In this episode of How The Yes Was Won, we cover the formation of Together For Yes, the national campaign to organise for a Yes vote in the referendum on Repeal. We spoke to activists involved in the campaign, from head office to canvassers on the ground, and discuss the many ways in which people were excluded from it. We also cover how the Irish Media denigrated the campaign from the outset, never really understanding the power of grassroots activism. Links to additional resources are below.
A clarification. There is a point that’s been interpreted as blaming Together for Yes or ARC for writing non-inclusive legislation. We want to make sure everyone knows that this was not the intention of the interviewee or us, and that FG are to blame, not those groups. We want to make sure everyone knows that activists groups unfortunately do not get to say what goes into legislation, and to thank the people who brought this miscommunication to our attention. Some context was lost in editing and we sincerely apologize for that. Our greater point was not that we could choose or write the legislation, but rather that the campaign did choose who was included in the conversation, and that that did have a knock on effect. We’ll go into that in more detail in episode 9, but just want to clear that point up.
If you would like to help increase access to abortion in Ireland and elsewhere, please consider donating to the Abortion Support Network.
Written and edited by Deirdre Kelly and Aisling Dolan. Narrated by Aisling Dolan. Produced by Deirdre Kelly, Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Tara Lonij, Davy Quinlivan
Music: A Dream
Written By Jessie Marie Villa, Matthew Wigton
Performed By Jessie Villa
Produced ByJessie Villa
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Sarah: So I don't know if I could like.. if I can eliminate activist guilt from the world. Then cool that's that's what I would do [Laughs]
**Intro plays until Sarah speaks again*
Narrator Aisling [00:00:08]: Welcome back to How The Yes Was Won, a podcast about the 8th Amendment
In our last episode, we spoke about the growing call for a referendum to repeal the 8th, and the various different activist groups that were forming all over the country to try and make this happen.
After the Citizens Assembly, the referendum was inevitable, and it was time to get to work.
As we mentioned, there were many different groups ready to campaign for Repeal at this point. It became clear that a national strategy was required to ensure that these groups could work together.
The Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment was a group of organisations and businesses who had declared they were pro-choice. It was being led by Ailbhe Smyth and Sinéad Kennedy. They entered discussions with the National Women’s Council of Ireland led by Orla O’Connor about setting up a temporary organisation that would coordinate a national campaign for Repeal. Here’s Sarah Monaghan from ARC to tell us a bit about this, and ARC’s involvement.
Sarah: So obviously, over the years since ARC founded in 2012, we've been working with a variety of other groups in that space and building alliances, so with the coalition to repeal the 8th, with Amnesty, with the trade union movement, with Doctors for Choice, a little later like Lawyers for Choice and the Citizens Assembly, and then the Joint Press Committee, made it clear that there was actually movement happening on this now and that we'd be looking at a referendum campaign in the future - we weren't exactly sure, I suppose, when. So we started to meet with the key players in the pro-choice campaigning world, and we started to meet as a group with the Coalition to Repeal the 8th, with the National Women's Council, with Amnesty, with the Irish Family Planning Association, the Union of Students of Ireland. And I'm hoping I just haven't forgotten anyone else who was in the room.. And started to just have those really early conversations around “What would a national referendum campaign look like?” which was really difficult. None of us really knew what it would look like we were at that time.
We actually.. I remember me and Grainne one weekend speed reading the YesEquality book, to try and figure out “how do you.. how is it that you run a national referendum campaign?” And then we were horrified to figure out that they've been like, you know, saving money and planning it for, like, ever. [laughs] We were like “Damn. OK..” yeah. So those early meetings were just.. really.. they were early negotiations of what it would look like, and who needed to be at the table, who needed to be in the room, what the structures would look like. But they were.. tense! They were difficult. It was a lot of egos in the room. There was a lot of personalities. There were a lot of people who felt that they should be the ones leading it. And leading a campaign with, you know, six or so organisations as equal partners is, well, it's impossible as far as I'm concerned. And even those meetings and those early kind of negotiations were pretty impossible. So it became.. it became apparent very quickly that this wasn't going to work like this.
I had been elected convener of ARC in November 2017. And so I stepped into that role and then stepped into all of these meetings. There had been a couple that happened already. And so I stepped right into this.. this world, into these heated meetings, into these kind of negotiations, deliberations about what a campaign would look like. And in the New Year, we were really trying to get, I suppose, more serious about it. The meetings weren't getting any easier. And in the end, it was decided that we just would not campaign in that way, that all six or so organisations couldn't sit with equal footing at the table with, you know, all of those different personalities, all of those different... You couldn't have six directors of a campaign, basically. So we then pretty quickly knew that the National Women's Council and the Coalition to Repeal the 8th were going to form a referendum campaign, or at least we that was our belief. And so ARC took to our office for about two weeks straight; myself, my co-convener Denise O'Toole, she lives in Sligo. So half the time she was Skyped in, and the board of ARC sat down and decided, we need to be at the table, we need to be the third party represented at an equal footing, because we really felt that without us they ran a serious chance of losing a campaign. We were the grassroots. We were the people with volunteers. We were the people with regional groups. We were the people with money. And we had some serious concerns of what would happen if we weren't there.
So for about two weeks, we stayed in our offices until like 3am every morning and did out plans and strategy, and got ourselves basically ready to.. to pitch that idea to Ailbhe and Orla. And we knew obviously we had to consult our membership. So we brought a steering group, had those first discussions, a lot of questions... There's a lot of history, as with any of these movements, there's plenty of history with us and the Coalition, plenty history with us and the National Women's Council. So, you know, loads of concerns about what it would look like. The general consensus being, you know, that the Natioal Women's Council will be considered more conservative, consider more middle-class, middle Ireland. What would that do to ARC and what we wanted a campaign to be? And so we continued those conversations into an emergency general meeting in February 2018, where we brought as many of our members together as possible and we laid it all out on the table to the best of our knowledge. So we had done as much foreplanning as we could, different scenarios. You know what would happen if the two of them ran a referendum campaign? And then we also tried to run a referendum campaign on the side. What would that look like if we ran our own campaign? What would it look like if if somehow we ran a campaign with somebody else so that there was at any point that there would be just all these different rival large campaigns running at the same time, what did we think would happen? You know, we looked at messaging, which was a massive concern for ARC. What.. What would we like our messaging to be in an ideal world for a referendum campaign? and what to did we think it - wasn't Together for Yes yet - but what should we think Together for Yes messaging would look like? And how how would that sit with us? You know, we'd have money and budgets and so on.
