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8 out of 10 voters in this area backed the Eighth Amendment in '83. We went to talk to locals this week

How are the campaigns shaping up in traditionally conservative Roscommon and east Mayo?

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Video by Nicky Ryan

NO.

NO.

NO.

Take a right turn away from the M6 at Athlone, and before very long it’s clear the anti-repeal campaign has been out early and often here with its posters.

In Dublin, and around commuters towns, there’s pretty much an even split of Yeses and Nos (often on the same lamppost). Along the N61 to Roscommon town, it’s No all the way.

Not that much of a surprise, really. There was a landslide result here in Roscommon and in neighbouring East Mayo back in 1983. A whopping 83.8% of voters backed the introduction of the Eighth Amendment. Only a handful of constituencies – all in Dublin – rejected it.

8923 Posters_90541746 Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

35 years on, and Roscommon still has a reputation as one of the more conservative constituencies in the country. In 2015, for instance, it was the only area to vote against same-sex marriage.

“It is a conservative county,” Paul Healy, Editor of the Roscommon People conceded, speaking at his paper’s Abbey Street office in the centre of the town.

Many younger people moved to cities or went abroad during the last recession, he said. And while the constituency – like the country as a whole – has been changing gradually, the population still skews slightly older, compared to urban areas.

Even so, “the notoriety that resulted after the No vote in the same-sex marriage referendum was almost a little bit unfair. Other areas had very, very tight votes. Here we had a marginal rejection – but it was a close run thing elsewhere too.”

Healy hadn’t begun his career back in ’83, but he remembers the campaign well. “It was very, very heated … very emotional, as it was nationwide.”

An intense campaign to lobby the government to introduce a ‘pro-life amendment’ began in the early 80s – primarily in response to the move to less restrictive regimes in other countries. TDs were inundated with pro-life postcards as the debate raged. Two-thirds of voters eventually backed the insertion of the contentious amendment.

original A sample of a postcard received by the Taoiseach's department ahead of the 1983 referendum. Source: Sinéad O’Carroll/TheJournal.ie

Zoom forward to 2018, and, in Roscommon at least, the campaign has been far more low-key.

“Both sides have had local launches, and they would have a presence in the county town,” Healy said.

But there’s no real sense of major momentum or any major engagement from the public. It’s been very low-key but that may change.

I spent Tuesday in Roscommon county and the eastern half of Mayo meeting campaigners, voters and other community figures this week.

These exercises are, of course, far from scientific – but it would indeed appear that a large number of voters are yet to read up on what they’re being asked to decide.

Every undecided voter I spoke to said that they would definitely cast a ballot – but that they needed certain questions answered first. And while recent national polls have shown about a fifth of the electorate aren’t sure how they’ll vote, that figure seems a little higher here.

One young man, speaking to Yes canvassers on his doorstep, said there was a different atmosphere, compared to the Marriage Equality vote. In 2015, his peers had been happy to discuss their views over a pint or two. On this issue, it seemed “almost like a taboo thing”.

Elsewhere, campaigners on both sides of the debate said they had been encountering voters with religious questions. Many people in the area – particularly the older demographic, and in a higher density close to the famous shrine at Knock – are still deeply religious.

knock1 Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

The Catholic view 

May marks the start of pilgrimage season in Knock. In August, overflow car-parks will be full as the faithful descend on the village from around the country (and further afield) for Novena week.

On the day we visited – the 1st of May – the crowds were still comparatively light, with just a few customers wandering along the rows of souvenir shops to pick up statues and keyrings.

The country’s largest Marian Shine isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to encounter a multiplicity of views on the issue of abortion.

That said, Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone, who chaired the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth, was met with some criticism on Easter Sunday when she complained on Twitter about “an octogenarian priest” who was preaching on the issue in Knock.

The Catholic Church hasn’t had a particularly high-profile in the abortion debate this time around – but, even so, the issue is still being addressed from the pulpit at churches around the country.

“We don’t speak about it every Sunday,” Knock parish priest Fr Richard Gibbons said.

