaigner appeared in a video published by TheLiberal.ie and denied that she had “pulled out” of the debate.

Sherlock did not explain her absence from the debate but asked her supporters not to “worry about headlines”.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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