And yeah, we had a full day general meeting, probably the most stressful day of my life. I, as convener, I presented it, or most of it. I remember going in that morning and saying to the board and Grainne and Denise and saying “What if.. What if, like 51% vote Yes to join this campaign. I can't lead this with half of our membership, not behind it. I just.. I don't think I can do it. Can we put like a quota on it, it has to be like 60-40 or something like?” , "No, you know, we can’t.” and I was like, “OK.. Grand.” And I went in absolutely terrified because we'd been.. because I suppose hammering out all these different scenarios over the two weeks prior. And we knew that it wasn't going to be the messaging that we would pick out of the sky. We knew this wasn't going to be ARC’s usual, unending attempts to be really, really inclusive. And.. And that.. that felt terrible. You know, we all just went to bed sick every night, you know, but then would wake up.. We all went on these cycles constantly of like “Oh I just hate myself. I hate this. This just feels terrible.” And then we wake up the next morning, and go “but what if we don't?” And it just kept coming back to that. And, you know, just had such a serious concern that if we weren't at that table, well.. What would the campaign look like for a start, and we just really thought without us... And if we run.. this other campaign and it's.. so we're splitting, you know, all of our regional network into our campaign and they're running a different one, I think it might lose! You know, we're essentially running two.. not competing but, you know, separate campaigns and it would just impact really negatively. So we laid all of this out for all of our membership and in this day long meeting, all the different scenarios that we could have dreamed up. You know, we didn't know any, that's for sure. But we were like, we think, you know this. We think maybe this and then and then kind of had at it. And everyone had had their say, we had loads of really tense conversations that day. What everyone thought, workshopped it for for the whole day. And then we put it to a vote. And in the end, which like I was shocked by then, I'm not anymore. It was a 100% Yes vote. They all voted - “Yeah. Let's join this campaign as an equal partner, take a seat as as director and executive for Together for Yes and take whatever comes with that” which is really incredible. It's.. I'll, I'll never.. the compromises that were made that day, and every day after it were incredible. And, you know, and every single person that day, who, who voted that, they voted into something that was difficult, compromised their own ethos, their own values, because everyone just kept coming back to the same thing of, What if we don't, and what if we lose? And then it's all been for nothing and we've let down so many people.. and we’ll.. on May 26th, you know, women will still be travelling and pregnant people en masse. And then what and then we have all of our perfect values. And we can go to bed at night and say we're super woke, and we.. we lost. And we knew we were facing into something, where if we were lucky, maybe another 20 years, we'd get another referendum, maybe not. Who knew? Because we knew if we didn't win, then it would be the mandate of, you know, of the people and therefore, the people were not interested in that. You were wrong. You know, there's no critical mass there. You're not getting another shot. So it was a really, really difficult time for everybody involved. And everybody compromised a lot and considered all the options. And, yeah, just gave a lot, even before we.. before we'd even started, everybody gave a lot into, into joining that campaign. And so we went back to the Women's Council and the Coalition and said “Yeah, OK, we're in!”
Narrator Aisling [00:09:26]: Compromises were made that day. We spoke with Emily Waszak from MERJ about the ARC EGM to decide on joining the unified national campaign.
Emily: We were asked, we as MERJ were asked to come talk about inclusivity with ARC for their EGM. MERJ was there on the day, essentially to do a workshop about how to create structures within ARC, to make ARC more inclusive of other voices. So.. We were there while, you know, all the spiels were going on about like what it would mean for ARC to join Together for Yes, or to kind of form Together for Yes as the three kind of groups. And there was real talk about “If we do this, we will be abandoning any kind of intersectional principles. We will be leaving migrants intentionally out of the conversation. We will be leaving trans people intentionally out of the conversation”. And knowing that, I mean, they didn't sugarcoat it. They went through all that, knowing that, there is a unanimous vote to join Together for Yes.
I mean, you know, you can talk to people in ARC about why they decided to vote that way. I assume, they thought they could maybe... pull it more towards their politics? Maybe.. I don't know. But that was the vote. So I think at that stage, we kind of.. were prepared for what the campaign was going to look like.
Narrator Aisling [00:10:54]: ARC voted to join with the National Women's Council and the Coalition to Repeal the 8th to lead Together for Yes, the national civil society campaign to remove the 8th Amendment. It was led by three co-directors, Grainne Griffin from ARC, Orla O'Connor from the National Women's Council of Ireland and Ailbhe Smyth from the Coalition to Repeal the 8th.
In a country where 50% of the population vote for either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, the campaign was a unified front to get the country thinking about the issue of abortion and focussed on the stories of the so-called hard cases - the people whose babies were diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality and were forced to travel for a termination, how the 8th affected the quality of maternity care people could receive, and how we needed to care for Irish women at home. Note the use of 'Irish' and 'women' there. The campaign strategy targeted the Undecideds and those who lived in middle Ireland, a made up term to refer to the sort of person who lives in a part of Ireland that no one really knows where it is, but everyone assumes they're conservative.
Sarah: For the real public launch then was, pretty sure it was March 22nd, we had it in the Rotunda Round Room, which was fantastic. It was really... symbolic. We weren't sure if we were going to get it. The Rotunda is one of the maternity hospitals here in Dublin. And there had been some complaints, like the day before, the Anti’s had gotten wind of it and there was some media around it. We just were never quite sure if we're going to end up getting to have it there. But we did. And so it was then the first time that we were unveiling all of the branding and everything to the general public. We had.. We opened the day with Gerry and Gaye Edwards, who were former members of Terminations For Medical Reasons and still as individuals and as family, very involved in campaigning. They’d travelled many years ago, with a fatal foetal abnormality and have been campaigning since. So it was really, really great to have them open it, just as people who had committed so much to this campaign already, bring it back to the lived experience of this issue. This was something that was impacting on real people's lives, and that was something that was very prominent in our messaging and our strategy from that day one, or from, you know, day minus 40 or whatever was stories.. was the real.. you know, the real lives of people that were impacted. And the three co-directors spoke for that, for the first time sat on stage to the public for the first time. We also had previous Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness, who's a rock star, and the room was full!