For the remainder of the month now we will be mentioning it and we’ll be preaching on it. We do that sensitively.

The chaplains held a meeting recently to discuss how to talk about the issue, Gibbons said. ”People that you’re preaching to … there could be someone down there who has had an abortion, so you have to be very, very sensitive. You have to be very careful, while at the same time getting the point across, from our own perspective, that life is sacred.”

He added:

You just don’t want to come across as brash or dogmatic or very strident … You keep that at the back of your mind because essentially we’re called to be pastors to everybody, no matter where people find themselves at.

priest0 Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Peter Boylan, the chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has been at the forefront of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The Church’s view on the subject is well-known – but is it time to defer to doctors on the issue of abortion?

“I would say it’s just not a medical thing,” Gibbons responded.

“This isn’t just a medical operation that is happening. This has to do, going back right to the beginning, with the right to life. That’s the first and foremost thing – that we have as human beings in our dignity… The right to have life and to be born and to make something good of life itself.

Thats a moral question, it’s an ethical question, a theological question and a philosophical question … it’s right across the whole gamut of human experience and dignity. It’s all of those questions as well as a medical as well as a legal question, so it’s right across the spectrum.

5749 Yes Campaign_90540384 Yes campaigner and Chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Dr Peter Boylan. Source: Leah Farrell

The Yes women

A group from the Mayo Together for Yes campaign (the East and West constituencies that existed in 1983 have since been combined) had agreed to meet us at the Market Square in Kiltimagh, a small town around ten minutes outside Knock.

Numbering about 20, the canvass group was mainly made up of young women – with a few older women and two older men.

Christine Greene is the campaign’s Mayo spokesperson. Originally a Dub, she said she had been pleasantly surprised that the Yes side’s arguments were being so well received in the area.

“I was expecting Mayo to be mainly for a No vote but I’ve been overwhelmed with the response so far.

There’s a lot of people not answering doors. And there’s a lot of people fed up with the campaign so far – but because there’s so many undecided, we have to keep knocking on doors.

In terms of organising canvasses, Mayo presents something of a logistical problem due to its sheer size. Sub-groups have been set up in areas like Westport, Castlebar, Claremorris and Ballina to organise things more locally – but given the distances it can still be a struggle to make it to a canvass on time, after work.

Richael Carroll, the national campaign’s Mayo convener, said they only started knocking on doors in the last six weeks or so, “because statistically, people aren’t really that aware of a referendum until the last ten days of the vote”.

In terms of the reception on the doorsteps, “it’s gone from people having no idea what the Eighth Amendment was or what was entailed in it to people being a lot more aware of the multi-faceted aspects of it and wanting to get involved.

People have gone from ‘Oh God that’s awful’ to ‘Right, that’s really bad I need to do something about that’.

That’s not to say the response has been overwhelmingly positive – the campaigners insist, however, that it’s better than you might expect in such a traditionally conservative area: between 30 and 40% in the Yes bracket, 20 to 30% No and the rest undecided.

The campaigners carry leaflets from organisations like Catholics For Choice, a Washington-based group, to argue their case with undecided voters who may be struggling with ethical or religious questions.

The man who said the issue was “almost like a taboo thing” among his peer group was the first voter we encountered, doing the rounds of the town’s doorsteps.

“Men my own age, it’s not something that comes up over a pint – put it that way,

“In the same-sex marriage referendum a lot of people were a lot more vocal about their opinion, regardless of whether it was popular or not.

My worry is that people will just see these things on a pole and that’s their mind made up.

Carroll, the county convener, said she was aware they could do with some more posters. Another print run is taking place at the moment, so there should be more available next week.

Unfortunately, Some of the existing posters had mysteriously vanished in recent days, she said. “I was getting phone-calls and texts all Tuesday going ‘Where are the posters gone? Bring more posters’.”

