A five-year plan to put personal stories and medical facts, not legal and religious arguments, at the heart of the campaign, resulted in a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Political Correspondents Elaine Loughlin and Fiachra Ó Cionnaith reveal the behind-the-scenes blueprint of how the race was won.
IN EARLY February, Yvonne Judge started making phone calls. She had to preface each new conversation with an apology.
Ms Judge was sorry she had to make the call but hoped the woman might have the courage to speak out about their lonely trip to England or the fear they experienced while taking a pill in their bedroom so many other women would be spared the same experience.
It was those difficult conversations which led to the likes of Tracey Smith and her husband Ciarán appearing on the Late Late Show to tell the heartbreaking story of the loss of a very much wanted daughter Grace.
“A yes would mean Grace could rest in peace,” she told Ryan Tubridy.
Ms Judge, a former RTÉ producer, had first got in touch with the Co Mayo mother months before the referendum. Ms Smith would go on to tell the nation the story of Grace, who was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality and whose ashes eventually arrived back home seven weeks after her parents had travelled for a termination in the UK.
It was these personal stories highlighted in the media which influenced the 43% of the vote according to an RTÉ exit poll. For a further 34%, it was the experiences of people they knew.
“At the beginning, it was very difficult to get people to speak out, there were a few very strong voices who had been the trailblazers,” Together for Yes campaign director Deirdre Duffy said.
“But as the campaign went on, people who maybe Yvonne had been in touch with earlier came back to her and said ‘I want to speak out, I am ready to tell my story’.
“They didn’t want the no side to be saying certain things without being corrected, there was a real feeling of moral responsibility.”
For the yes side, giving voice to the negative reality the Eighth Amendment had created in this country over 35 years was a key strategy in their campaign.
And so Ms Judge was tasked with responsibility for “storylab” which would gather personal accounts and would support those who came forward through the emotional turmoil and anxiety that came with that personal exposure.
While many couples and women came out to advocate for both sides, it was the lived experiences of women who were forced to travel abroad for terminations or take unregulated pills in the isolation of their own homes that Together for Yes knew would cement their campaign.
These personal and often emotional accounts, coupled with the fact-based analysis of doctors and medics who had been hamstrung by the Eighth was the key message they wanted to get across.
After the Late Late Show, Ms Judge said Ms Smith and her husband became empowered and also did an interview with the BBC, but the team were very aware that for many telling their story to a journalist “took so much out of them” and they could not ask the same women to retell their experiences again and again.
“Tracey was so powerful and I know that the day would come that they would need someone on television, and I knew she would have to strength to do it. She said to me: ‘If we woke up on the 26th and we thought that we hadn’t done enough then we would have been so disappointed’.”
Those in Together for Yes had to respect the fact that these were ordinary women not used to the spotlight.
Another woman from the south of Ireland who took an abortion pill, agreed to go on radio without revealing her name.
Ms Judge said she told her: “I am perfectly normal. I don’t have purple hair. I have never been on a march. I make sandwiches for the GAA.”
Likewise, Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly said: “I think it was the personal stories actually, and the women of the Eighth and in her shoes, people were reading about that.”
However, all of this did not fall into place. It required meticulous planning, five years of focus groups, the creation of an accessible IT system, the roll-out of branding, messaging and a clear-cut communications strategy.
More than anything, Together for Yes succeeded by seeking and obtaining buy-in from political parties, civil organisations and large numbers of the general public who volunteered their time which made for a tightly co-ordinated campaign.
The personal story-focussed campaign was far from accident.
Instead, explains Together For Yes joint co-ordinator and long-time abortion rights activist Ailbhe Smyth, it was the culmination of a five-year plan first drawn up in the aftermath of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.
Aware of how past campaigns had failed due to the focus on legal issues and the black and white row over the role of the Catholic Church in Irish society, Ms Smyth said from as early as 2013 activists were told women’s personal stories about the Eighth Amendment coupled with clear medical information were the only way to fight the battle to come.
“I would say as early as autumn 2013, after Savita and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, myself, Sinead Kennedy and a number of others — I think 12 groups — got together to plan ahead, so the narrative you see now is not by accident,” she told the Irish Examiner four days after last weekend’s referendum result.