So, you know, it had been.. it had been a bit of a rush, like no two ways about it.. to get it all ready. I think I managed to get two hundred badges or something printed in time and, you know, maybe like fifty t-shirts or something like that. And it was like “oh, yes, great. We have something!” The badges are all gone within like six minutes or whatever. [Sarah and interviewer laugh] And we had contacted a load of people beforehand, to get to kind of give them T-shirts, people from the campaign across the years, you know, to ask them to wear the t-shirt on the day. But that the room then.. we just, it's quite a big room all morning. You're looking at it going “Oh, God, if it's just if this doesn't feel it's going to look pretty bad for us, as a first outing..” But it was absolutely packed, and it's yeah, it was generally speaking, kind of went off without a hitch. You know, we're naturally as first time out really concerned with the Q&A afterwards, about the media, about what they're going to ask. But it was all fine. And that stage was really a lot to ask as such, like right from the beginning there was the whole “Oh, three Co-directors?”, you know “That's that's a bit odd. It’ll never work!” which is just code for “ahh three women can't run a campaign”.
Narrator Aisling [00:14:24]: This was just the beginning of the media criticism for Together for Yes. Here's Linda Kavanagh, who is responsible for Together for Yes’ social media.
Linda: The Establishment and the traditional media just did absolutely.. from start to finish with Repeal, did not know how to handle it. And did not understand it, did not understand.. like ARC is a non-hierarchical organisation, did not understand that, did not understand Together for Yes having three.. three leaders. It was also a reluctance to understand a woman-led organisation. They have a very specific idea of what politics looks like in this country. It looks like men in suits. It looks like the stuff that happens in Government Buildings, and it doesn't look like women with blue hair and black Repeal jumpers.
Narrator Aisling [00:15:09]: Social media had replaced telephone trees, as the key way for activists to organise and mobilise. Groups of pro-choice people around the country were using social media to connect with each other. It was also a way for people not directly involved in the campaign to engage with it, and be exposed to the campaign messaging. More than any other account, Facebook and Instagram page called “In Her Shoes” helped to show the barbarity of the Eighth Amendment. It consisted of anonymous posts describing the ordeals that people had gone through under the Eighth Amendment, accompanied only by a picture of the narrator's shoes.
Linda: Organic reach means, a lot. People trust other people. When you look at something like In Her Shoes, like In Her Shoes, right. It's a phenomenon. And I don't know if it gets the praise or recognition that it deserves. But In Her Shoes bucks, the trend of anything you're supposed to do on social media, you’re supposed to use different kind of images and short snappy sentences. You're talking about a thousand word essays with the same type of imagery. And these were being shared by thousands of people, like unbelievable organic reach, like some of the most or like strongest organic reach of, of the whole campaign. And it's.. just like absolutely bucks the trend. But like it was that thing where you can share that story. You don't have to give a comment on it. You don't have to say Mam or people were like, “Mam, look at this” or “Dad, read this. This is awful.” It was a way to share these stories, kind of not passively.. but like, you don’t have to.. you could just share and it would be in your timeline for other people to see. They would see that you agreed with the sentiment.. you know, and that that happens a lot. And that played a big part that kind of I don't say passive, but like more passive.. kind of campaigning of just sharing so that other people can see it. And.. and see, that's sort of it's, it's massive. It was a massive contributor.
The usefulness of social media to change the language like it was it was absolutely essential. You're getting.. like Ireland has an awful lot of social media users and a lot of mobile phone users. So you're going to where people are at, and you're, you know, putting it in their pocket, and constantly ticking away at that for years. Even though you kind of feel like you're not getting anywhere, is really, really important. You're changing the language. You're changing people's minds. Even if people are not engaging with it, they're seeing it. So that's one of the.. again, How The Yes Was Won that.. having that, you know, messaging and language out there, being consistent, being confident and not apologising, is vital.
Narrator Aisling [00:17:50] : While the Yes side was gaining ground on social media, with traditional media, the No side had mobilised first, beginning their poster and leafleting campaign right out of the gate. Together for Yes didn't have the same resources as the No campaign, who were backed by institutions devoted to promoting a far right religious ideology. These institutions had been in place for years, and so the infrastructure was there straight away, once the referendum was called. As a new organisation Together for Yes, needed to find a way to raise funds, and quickly.
Sarah: So pretty much overnight, there were No posters everywhere, which was like horrendous for a start. That we just had to look at all this kind of, for the.. for the first time out. And then doubly horrendous because we got a massive kickback about it. Again, "we weren't organised. We didn't know what we were doing. Where were the posters? Where were the Yes side? Is there any Yes side?” etc., etc., etc. That was all from the media. Then like our own members and Together for Yes you know, volunteers across the country, different member organisations on the Together for Yes platform and so on, were also naturally upset, you know, or were wondering what was happening here, what was the plan? Because this is.. this wasn't just about the three organisations. This is about so many people. But we didn't have the money to pay for them. So we started a crowd fund and it was kind of funny. It was a Cara Sanquest s idea. She.. she runs London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign and had pretty much moved to Ireland for the duration. And I remember her saying it to some of the other fundraising team and they were kind of like, you know, “An online fundraiser? I don't know if it'll really work!” [laughs] And she was like “Yeah, cool, whatever I'm going to do anyway”.[laughs] And so she organised it all, the whole like, the video and, you know, all that stuff. She, she just organised it all. She got like The Reelists in and they shot this this video, where we all went on, on screen and asked for some money, please. And Jesus Christ, did it take off?! I mean, that was absolutely extraordinary. We were blown away like.. it far surpassed anything we thought could possibly happen. And obviously, it was really, really like, you know, legitimately important that we got that money into the bank or else we weren't paying for a campaign and we weren't paying for posters to go up. Put the the show of support that was behind that money was just so incredible and so beautiful.
