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'Not conservative ... just complicated' - Roscommon's repealers on the county's journey from No to Yes

Voters across Roscommon have been talking to each other, finally, about previously “taboo subjects”.
IT SHOWS WE’RE not conservative, we’re just complicated.

— Luke Ming Flanagan has a penchant for coming up with quotable one-liners – and his take on the day’s events in Roscommon-Galway, as it became apparent that the constituency was about to return a firm ‘Yes’ to repealing the Eighth, summed things up pretty accurately.

From national outlets like, The Irish Times and RTÉ to international broadcasters and publications from Germany, Poland and Spain – Roscommon has been the subject of intense media scrutiny throughout this campaign.

Why? There’s an obvious angle. Roscommon-South Leitrim (as it was then) was the only constituency to record a No vote in the same-sex marriage referendum three years ago.

Reporters have been criss-crossing the county for the last six weeks or so, attempting to get a handle on the attitudes of Ireland’s heartland voters this time around.

Campaigners from Roscommon Together for Yes, camped out for the day at the count centre in Roscommon Gaels GAA Club, reckoned the criticism of the constituency in the wake of the 2015 vote (“stick, absolute stick” is how one woman put it) was more than a little unfair.

Back then, for starters, there were very tight margins in other constituencies too.

Said Repeal activist Natalie Barrow:

Also, Roscommon-South Leitrim was the constituency at the time. Roscommon as a county gave a Yes vote and South Leitrim brought it to a No.

The constituency has been redrawn to include the entire county of Roscommon and parts of east Galway in the years since that 2015 vote.

But, aside from that redrawing of boundaries, campaigners pointed to other reasons behind the change from a perceived conservative county to what Barrow described as “the compassionate county that we always thought it was”.

roscommon Roscommon campaigners Fiona Nugent, Julie O'Donoghue and Natalie Barrow. Daragh Brophy / Daragh Brophy / /

The 2015 result had definitely motivated campaigners to make sure they talked to as many voters as possible this time around, the Repeal volunteers said.

They also sensed an increase in a national, and to a lesser extent international, ‘home to vote’ movement in Roscommon in recent days.

Also – there’s no doubt that the addition of a swathe of younger voters to the register will have made some difference to the outcome too (Friday night’s Irish Times exit poll indicated that 87% of those aged 18 to 24 had cast their ballots in favour of Repeal).

From a campaigning point of view, however, the approach was largely the same as the one taken in 2015.

It wasn’t about slogans or posters, the Yes campaigners said – it was about telling personal stories and starting one-on-one conversations with voters, and it was about encouraging supporters to do the same with friends and family members.

Many of the volunteers who campaigned for marriage equality were involved in the Yes campaign this year too.

Galway woman Kathy Walsh, who canvassed in 2015 but concentrated on fundraising efforts this time around, said it was, again, all about “personal stories”.

The approach taken in the run up to the same-sex marriage vote was based on tactics used in the campaign for same-sex marriage in California in the 2000s, she explained.

They developed that technique and they came over, some of the heads of that, they came and taught the Irish campaigners how to do it – going out in the streets and talking and talking. And I think that was borne out here again in this campaign.

The method had “set the bar” in how to conduct campaigns on social issues, Walsh insisted.

I think unfortunately for the No side they didn’t learn a stitch from the last campaign because they made all the same mistakes – again they didn’t show compassion, they insulted people, they put up disinformation on posters and they didn’t learn anything from the Yes campaign … that’s why they fought it so badly in this one.

Doireann Markham, one of the founding members of Roscommon Together for Yes, said they had noticed a seachange in how voters were approaching the topic over the last two weeks or so.

“What we have found since the very beginning of the campaign is that people were reluctant to talk about this issue,” she said.

It’s a pretty typical Roscommon discretion. People were reluctant to talk about it but certainly in the last two weeks people were a lot more forward in stating how they intending voting, and were an awful lot more forward in discussing why they were voting Yes and sharing their own stories.

20180526_132233 Stacks of Yes and No votes at the count centre. Campaigners explained that there were two Yes campaigns in Roscommon - with 'Boyle and Environs Together for Yes' campaigning in the north of the county. Daragh Brophy / Daragh Brophy / /

Elsewhere in the count centre Julie O’Donoghue said the reception on the doorsteps had been unfailingly polite – no matter which way people were planning to vote. She had also noticed the change in attitudes, in the last week or so, she said.

“People were thanking us for being on the streets of Roscommon in the last few days. People were ready for a change.”

Natalie Barrow agreed:

“It was the conversations. It was getting out there. It was knocking on doors and it was talking in the streets. It wasn’t just Together for Yes, it was everyone having conversations.”

Nationwide, the campaign represented “a huge bursting of a dam,” she said.

“All over the country people have been talking about issues that were previously taboo issues around women’s healthcare, maternity care and all of that.

And I think no matter which way the vote would have gone we still would have burst that dam and we would have created a more compassionate society out of it because we would have listened to each other.
I think that was the huge key here – people listening.

There were only a handful of No campaigners at the count centre by yesterday afternoon. They were outnumbered by a factor of about eight-to-one by Repeal activists.

One Save the 8th campaigner said she was upset and extremely disappointed by the result – and had felt from “about last Sunday” that the country as a whole would vote to repeal.

The public, she maintained, had been “bombarded” by Yes messages from the media in recent weeks. “Our side wasn’t strong enough.”

The conversations started across Roscommon during this campaign aren’t likely to end anytime soon. In fact, they continued throughout count day.

In a quiet moment, as we waited for the result, two campaigners from opposing sides – a young woman and an older man – introduced themselves and struck up a low-key chat, away from the crowds.

“I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” the young Repeal volunteer said, softly, at one stage. They spoke for about five minutes, and wished each other all the best as they parted.

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