It’s a Yes - a central contribution to the Repeal story that can be built on


The publication of the co-directors history of the Together for Yes (T4Y) campaign is an important step in building an accessible collective history of the final stage of the long struggle to repeal the hated 8th amendment to the Irish constitution. It along with the forthcoming Together for Yes review of the referendum campaign should probably be read by everyone who worked for Repeal, if for no other reason than to get a better understanding of the ‘big picture’ of what we were involved in.

The book opens with context setting biographies of the three co-directors before moving on to cover some of the key events from 2012 that led to the referendum over 6 chapters. The second half covers the period from when the referendum was called, and Together for Yes was formed, to when it was won over another 6 chapters. I focus on two of these below but one thing worth taking from the first half is how the legislation we ended up with started off as very much more progressive recommendations from the Citizens Assembly before being restricted by politicians into the form it takes today. In particular I was reminded that the major influence on one of the worst features, the medically unjustifible 3 day waiting period, was essentially a product of the rivalry within Fine Gael between the current leader Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveny who Leo had defeated in the 2017 FG leadership election.

There can’t be a definitive history of the entire referendum campaign, never mind the 35 years that built up to it. Some 19,000 people canvassed, each of them has their own story to tell. ARC (Abortion Rights Campaign) contributed 36 regional groups at the start of the campaign but by the end the book states Cork alone contained 17 regional groups and there were about 110 nationally. Each of those have their own history of activity and dealing with internal pressures while making sure the Yes vote was maximised.

Even just looking at the Mount street Together for Yes HQ there were some 360 volunteers who worked there as well as a handful of paid staff. The majority of volunteers were working part-time in HQ while also working their normal jobs, a number had taken unpaid or annual leave, one had even come back from Australia. While a small core had worked with each other for long time the vast majority did not, and were joining a struggle that was short of time, money and indeed posters. This was a high stakes fight where it was understood it would be the one shot in a generation to get rid of the hated 8th. No pressure, like.

The story ‘It’s a Yes’ tells is very much the co-directors view, informed by a number of interviews with other people based in HQ and then a sample of people organising regional groups including Cork, Donegal and Mayo. As such it’s a fragment of the story, if an important one, and a fragment that will get some details wrong while leaving others out.

An example trivial to almost everyone but important to me is found in the description of the period when T4Y had its soft, as yet unnamed launch on International Women’s Day, March 8th. The anti-choice campaign had organised what they intended to be a massive demonstration just two days after this on March 10th - presumably with the intention of using much greater numbers to demoralise. But actually a similar number marched even though the anti-choice campaign successfully managed to manipulate the media into reporting ‘10s of thousands’. With half a dozen other WSM members I’d organised to count and report on how many actually marched, we counted 9,000 while the organisers tried to claim 100,000. So when I get to page 115 and read “That same week the supporters of the Rally for Life, organised by the Life Institute, took to the streets, with numbers estimated at tens of thousands, calling for retention of the Eighth Amendment” I’m doing a bit of a WTF, who let that through.

On the other hand, I’ve been involved in long-running struggles where there is almost no accessible resource that gives a decent overview. As with a lot of core Repeal activists I was involved in the Shell to Sea struggle for almost a decade, but if people today were trying to piece together what happened they would end up reading Lorna Siggins book ‘Once Upon a Time in the West: The Corrib Gas Controversy’ or watching ‘The Pipe’. Both of which are extremely limited versions of that story. So despite the error’s in It’s a Yes, I’m very grateful that a history has emerged, one which can be built on by others, including challenges to possible errors and interpretation in the account.

Already it’s not alone. Dr Peter Boylan has a book coming out 14th November ‘In the Shadow of the Eighth: My Forty Years Working for Women's Health in Ireland’ and on January 15th collection of academic essays titled ‘After Repeal’ is due. I suspect many of us will be grateful that’s It’s a Yes appeared ahead of Boylan’s account. There is also a more technical T4Y report ‘Learning from the 2018 Together for Yes’ campaign that I ‘caught sight of’ while drafting this review and which will be useful in understanding T4Y strategy and development in greater detail. Although inevitably less accessible, academic papers on elements of the campaign have already appeared, including ‘Race, identity and the state after the Irish abortion referendum’ by Paola Rivetti and ‘Intersectionality, Repeal, and Reproductive Rights in Ireland’ by Fiona de Londras (1). In terms of new media there is also the Together for Yurt and forthcoming How the Yes was Won podcasts. To bang our own drum there are also some 60+ articles from the period of the campaign and the immediate aftermath on the WSM site.