And we had a comment section on the website.. and just comment after comment after comment of people, you know, saying what it meant to them - talking about travelling, talking about their their, their stories, their lives, their families. You know, you'd have people saying, “I've donated €2. I'm so sorry. It's not more. But, you know, I just wanted to give everything that I have”. You had people donating, you know, 100 quid saying, you know, just with a name so “for Emma” or, you know, and so like.. there wasn’t a lot of work done those couple of days. It was a lot of sitting, refreshing and unfortunately. it was my face that was the thumbnail of it. So it was sitting refreshing my own face, which is weird! And just watching the figures go up and open like, you know, there's just screenshots everywhere of like now we're at this, now we’re at this, and then just a lot of sitting and reading the comments and crying. Like, we were just all sitting around the office just in.. floods of tears.
So the initial target was 50k, so for, for posters - we need 50k. And within the first couple of hours we'd hit that. By the end of the first 24 hours, we had reached 250,000 euro. And then by the end of the week, on the Friday evening we were in... we were actually launching our first pop up shop, which was in Meltdown Café, on Stephen Street. So I was over there, you know, selling t-shirts and badges and stuff. And so there was loads of us there together, thankfully, at the time, as we had just launched it. And we were all there together at the moment that it went to half a million euro! And it was absolutely, incredible. Like we were all in bits! We were all bawling crying and screaming. And Niall went and bought us, I don't know, ten bottles of Prosecco or something, whatever. And then apparently I don't really remember this, I was going round and going “No photos, no photos of the prosecco!” [laughs] I guess trying to control the image. I'm not having this out tomorrow that like “Oh Yes side prematurely celebrate!”. So yeah, I wasn't like the most craic...But [laughs] but other... Other than that! it was just it was just beautiful like! We were, we were floored and we let it run for another another day or two. And I think it came in at around six hundred and fifty thousand finally! Which was just huge. And like as I said. Yeah, like money. The money was great, and like desperately needed, but it was to show a support behind it, you know, I'm sorry, I wish I could remember.. but there were so many individual donors like, you know, it was a lot of five euros and stuff. So this wasn't that it's.. we got half a million of three donations or something. This is a lot of people that were clearly behind our campaign, which yeah was, was just.. it was incredible!
Linda: So that morning, the morning of the launch, Pat Leahy wrote an article saying that “The campaign was rudderless, it was leaderless, it didn't know what it was doing”. And we had hit our target by eleven o'clock in the morning! The anti-choice people had gotten their posters up as soon as they could, and that scared an awful lot of pro-choice people. You know, I can say this now, 18 months later, but I actually think it worked in our favour. I think it.. showed it for what it was, that they had money and they could.. do this straight away! And we didn't have money, we didn't have money until we did the crowdfunder like. So.. I know that it did scare people, and it worried people and I never want to hear the word poster again! We were literally being harassed about posters! So.. it kind of came at a moment then, we were crowd funding for posters, that's what we wanted. We needed to put posters up around the country. But because we had done a lot of work.. The initial thing you have to do is get people to.. I mean, in marketing terms “buy into your brand”. There is so many people in Ireland, that this meant so much to, and people have been working on it for years, decades or, you know, less time such as myself. But, you know, there was huge passion in the country for Repeal. And you have to get people to buy into the idea of Together For Yes, like that is something.. you know, that's an effort in itself. You have to do that and then move on to do all the other things that a campaign has to do, and do it in 100 days. So, you know, we had.. people were solidifying behind this, they had kind of bought into us, but they wanted to do something tangible as well. And this gave people a really good opportunity to do something tangible. And they were able to put their money behind it. So for us, it was not only a wonderful moment of, you know, we're going to be able to exceed our expectations in poster-buying. But it showed us how much people wanted.. how much they had kind of.. got behind this. And then it was another way as well, where people could, anonymously if they wanted to, support which was fantastic. And then also the comments were unbelievable! We were crying in the office. It would be you take a moment and you'd look again and somebody would read them out and like, absolutely.. just stunning things that people said in those comments. And so it became this unstoppable thing. It became this.. it became its own traditional media story because we.. I mean, I've yet to hear contrary to that we, we raised the most money in a political campaign in Ireland. Like we were raising more than the Obama campaign per capita in the you know, in that week. We like.. We broke records in Ireland anyways. Definitely. And so for us, it was just.. it was amazing! I mean, it was amazing for everyone. I know that everybody in the country was looking at that page and watching it go up. So it was a really, really phenomenal moment. And like, even it feels like so long. But it was only five days until we hit the half million. That was on the Friday evening, I think around six o'clock. But it honestly seemed like it feels like so long in between. So it was like an amazing, amazing thing. But it was.. it was that, you know, that you could sense the “buy in” from everybody. Everyone got behind it because they knew what we needed. We knew what it had to do. And it gave people a very specific focal point to do it.
Narrator Aisling [00:26:47] :The Crowd Fund might have been the first tangible thing that people could do for the campaign, but it wouldn't be the last. It was time to get canvassing. All over the country, local Together For Yes groups were coming together or rebranding from existing ARC or other pro-choice groups. Here's Anita Byrne from Tipp For Choice.
Anita: Practically overnight, our branding changed from Tipp For Choice with our own handmade banners and ARC branding, to Tipperary Together For Yes branding. So from then on, and for the rest of the campaign, we were conscious that we were representing Together For Yes and the Together For Yes campaign, as opposed to representing Tipp For Choice. So we were very aware of tone. We were aware of messaging, and what way we were portraying the group as well. When we became Tipperary Together For Yes, we definitely saw a change in the diversity of people who were contacting us wanting to join. We had people from every background and all ages. Some had been involved in student politics or were already long term activists, some were completely new to activism and canvassing and have never done anything like this before. A lot of our original members in Tipp For Choice were involved in the marriage referendum, so they brought that expertise with them.
At the height of the campaign, we had about 30 to 40 active volunteers working in the county and maybe 120 people on our mailing list. Some of them might occasionally show up to a one off event, or offer to help with a specific action, but that was for the entire county. So 30 to 40 active for the entire county. So when we saw how many people some canvasses would have in Dublin, we just basically drooled over it because we have an average canvass where there'd be 3-4 people. An average stall would be 2-3 people. And sometimes we'd have canvassers, just two people going out on the canvass.. And we had in some places, we had just individuals doing leafleting.