Poster theft 

There’s been a spate of disappearing posters in constituencies across the country in the last few weeks – with each side blaming the other for taking down or replacing their placards.

yes0 The early evening Yes canvass in Kiltimagh. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

In keeping with that trend, Michael Farrington, the local Renua rep and a staunch anti-repeal campaigner, insisted the preponderance of the vandalism seemed to be coming from the Yes side.

He added:

I can’t say there isn’t some fool out there on our side who wouldn’t go out and take down a poster, but people are entitled to free speech and we would certainly urge all our supporters to have nothing to do with that.

Farrington said he’d be very surprised indeed if Mayo didn’t return a No vote on the 25th. “Of course, you know, it’s going to have to be a very substantial No vote to counteract what is probably going to be a Yes vote in Dublin.”

He was surprised too, at the number of younger voters who had told him they’d be voting against the constitutional change. Reflecting the view of the Repeal campaigners to a degree, he also conceded that there were a fair few people in their 70s and 80s who had told him they were backing a Yes.

The undecided voter 

Back across the county border, around an hour away, there was one more canvass to catch up with before darkness fell.

Volunteers from Roscommon Save the 8th had met in the town earlier in the evening. Smaller groups had been dispatched to rural areas while three campaigners stayed on on the outskirts of the town, re-canvassing an estate they’d already covered some time ago.

Maria Ní Mhathuna, a regional organiser with the pro-life group, said they had knocked on virtually every door in the county – but that they still intended to ramp up activity in the weeks remaining.

We actually started knocking on doors two years ago, it’s an important question.

In terms of people who had made up their minds, she said it was “pretty much as you’d expect” for Roscommon, with the Nos in the majority. A lot of voters were still “mulling it over in their minds” however.

As we walked from door to door, Ní Mhathuna wasn’t racking up a particularly good strike rate – a lot of householders were either out or (an occupational hazard for any canvasser) choosing not to answer.

As it happened, she was met with a diversity of opinion at the three doors that opened during that 20 minutes or so.

A young mother in a house full of children said she was voting Yes and that she was “absolutely fine thanks” with Simon Harris’s planned legislation. Two doors down, a man in his 50s said he was a definite No and that he’d be delighted to take some leaflets for other family members.

Finally, a man in his early 30s said he was yet to make up his mind and needed to do a lot more homework on the subject. He’d seen the Late Late Show debate the previous Friday, he said, and was leaning towards a Yes as a result. Some of the personal cases discussed had gotten to him, he said.

We remained on the doorstep for a good ten minutes as Ní Mhathuna made her case. She had been shocked when she heard the details of the planned legislation, she said… Abortion harmed women as much as it did the unborn child.

Before he eventually hurried back in (he said he had to rescue the dinner from the oven), I asked the man if his unexpected caller had helped him come to a decision in any way. He said that she had, and that he was now leaning back toward a No.

Ní Mhathuna had to hurry to catch up with her fellow canvassers after such a long doorstep conversation – there were still more houses to get to, and people don’t take too  kindly to being disturbed after 8.30 or so, particularly on dull, rainy evenings like this.

The national polls may not reflect it, but she said she was confident the proposal would be rejected on referendum day.

I think the Irish people are compassionate and they are progressive and they are inclusive and they really believe in equality and respect which are the key words at the heart of the Eighth Amendment.

no0 Save the 8th canvassers in Roscommon town. Source: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Different groups of campaigners could have told me slightly different stories but, based on this whistle-stop visit to the two counties, each side is claiming to be slightly ahead.  Both sides agree, however, that there’s a large middle-ground of voters yet to engage and yet to make up their minds.

The No campaign may have started canvassing earlier and have a larger stock of posters, but the Yes side says it’s gaining momentum on the doorsteps (Carroll, the Mayo organiser, said she had received 12 emails that day from volunteers offering to canvass, leaflet and help out any way they could).

The official campaigns aside, like elsewhere in the country, minds will be made up across  Roscommon and Mayo at family dinner tables, in conversations between couples on couches, and – if they choose to have them – in chats between groups of men, over pints.

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