A final note on the importance of considering multiple viewpoints. Aileen O’Carroll who worked with the canvassing groups as part of the Get Out theThe Vote strategy, also spotted what might be an error in It’s a Yes. She says that in the last week of the campaign the team she worked with contacted 69 local canvassing groups not the 110 claimed in the book and mentioned above. However the 110 figure also appeared on a T4Y flyer about campaign metrics distributed at the T4Y count event. We then spent an hour trying to work out why there are two credible numbers.  So its illustrative that even on what you might imagine to be the straightforward question of how many regional groups existed there is significant disagreement between sources. And it gets much more difficult when it comes to interpretations and memories of complex events such as those described below.

The cost of unity

From an anarchist perspective the most interesting element of ‘Its a Yes’ in terms of lessons for future organising are the details it provides on the process and compromises that saw the ‘anarchist in all but name’ Abortion Rights Campaign fold into Together For Yes for the duration of the referendum campaign rather than go it alone. Although interestingly enough this decision in itself was not opposed as once made the controversies around messaging that have been quite disruptive in the aftermath and which dominated this year’s March for Choice were inevitable.

As understanding this is important I’m going to extensively quote from that section of the book. The first thing to understand is that ARC very much pushed their way into what became T4Y. One of the other co-directors, presumably Ailbhe from the Coalition to Repeal the 8th, is quoted as saying “Initially I was nervous about ARC and I knew members of [National Women’s Council of Ireland] were because we felt the campaign needed to focus on the people who were undecided and unsure of the issue of abortion in order to mobilise enough people to vote Yes. We didn’t know if ARC would also be of that view. Our thinking was that ARC will speak to the converted and we needed a campaign that was going to speak to all those people whose minds were not made up.”

From the ARC side we are told in the same section on page 96 “ARC wanted to be a part of that core leadership group…. The board of ARC had met and decided to put together a proposal to join them at the leadership table, even though they knew it would involve considerable compromise on their part.”

“We also decided that the referendum campaign wouldn't work without us because we were the only ones with grassroots activists, and the only ones with any money. We had a reach across thousands of activists. We had a large formal membership but we also had a much wider reach with our networks and social media, for example there were hundreds of people who raised money for ARC through the Workers Beer Company every summer and loads of people who would come to clothes swaps and other Repeal themed social events even if they never went to meetings.”

ARC wrote a pitch which lead to a meeting described by Orla the co-director from NWCI as follows,
“I said I think we are saying different things. So we agreed to have a meeting where we would thrash out the messaging. Adam May presented the messaging that had been developed from the research. It was the messaging similar to what we had worked on in ‘Every Woman’, the health based messaging. We had this long meeting where we discussed each value and core message (p. 97).”

The health based messaging referred to here is the reframing of traditional pro-choice rhetoric in terms of health access rather than human rights (p140 has more details on this). This flowed out of focus group research described in some detail in Chapter Four “There were six groups - two in Dublin, two in Mullingar, Co Westmeath; and the final two in Tralee, Co Kerry. Adam said it was important to get a real sense of how people were feeling outside of Dublin - ‘the pro choice bubble’” (p. 49).

For some this was quite controversial as it meant dropping slogans around terms like ‘choice’ in favour of ‘a woman’s decision’. I noticed this reframing as campaign materials started to emerge but to be honest I just read it as saying the same thing in a different way which didn’t bother me at the time. My own involvement goes back to the late 1980s when it was all too normal for messaging to contain the suggestion that what we wanted would be more effective at reducing the number of abortions than what they wanted.

Throughout the referendum I was monitoring the anti-choice campaigns and they were really irritated, even outraged by the reframing which presumably impacted on their intended strategy. From conversations in the aftermath of the victory I do know that, at least in terms of local canvassing, where people were unhappy with this reframing they simply continued to talk about choice and rights in the way they always had. This is another need for additional accounts, the T4Y ones capture the details of what was planned well but can’t really touch on what actual implementation might have looked like. Which from anecdotes I’ve been told was sometimes a chaotic mess of trying to shoehorn things into the plan or indeed ignoring parts of it that were felt not to fit or be practical.

Sarah Monaghan then describes in some detail the process of bringing this messaging and the proposal to join forces with the Coalition and the National Womens Council to the ARC membership. She was fearful that there would only be a narrowly agreement among ARC activists (in fact the vote was unanimous).