Weakness at a national level? The fact of the campaign, I've said it before, the fact the campaign was Dublin and urban-centred, that was a major weakness. And it meant people in rural groups had to work much, much harder in already very difficult environments. The messaging from HQ seemed to change each week, and new leaflets were printed. But it would sometimes nearly take a week for us to get those leaflets from Dublin to our canvassers on the ground, and then new ones will come out again, meaning even more leafleting and more logistical problems of how are we going to get that new messaging again to our canvassers? It just felt like it was a merry go round, on that side things. I don't think HQ appreciated the distances that we had to drive, for to get leaflets to people. And sometimes you have situations where we had canvassers ready to go and we had no leaflets to give them. So coordination on the basic things like leaflets and posters wasn't so good.
The fact that the campaign was not diverse and excluded many people it claimed to represent was and still is a major problem. Not listening to rural groups, not listening to minority groups, not listening to grassroots, that were part of the Together For Yes campaign, some of those two hundred groups that were there. Not amplifying minorities and not providing diversity in the representation.
So from the very beginning, Tipp For Choice messaging has always been Free, Safe, Legal and Local access, to anyone who who wants, or needs an abortion. We continued that on when the group changed to Tipperary Together For Yes. The Local aspect of it was something that we focus on a lot as a rural group, because geography has more of a negative impact on minorities like migrants, or those living in Direct Provision or, you know, maybe someone who's in an abusive relationship, or people with disabilities, more so than someone living in a city or an urban area that has adequate public transport. We always mentioned that we were a pro-choice group, meaning that some of our members may fundamentally disagree with abortion, but they agree with the right to choose. And we support women and pregnant people who decide to go ahead with pregnancies. We also to try to keep our messages inclusive for the LGBT community. So we try to keep social media posts as 'women and pregnant people'. Obviously, we had “Vote Yes” and “Together For Yes” - that was sort of the easy part. And it's sort of pretty straightforward, really.
A lot of people said they believed in abortion in certain situations, but not all situations. And they were very much torn as to how to vote. That was when you would invest time and teasing out those issues they had and maybe give them more information, information that they didn't have before. Another one was “This is a private issue, so I won't be telling you how I'm voting.” So we fully understood and respected that response. Not everyone is comfortable about talking about abortion. And even now there's a lot of shame and stigma to it. A response though that I wasn't expecting, this is where I get emotional.. A response I wasn't expecting was from a lot of older women, who said they were voting Yes because of how they, or someone that they knew had been treated over the years, whether it was by local priest or nuns or doctors. So that was very... something I found very difficult, because I had prepared myself for the negativity, prepared yourself for, people are going to be calling you baby murderer. I wasn't prepared for standing in the middle of Clonmel, and having women coming up, and just grab your arm, I’m getting emotional now! [laughs] grab your arm and just say to you “Thank you.” or God... Yeah, if that was very emotional. Yeah, yeah. I also had one man in Clonmel who came up and told me.. This is my own bias, he came over to me and I thought “he's going to be a No voter”. He was an older man, and he had a walking frame. And I thought, “oh, goodness, he's going to come over and he's going to give me a hard time, and tell me that he's voting yes”. And he came over, this early on the campaign, and he wanted to have.. know how he could change his address because he wants to get a voting card. The reason being was, that he had been born in a Mother and Baby home, and he wanted to vote Yes for.. for his mother. That was really... that just killed me. And I was like the middle of Clonmel. I was in tears. This man who was like in his 80’s, telling me the story. And I don't know if he'd ever told anyone this story before, so. Yeah...
Any time we're on the radio, we would get people calling in to say how disgraceful we were or how awful we were, that was to be expected, as we knew that was going to happen. It is a very conservative county, as progressive as Ireland is, we still are, you know, living in slightly different time zone in, in Tipperary. We also have some local hotels refused to host our meetings during the referendum because of our pro-choice views. During the referendum campaign itself, we were sometimes met with conflict during our canvassing. I personally, was physically assaulted when I was on a stall, and I had to contact the Gardai over it. Another member was threatened with a knife when she was leafleting. Another had her shop attacked, because she was promoting pro-choice messaging. Every one of us probably has some story of someone being rather nasty. And yeah, it was very.. very nasty and very tough campaign. And I think some of us are still hurting from it.
Narrator Aisling [00:33:25] : Here's Cathie Shiels from ARC talking to us about canvassing in her home constituency of Inishowen in Donegal.
Cathie: I took some unpaid leave for a couple of weeks, and I went home and I went home at weekends and stuff like that, and it was very different to canvassing in Dublin. I was sort of with Dublin Central when they first started going out. And it was just a very different experience canvassing in Dublin Central, to canvassing and Donegal. Like obviously not exclusively, sometimes you'd have great chats in Donegal, sometimes you've.. people calling you a murderer in Dublin or whatever. But yeah, it was.. it was always like a more... It was always like sort of even Yes's and No's, or it could have been slightly more No's or slightly more Yes's. But it was never like “That was a great night!” Or, you know, like by and large, the people who didn't agree with you were very polite about it. D’you know, they're like, oh, no, we don't believe in that. And, you know, that's the end of that chat, really. But by and large, I think the way the campaign was run, was probably more or less the same as the way it was run in any of, you know, the different groups that were out canvassing like Dublin Central or Galway East or wherever. You know, I know we had like our big canvasses on Saturdays, and it was nice to get like myself, other folks up from Dublin, you know, and like it was, you know, the time of year. The weather was really great, most of the time. And there is some strange experiences as well, that you're just not really going to get in Dublin, like we were in Moville, which is a terrible town! And it's the worst town in all of Inishowen! No, I'm joking. There's like a kind of Carndonagh-Moville rivalry. It's a fine town. But we were like
Interviewer Aisling: We’ll edit that out [everyone laughs]
Cathie: It’s a fine town.. full of fine people, completely tolerable. So we were out to Moville one day, which is just a few towns over from me, and we had enough volunteers that we were sort of at a few different spots. So, you know, there was a stall table. And then across the road, you know, a few of us had wee signs and we're sort of waving the signs and smiling and looking welcoming. And the car slowed down and was like, “I'm going to kneecap youse!” We were all like “Jesus, Mary and Saint Joseph!”. And that was like, it was just really bizarre. Like mostly we were kind of like cackling, but also, you know, nervous. And a lot of the Derry ones were down with us as well, you know, and we're just all like, “Come back and say that to our face, oh so brave driving past us in a car, yelling out a window!”. But also if they had of come back, we probably would have run away. So just wee differences.. But yeah, I, I sort of limit the different bad stories that I tell, you know, the
Interviewer Emma:Was there a difference in the numbers, like you said you'd canvassed in Dublin and Donegal?