“We knew what we needed to do was to reach out beyond the feminists, pro-choice people and human rights groups to the general public, and the best way to do that was to tell personal stories alongside the voices of medical experts.
“Focus groups we commissioned in 2013 were saying that, so while in a sense what happened can seem quite random, it was absolutely not.”
Ms Smyth said after considering the responses from focus groups in 2013 and 2014, campaigners spoke more regularly about building up “ground forces” of support and creating “a great big behemoth of a campaign based on personal stories and medical facts”.
She said part of this strategy was to support politicians such as Independents4Change TD Clare Daly, Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy and Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger — who at that stage were relatively lone voices in seeking abortion reform — with a “huge web of connections” to help back up their Dáil calls for change.
Ms Smyth said the plan gained further focus due to high-profile female personalities like journalist Roisin Ingle and author Tara Flynn, while they culminated last year during the citizens assembly recommendations and Oireachtas committee on the future of the Eighth Amendment.
After these two watershed moments, campaigners met last December to discuss forming an official umbrella group for the referendum which would “recognise the value of women’s experiences, and therefore the damage, harm and danger of the eighth”.
It was agreed a “nice, simple message” of Together for Yes was needed, and that organisations like the Irish Family Planning Association, Abortion Rights Campaign, the Exile Project and In Her Shoes all agreed it should be led by a “spine” of stories from women coupled with medical evidence.
“It was about breaking the stigma of abortion, because to win the referendum we needed to show we were not trying to change Irish society, just trying to recognise Irish society had changed,” she explained.
At the beginning of March, the referendum stepped up a gear and Ms Duffy, who had been giving legal advice to the coalition to repeal the Eighth, came on board as full-time campaign manager for Together For Yes.
Amy Rose Harte was also employed as a full-time communications manager.
“We were all working off the same page. We wanted to be clear and we wanted to be unified, “ said Ms Duffy.
“By the time it came to the beginning of this year, we had a clear strategy, but it was also clear that the no campaign were very well organised and they were knocking on doors.”
The group quickly mobilised to get their branding and messaging finalised.
By March 20, when the campaign was officially launched at the Rotunda Hospital they felt they had the message of care and compassion set in stone, so much so that Ms Duffy reflects that the same communication strategy was being deployed in the final days of the campaign.
The Together for Yes team encouraged unity by getting as many people involved in the campaign.
Every Tuesday, members from the 97 civil groups that lent support could log on to the lunchtime webinar that focused on messaging, while on Thursdays a more general webinar was hosted to discuss other elements of the campaign.
“What was key to keeping all those tentacles unified were those communications channels, we worked very hard in the first weeks to make sure that communication networks were set up and that people felt that they could give feedback and they would be listened to.”
Whatsapp and Facebook groups were also set up to help grassroots volunteers keep up to date on canvases.
Broadcaster Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, who canvassed both in Dublin and Mayo, said: “I found out about this group on Twitter and then other people linked up on Facebook and another friend then set up a Whatsapp, people that I don’t necessarily know but now we are all in touch with each other to find out what day we were going out.”
As the campaign gained momentum in the last 10 days, the Together For Yes group rolled-out their well-planned “Get out to vote” drive as a way of finally drawing those on the fence to the yes side.
On May 25, we come together.
Tomorrow, let’s do better.
Be caring and compassionate.May 24, 2018
They held two weekend webinars on April 29 and May 13 to help drive those on the ground. Canvass leaders from Dublin came into HQ while those taking charge of canvasses around the country logged in remotely.
The regular campaigning, postering and canvassing became “utterly turbo charged” by the technology that was also deployed. A number of IT experts who volunteered their time created an online platform which translated local canvassing into a “really efficient machine” and provided an overall outlook.
Volunteers, whether they be mothers who gave up one evening a week or students who canvassed on campus, could log on to a specially created platform and input data after knocking on doors or manning stands.
They were asked to record the number of yes, no and maybe responses and any issues or concerns that came up on the doorsteps. By monitoring what the public was saying from Ballydehob to Killybegs, the campaign had a rolling sense of how public opinion was shifting.
“It allowed us to track exactly when the maybes were beginning to turn and we could focus on that, the maybes did turn but the nos largedly stayed steady.”
