- 09 Apr 18
The recent launch of the Together 4 Yes umbrella campaign generated a real sense of momentum and optimism, as the Repeal referendum comes into view. Roisin Dwyer reports on the event and speaks to campaign co-founder Ailbhe Smyth.
With under two months to go to the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, the groups advocating a Yes vote have gathered under the umbrella Together For Yes. The collective comprises Women’s Aid, the Irish Family Planning Association, the Union of Students in Ireland, the Rape Crisis Network and more.
A number of politicians were present at the recent launch to lend their support, including Minister for Health Simon Harris, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Labour TD Joan Burton, Green Party TD Catherine Martin and People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith.
In many respects, the Yes campaign seems to be going from strength to strength. However, the anti-choice side – no doubt taking a leaf out of the alt.right’s book – have of late sought to position themselves (none-too-convincingly) as the ‘anti-establishment’ side in the campaign.
“In my political life, I have generally found when our opponents backs are up against a wall, they move onto our territory,” says Ailbhe Smyth, co-founder of Together For Yes. “They call themselves the rebels or the revolutionaries, because actually they’re recognising that the broad swathe of young people in this country are saying enough is enough: now is the time to repeal. It is one of their tactics, but that just shows the strength of our movement.”
As we enter the final months of what has been a long campaign, Smyth remains optimistic.
“The polls are showing that people really do want to repeal the eighth amendment, and they are quite clear about that,” she states. “There is a real understanding that this is a huge problem and we need to find a solution. Now, whether everyone agrees on the solution is the question, and it’s a question for our legislators. But there isn’t that sense of heated extremes being pitted against one another this time.”
Although the issue has long been painted as controversial and emotive, Smyth reports that canvassing groups have been warmly received by people of every persuasion.
“The canvassing groups started to go out in December, and they are finding there’s not the level of extreme emotional intensity there may have been in 1983 or 1992. A lot of our younger canvassers – and there are a lot – were expecting a different response, because of the emphasis on this being such a divisive and controversial issue. But on the doorsteps, they are experiencing politeness and courtesy.”
Smyth is also receiving feedback that the public are confused about the various issues involved. “For example, there is confusion about the relationship between the constitution and legislation. One of our most important jobs is to say to people that the referendum is about the constitution – and what is added or removed is really where we are focused. We can talk about what the government is indicating may follow, which would be put in place by our legislators. But basically, we are looking at whether it is acceptable to have an almost total ban against abortion in the constitution. That is really important work on the canvass.”
Although a number of politicians were present at the launch of Together For Yes, Smyth is adamant it is not a party political issue.
“Our campaign is a civil society campaign. It’s not party political at all,” she says. “We are very pleased to work closely with the political parties that are campaigning in favour of Repeal, and in building up to the launch we have been, but it is not a party political campaign that we are fighting. I think that has been pretty clear since the Citizens Assembly, which was about citizens. Unlike the previous Constitutional Convention for Marriage Equality, there were no politicians on the Citizens’ Assembly.
“It is about saying ‘this is an issue for everybody’,” she continues. “It is not about a particular political agenda. This is something which obviously needs to be managed by government – but it is an issue for everybody in the country. We are clear about that, while at the same time valuing our connections with the political parties and working with them.”
The recent establishment of the Transparent Referendum Initiative has highlighted concerns about the role social media is playing in the debate.
“Well, I think anybody who’s involved in any kind of political campaigning at the moment would be mad not to be very concerned about the potential impact of social media,” asserts Ailbhe. “There is great concern about social media maybe being invaded and colonised by forces that we don’t control. It is an issue for everybody who’s campaigning, or running a campaign. We are obviously doing our best to achieve a good understanding and a degree of control, but that’s limited – this is a problem the world over. All you can do is ensure all of the digital and social media work that you do is very clear and specific, and that you keep alert for materials coming in from sources that are not reliable. It’s a massive challenge for all of us.”
What is Smyth’s opinion on the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations?
“On one level, I’m not sure I was all that surprised,” she replies. “I mean we had known for some time that Cambridge Analytica were a group to be monitored and watched. We knew for a long time that the infiltration of social media platforms by unreliable sources, to put it at its mildest, was a very big threat. The big question now is what can be done about it? And that is unlikely to be coming into force before this referendum campaign. So our job now is to try and be as clear as possible, to be as specific as possible, to try to indicate and to stop as best we can, any kind of misinformation and fake information.”
Meanwhile, Together For Yes is focusing on developing its presence in the regions.
“We have just launched Together For Yes in Cork and that will be followed by a Galway launch,” says Smyth. “So our regional hubs are working away and there will be a set of media-oriented launches over the next few weeks. The canvassing groups are either out there already, or in the process of training and development and about to set out. Our social media is well in hand; we’ve set up our Together For Yes platforms. The organisations involved are maintaining a presence in their own names, but will be shifting the bulk of their activity into the Together For Yes platform.”
Smyth is overwhelmed at the response from the numerous campaigners. It is an issue that really matters to people.
“We have hundreds and thousands of volunteers on board and coming on board,” she smiles. “It’s remarkable how generous people are in doing this absolutely for free and entirely voluntarily. The kindness and generosity of campaigners on this issue of Repeal really is astonishing; there is a tremendous sense of drive and momentum. I think it’s such a vote of confidence in Together For Yes – and an indication of what people really want to see happening.”