Cathie: Oh yeah. Definitely. Like we'd be lucky to get on a Saturday what you might get on a Monday night in the rain in Dublin Central you know. So there's some nights where there's two of us, three of us, four or five. And at the weekends you might get like fifteen maybe. But by and large, it was this small group of people. And also, just to clarify, I'm really talking about Inishowen here, and Inishowen is one of one of a number of local Electoral areas in Donegal. And so there were different teams in different places. And and so I, I only went to Inishowen because that's where I'm from. So like other places, might have had more people, but I don't think so, to be honest, like based on just based on like checking in on each other, and the various different like social media posts and stuff like that. I think like you did have sort of committed local group that were out as much as they could be. And then that would be supplemented by people like myself, coming home for the weekend or, you know, taking annual leave or taking time off or whatever to, to sort of come up.
And then, of course, like Donegal, like so many parts of rural Ireland, you know, people have emigrated. People aren't...people aren't in Donegal. People aren't in Ireland, you know. So.. So yeah, like there was there were a lot of challenges for sure. And sometimes people have, like, ridiculous driveways, d’you know, like half a mile and you're like “oh, can we drive up the driveway, and then drive down the driveway, and then drive half a mile up the road to the next house.” And so we.. like the best we could do, really, was to focus on estates.
Donegal was just a special place for.. for No campaigners, you know. And obviously they were working together with other activists from the north-east. Like, you just know that it was Donegal down.. down helping them put up the big “No” on Ben Bulben like, I'm sure that they were Donegal people down doing that.
Narrator Aisling[00:38:05]: To explain, in early May 2018, a bunch of No campaigners spelt out the word “NO” on the side of Ben Bulben. When asked, those responsible described their actions, as “a cry from the mountain to save Irish babies”, and went on to say that both men and women were involved in erecting it, with the women making the tea and sandwiches. This isn't a joke. This is genuinely what they said to the press.
Cathie: I'm sure that there was Sligo people up, like there was like, allegedly like 1,700 crucifixes placed along the motorway in Donegal. Like not allegedly, allegedly, it was 1,700. Like there were.. like people filled.. people I know filled their car boots, and could fit no more in. And.. and that was.. that was that! And so there's this thing, it's probably all around the country. But like in Donegal, when somebody dies in a traffic accident, often their family will put a cross at the side of the road. So it was just the most morbid looking thing that you've ever seen. And I know that I gave this too much thought, but like somebody sharpened the edge of a piece of wood, into a stake so that it could be stuck into the ground. And then they affixed another strip of wood to make a cross. And then they painted it white, and they let it dry. And then they went out with it. Seventeen hundred of them. And just trying to think of the kind of mindset, that that is, d’you know, and also they brought, like, you know, big mobile billboards, with like pictures of fetuses' like you had in Dublin. But they parked outside one of my friend Badhca's shop, because she was prominently involved with ARC like. And they parked outside her shop and they wrote the most bizarre letters to the editor, that you will have ever read. And it was just.. I had to call the local hospital because they drilled posters into trees inside a famine graveyards besides the local hospital, opposite a girls' primary school. So I’m like trying to disguise my own voice phoning the hospital like, “Hello, I was down dropping one of the girls to school today and I couldn't help but notice, somebody has put up a poster and the famine graveyard by drilling it to one of those trees, that are a couple of hundred years old. Do you think maybe somebody could take it down, please?” And they did! And you could hear the frustration in the voice, you know. And they, they put up posters illegally. They like.. whenever we, whenever we met them at you know, if they.. so there's a few public debates that I spoke at, one of them was for, like Ocean FM and it was.. oh, wow. They were like roaring from the audience, d’you know what I mean? Like, it was really.. I mean, on both sides. But I mean, they started it! [laughs] And they just they overspent, like, so much. I remember like the last the day of the count centre, we knew that Donegal was No, sitting there with, like, the.. the guy who presents the local breakfast show.. His name is Greg Hughes, and it's called the Nine to noon show. And he's such like a middle of the road, kind of, “you know, well, could be this, or it could be this other very, you know, equally..” just one... I suppose that's his business or whatever. But like this woman acknowledged on radio, that she had spent loads of her own money. And I was like, “But you're not allowed to do that, Mary. There's rules and regulations! And you're not allowed to spend your own money on all of this, actually. So you're not!” But it didn't matter, they did it anyway.
It was really nice to organise at home, actually, because I sort of left Donegal as like, you know, an awkward 18 year old, who was very happy to leave. And then I was like “oh, wow, that's.. there's a community of, like, really nice people here and they're great. And I'm happy to come home. I'm looking forward to.. to it!” You know, so that was good. Yeah.
Interviewer Aisling: I had the EXACT same experience about Offaly! . I was like “See you later, I’m leaving and I’m never coming back!” and literally, more than Marriage Equality. When I saw the first posters.. some person that I went to secondary school with saying “Yay! We got a poster up!” and there was like two posters.. [everyone laughs] and I was like, oh my fucking God! And I went down. and I canvassed every weekend and I was like.. And now I know, like, I go home and like, there’s people I actually want to see.
Interviewer Aisling: Like I feel like I'm not a weirdo for these opinions. Yeah. And it was like something like 60% yes In my town, which like.. that was better than the 66!
Cathie: [laughs] Yeah!
Narrator Aisling [00:42:30]: We mentioned previously how the Marriage Equality referendum was almost an accidental training for many repeal canvassers. A lot of people had their first experience of activism during that campaign. But equally, a lot of seasoned LGBTQIA+ activists, felt a certain responsibility to give back to the people who had helped them. We spoke with trans activist Sam Blankensee about their experience in both referenda.