While the movement was initially civil society led, Together for Yes was open to trade unions and political parties. It was clear from very early on that politicians and parties were migrating towards them and were happy to come under their umbrella.
Representatives from all the major political parties made their way to the Together For Yes headquarters on the other side of Merrion Square from the Dáil at 10am every Tuesday.
Alison Spillane who was appointed Together for Yes political co-ordinator would take them through the messaging, provide updates and would share tallies from canvassing.
However, this was not purely one-way traffic and the political parties were also able to give their insights and provide guidance based on their own experiences of campaigning in previous referendums and elections.
Ms Duffy said the political expertise offered complimented and bolstered the energy of the civil movement.
Between February and March the Labour party, for example, produced mocked-up posters and messaging which they tested on other groups and parties who were also advocating for a Yes.
“We were really focused on the middle ground, the undecideds, and the need for compassion, care and choice for women was pitched,” said Labour’s head of communications Cathal McCann.
“These issues were identified as what would appeal to people.”
There were also interjections at key moments from the likes of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who gave a Dáil speech. While the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar travelled to Tullamore, Co Offaly, in the last week in a bid to bring rural and middle Ireland with him.
In hindsight, the long-term focus on what people — even those who seemed reluctant to discuss the referendum on canvasses and in surveys — wanted to hear was potentially the yes campaign’s saving grace.
Even in its potentially most difficult moment.
Two weeks out from the referendum day, eminent medical expert Dr Peter Boylan spoke at length on behalf of the yes campaign during a live TV debate with no campaigner Maria Steen and others on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live programme.
Despite RTÉ’s best intentions, the show quickly descended into an unseemingly cat-calling shouting match, with a larger than normal audience cheering and hollering support — and personal attacks — at those taking part.
Dr Boylan was among the most clearly targeted, telling the Irish Examiner in the calmer surroundings of a post-referendum victory it was worse than anything he had faced before.
However, despite the concern that the debate could turn the referendum in the no side’s favour, he now says he knew the attempt to undermine the campaign would “backfire”.
“It was purely based on misinformation, and I thought, even at the time, it was just counter-productive to the no side. I thought, certainly, it backfired. There was an appetite for change, and when I was leaving the studio I certainly felt people still wanted to hear our message,” he said.
The view was shared by Together for Yes communications manager Amy Rose Harte, who said the no side “knew Peter was very strong and tried to target him to catch us off guard, but stayed playing our own game”.
“People wanted the personal stories to set the tone of the debate, it was never going to be mudslinging, we were never going to engage in a war of words because the tone was always set through the personal stories,” she said.
In the lead-up to the Prime Time debate the following week, the live TV bouts again dominated headlines when it emerged prominent Love Both member Cora Sherlock had been pulled by pro-life campaigners from the show.
Despite strong rumours of a major fallout behind the scenes of the no side over whether to hold steadfast to their no abortion views or to allow restricted abortion in very rare circumstances, the reasons why remain unconfirmed.
However, both Ms Harte and Dr Boylan said the situation only underlined the fact the no side was becoming increasingly incoherent in its position while the yes side was staying true to its clearly set out plan of medical facts and personal stories dominating the debate.
“You could see after the no side was changing their messages how it and the targeted abuse backfired,” said Dr Boylan.
“But afterwards, that began to die off.”
The resounding referendum result was not swayed by slick advertising, poster campaigns, political messaging or even televised debates.
It was won through conversations and experiences.
It was the raw emotion of normal women, the mothers, daughters, girlfriends, colleagues, sisters and wives or Ireland who came forward to tell their stories.
Accounts of couples bringing much-wanted babies home in their suitcase, fearful as they put their bags through airport security. Stories of the lonely trips made to strange cities and foreign medical institutions.
Recollections of other women frightened and in pain as they waited in their bedrooms for the pill bought over the internet to take effect. It was the cases where people were left in the wilderness in their own country without the medical care they deserved but which medics were unable to provide.
As Ms Harte puts it: “People wanted the personal stories to set the tone of the debate, it was never going to be mudslinging, we were never going to engage in a war of words because the tone was always set through the personal stories.”