Sam: Yeah, so I canvassed.. I actually come up in three different areas. So I did one canvas in my local area which is kind of Dublin 6W. So it's like.. I was canvassing in a space, that almost every door was Yes. And I decided I wouldn't canvass there again, because like, I was leading canvasses in 2015. So I was leading YesEquality canvasses, and I got really good at canvassing. And I realised that if I was canvassing in places where first time canvassers could go out, get their teeth into something and you had thirty people show up - which is what we had on the night that I went canvassing in Dublin 6W there was no point to me being there. So I did one night there, and then after that, I tried to go to places that I thought that was going to be less people. So my partner’s from South Kildare. So a lot of what I was trying to do, was drive out there in the evenings. So I did a few canvasses in South Kildare, and also did like the Together For Yes shop down there, so I did the Together For Shop in Newbridge. And was just.. was trying to get to a more rural area where I thought that me canvassing, and hopefully doing well at canvassing, would actually make a difference.
So I had some fairly interesting canvasses in.. in quite a not, necessarily a rural area, but definitely not next door to Dublin, which was nice to do. I also went out to Greystones, so my hometown and did a couple of canvases out there as well, because I was canvassing then with my friends and I was canvassing areas I knew well and I was canvassing people I knew. That's the kind of canvassing I enjoy the most, because you get people that you kind of know who you are and know what you stand for. I feel like I'm hiding less when I canvass in Greystones as well, because I don't have like.. there will be people who I can talk about my identity to, which I couldn't really do on any other canvases
But I guess my experience, like some of the canvases, were very hard, like being chased down roads, like my partner, my partner found it difficult to canvass, like found canvassing, really, really difficult. And part of that was being shouted at, part of that was having people kind of chase you down the road, kind of shaking their fist at you and having some really difficult houses. And like I.. there was difficult houses in both referenda that I've canvassed on anyway. But they just seemed so much angrier. Like I think in 2015, people would vote No, would say some horrific things to you and really offend you, but they were aware that it was people they were talking about. I think in 2018, they.. on the No side, dehumanised people who were for Together For Yes, and I think that made it a really difficult campaign to, to go around on the doors for.
Interviewer Aisling: It’s true.. Do you remember them calling us murderers and that ?
Interviewer Deirdre: Yeah. I like literally compartmentalised it. I'm like 'remind me?!'
Sam: Yeah. Like being called a murderer is not so fun on a door! Yeah. Yeah. I was much more about an act that they disagreed with. So they didn't see that there were humans behind it. They didn't see the reasons behind it. There was always a reason why therr shouldn't be.. why abortion shouldn’t be legal in Ireland. And even when they were saying, “oh abortion should be legal in certain circumstances”, they weren't seeing the complexity of the circumstances. They thought it shouldn't be available. And I think for some people, it's a really.. it's coming from a place of trauma as well. So it depends on the person as to how they're lashing out, and what way they're lashing out. It's a really.. but I think it was just one of the the more the most difficult canvasses I've done were for Together For Yes, rather than necessarily for YesEquality, even though it was a much more personal issue.
Interviewer Aisling: 100 %agree. Did you also feel like, for me, I felt that like for YesEquality like, was fighting for myself. But I actually think as.. being in a long term relationship with a woman like I.. abortion is not an issue that's likely to affect my life personally. Like I mean, obviously touch wood, no one knows what the situation is, but I felt a responsibility to do it for the people who had done it for me, two years previously.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, definitely
Interviewer Aisling: Cos like the burden of having.. The burden of going out saying, “This is who I am, you know, accept me” was so scary. I was like, I have to do this because there’s going to be people who have had abortions or considered abortions or whatever, who I want to be the person who's at the door instead of them. So they don't have to..
Sam: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I definitely felt that there was kind of a.. an onus on anyone who had canvassed for YesEquality to also canvass for Together For Yes, because human rights is not something you can pick or choose. And when you have had to go and knock on the doors and ask for your rights, you know how to do that now. You have a skill that not many people in the country have and. It is kind of on anyone who has that skill to use it, because canvassing is awful.
I mean, that said, YesEquality canvassing, sometimes if you had a really good night, you would come back on a high, like.. whereas I didn't find that with Together For Yes canvassing because... I think the difference with the YesEquality was, we were.. we were able to have a very like, everything about the campaign was positive. You were able to talk about the people you loved, like that's what you were talking about. Whereas with Together For Yes, you're talking about a right the State has taken away from you, and something that people shame you for, whereas I don't think that was necessarily the case when you're talking about love, you're talking about marriage, instead of talking about this is something that should be a basic human right, basic health care, that..that has been taken away. It's a, it's a.. it was a very different feeling when you finished on it on the doors for the night.
For me, the highlight is the sheer number of people who were out on doors, who were getting involved, like the fact that you couldn't walk through town without seeing at least ten Repeal numbers, that it was just such a movement and a movement led mainly by young women, and women of all ages. But it's amazing to see how many young people are mobilised, that we have a very different politics now in Ireland because of how we do referenda. And it's amazing to see how many young people are now politically engaged, at least in human rights issues. And that's fantastic.
For me the lowlight, of course, is being completely left out of the entire campaign. So the fact of the matter was, that I was going from door to door, aware that the people who I would know who would probably need abortions wouldn't be included within the legislation that was proposed. The fact that we hadn't even had a caveat on any of the literature coming out from Together For Yes, the fact that nobody, maybe the Abortion Rights Campaign on some of their Twitter pages, were talking about trans men. Nobody was talking about trans men. Nobody was talking about non-binary people. Nobody was recognising their identities meant that we should be recognised in legislation, not just a side note. They shouldn't rely on the Equal Status Act and the Gender Recognition legislation, to do their jobs and include us, Like we are people who can get pregnant and the fact that they decided to not include us explicitly, means that they don't recognise our gender identities as valid. And we've been dealing with that for years. And it's the first piece of legislation that came in that would really affect trans people after Gender Recognition, that included gender as a.. as something that was a difference. And it was the first chance they'd had to make sure that we were included, and the people who are writing those pieces of legislation supposedly are our allies? They were people who stand up for human rights, who know a lot about trans people. But because yet again, we have a strategic decision made by the campaign to leave us out because we're “too complicated”.
I mean, for me, that is the word that sticks in my mind from both the YesEquality and from Together For Yes is, trans people are too complicated for middle Ireland. And we were told.. like, I have so many stories of people who got involved with their local Together For Yes groups, because I think the trans community in particular is very, very politically active. We have.. we've had to fight for our own identities. So we are aware of human rights. We're aware of the struggles of different minority groups. So.. I know of people who went into their local Together For Yes group and were told, “oh no, we can't be transphobic because TENI’s a member of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th, there's no way we can be transphobic. Yes we don't have any trans literature but, you know, we're not transphobic, we're not excluding trans people. We're just it's just a tactical decision made.” I also know of groups that went against the norm, and were rebels and actually included trans people in the literature. I think there was a group up in the the northeast, that printed their own literature and had trans folk actually included within it and had the caveat that would have been so easy. Because I think most trans people agree with me and say we didn't want every single line to be women and pregnant people, because I think that is confusing it. I think that's not necessary, because it is a misogynistic issue. It is a women's issue. If every person who wanted to get an abortion looked like me, it wouldn't be a thing. If every person who wanted to get an abortion had a beard, we would never have.. had a beard. It would never had to have had to have gone through a referendum. But all we wanted was like a caveat going. We we know we're saying women, but when we say women, we also know that trans people and non-binary people do need abortions too.
Narrator Aisling [00:52:35] :Trans and non-binary people were not the only minority groups who were left out of the campaign. Here's Emily for MERJ again.
Emily: I remember one meeting where people came in to tell us about the next day they were going to have a Get Out The Vote push or whatever, and they really wanted to focus on students, because loads of students weren't registered to vote. And I said, you know, there's 120,000 naturalised citizens, migrants, who are eligible to vote. So maybe they could be a focus, too? “Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah. We're definitely going to focus on the migrants. Cool, cool, cool.” So we had one of our members go to the photo call and the voter registration launch. There was not a single mention of migrants. I asked why, and I was told that they couldn't find a source for my claim of 120,000 naturalised citizens. I mean, they could have asked me beforehand and I could have found them a source. I literally Googled it right then when I got that message and the first thing that came up was an article with that information. It was deliberate, like it was always intentional. And, you know, we were told that “oh, well, maybe it's not a good look on Ireland, but, you know, the migrant thing just didn't play well with the focus groups.” I've still yet to see this magic focus group data. None of us saw it. How many focus groups? We don't even know how many focus groups or how many people there were and the focus groups where people were from, were there migrants in the focus groups? We don't know any of this, but we were just told, “oh, just trust the Together For Yes headquarters, we know best” you know?
And I think actually they did themselves a disservice. I will stand by this. I think it's not strategic. I think they.. you know, coming up with this focus group to support this idea of middle Ireland as some backwoods, kind of unsophisticated place, I think is actually really damaging in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. But also, it's not accurate. I don't think, like, yeah, rural Ireland is definitely different than urban Ireland. That's not in question. But I don't, I think it's much more nuanced in terms of people's political position, especially with regards to abortion. So, yeah, I think that a lot of times, we were treated in MERJ as a problem to be dealt with, rather than people with insight into a community that other people didn't have insight into, and that we could be used strategically. Like we would have been happy to work with them on any number of things. And we did. You know, we asked them to change the wording of some of the canvassing guides. Some of the website, were really just not geared towards migrant inclusion at all. You know, we even had.. oh, God, we had this event, before the referendum. And it was.. it was great, actually. It was migrants and ethnic minorities basically talking about what does abortion access look like in our countries of origin, or other places we've lived or for different communities. So we had Travellers and we had migrants from loads of different places, talking about what abortion could look like. And the, the day was called “Learning From Migrants”. Zero people from Together For Yes showed up. And we talked about conscientious objection. I mean, we talked about it throughout the whole entire campaign, but we really broke it down during this session. And here we are, you know, over a year on. And what is the thing that is still preventing access? is conscientious objection. Whereas we were told over and oh, don't worry about that. Oh, God. Even in that event, someone said “Well, sure, that's what Italy looks like. But like Ireland is not Italy!”. Just this exceptionalism that, you know, not only is it just fucking rude and like, you know, xenophobic and racist and whatever, but it does people a disservice, because it makes you unwilling to listen to a thing that actually could have really, really benefited Ireland. But that's a long way of saying Together For Yes was not the best.
Emily: Oh god I even remember on the day of the actual referendum, someone trying to hand me a sticker. Oh, no, this is it was the night before we were at Heuston Station leafletting. And I mean, we'd been out..we did a couple of canvasses, but mostly we did stalls because we thought that was an easier way to.. to reach migrants. So we did stalls and in Balbriggan, Blanchardstown and city centre like places with high migrant footfall. So, you know, we've been out there the whole time. Most of us have been working on the campaign for years, whatever. And I just remember, we were out leafleting in Heuston Station and this woman who I had never seen, which is great, like you don't need to know everybody who's working on it. But she came up and she's like “I'm from the headquarters and I just really want to thank you. Thank you so much for your time.” Like, I know that I know what you're trying to say. Like, I know you mean well, like. Just the inability to see why that is really problematic.. and then having people, you know, telling people that, oh, I can't vote and they're like “oh, you're still out doing that. Thanks so much. Thanks so much for doing this for us” Like, I'm not doing it for you, please. I'm doing it for us. So it's fine. I'm doing it for all of us, like, you know what I mean? But it was like you're helping Irish woman. It's like, yeah, but I'm also helping, like every person in Ireland?
Narrator Aisling [00:58:00] So by May 24th 2018, that Together for Yes campaign had been running for two months. Of course we know the campaign had really been running for 35 years at that point - from the ten or so members of the Right to Choose group meeting in a basement in 1981, to the packed-out Round Room of the Rotunda Hospital, to thousands of people knocking on millions of doors all over the country.
The campaign was over. All we could do now was wait for the results. That's next episode.
Narrator Davy: Many thanks to Sarah Monaghan, Emily Waszak, Linda Kavanagh, Anita Byrne, Cathie Shiels, Sam Blanckensee for speaking to us for this episode.
If you liked this podcast, we’d love if you shared it with your friends. Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts, and follow us on the socials @ HowTheYesWasWon, for updates on next episodes, and we’ll be featuring some content associated with each episode. Also we encourage you to reach out to your TD’s in relation to the upcoming review on legislation if you are based in Ireland. For those outside of Ireland, please consider donating to the Abortion Support Network.
How The Yes Was Won was researched, produced and edited by Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Davy Quinlivan, Tara Lonji, and Deirdre Kelly. Additional recording support from Fin Dwyer. See you next time.