On page 99 it’s laid out how
“An ARC EGM was called in early February, lasting a full day … Sarah recalled “We just opened it up. You know we put it all out, all that intensive work we had put in beforehand. We put everything we could think of, any possible scenario that we could think of, on the table. Then we heard all the issues, all the criticisms, all the fears. We explained how it might work, how ARC might take a seat at the table, what that would look like, what we needed it to look like, what we thought our members might need it to look like. We said these are the risks of doing it, these are the risks of not doing it, this is what we're likely to be rolling out in terms of messaging and language and it's going to be more conservative, it's gonna be softer it's going be middle ground. So I suppose we were saying that there will be compromises necessary here and they will be uncomfortable to a lot of you. Can we suck it up for the greater good? And I suppose that was really at the root of it,”

“I suppose it just kept coming back around to what if we don't, what if we don't join it? What if we try and run some parallel campaign. We're just strengthening the chances that we will lose here. And then what do we do, it's all been for nothing, and we've let women down. There are women relying on us now to get this campaign across the final hurdle. And we just can't let our own egos, our even morals, kind of cloud that. There's just a bigger picture here. So you know everyone in that room, and everyone who had been a member for so long, they did a lot of compromise on the campaign that they would have liked to see.. And you know the vote was unanimous, a hundred percent yes vote.”

The strategy delivered a massive Yes vote. To an extent after the referendum ARC became a victim of their success. The size of the victory led many to wonder if such compromises had been necessary. The debate around this so far has shed far more heat than light, in part because the process through which the ARC referendum strategy was agreed hasn’t been publicly defined until now. Now that there is a clear account which can be discussed and challenged, it’s possible more productive conversations will happen that will inform decisions in future campaigns. Again from an anarchist perspective this is a very important conversation to have carefully.

Was victory certain?

There are some useful reminders in the book that victory could not be assumed. In particular we are reminded that at the time the referendum was called Fine Gael politicians were often playing both sides. In the aftermath, they were quick to claim the victory.

“In his initial referendum announcement speech Leo Varadkar hedged his bets to the extent of threatening the Yes vote. “If the amendment is approved in a referendum, he explained, abortion in Ireland will become “safe, legal and rare”. In his speech the Taoiseach said that on the matter of 12 weeks, as proposed by the Oireachtas Committee, people would have to make up their own minds, based on the evidence and their own conscience. …During subsequent questioning by journalists the Taoiseach did say that many politicians were concerned about that the 12 week proposal, worrying it might be “a step too far” for a lot of people.”

I remember my heart sinking at the time, in particular at the use of the word ‘rare’. The problem that had dogged every previous referendum campaign was reappearing, that is, the claim that ‘our side’ would be more effective in limiting the number of abortions. There is of course a point that the provision of consent based sex education, contraception etc would indeed reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies but as a soundbite it concedes to the anti-choice side.

Leo’s prevaricating on 12 weeks made things considerably worse. Analysis of the Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitudes poll published just before the start of the campaign showed the clear potential for a solid win, with 49% saying they intended to vote yes. However when asked if they were in favour of abortion up to 12 weeks this fell to 43%. It was clear that if No could center the debates around 12 week limit they could probably defeat Repeal.

I’ve already covered in considerable detail why the victory as well as the scale of the victory was a product of a successful Yes campaign (and a frankly disastrous No campaign). Support for unrestricted access to 12 weeks was a minority position. The other even more significant danger was that in both the Marriage Equality and Divorce referendums the reactionary No side used ‘fear of change’ based campaigning to win over all of the people who were undecided early in the referendum polls. If the anti-choice brigade had managed to make 12 weeks the key issue and so spooked the undecided voters into No voters, Repeal could have been defeated 57% to 43%.

Another concern was that in the Trump election and Brexit referendum reactionaries had done far better than many polls had suggested. It was apparent that the anti-choice campaigns were intending to use the same methods, in particular the manufacturing of smears and fake news. The opening days of the campaign were indeed dominated by two such attempts. First we had the smearing of teenage pro-choice activists through photographing them carrying placards handed to them by an alt-right anti-choice activist, the placards included the obscure British Union of Fascists logo. Once these photos were posted outline they were amplified by anti choice spokes John McGurk. And then we had a much more elaborate hoax, this time involving billboards with a fake nurse who it was claimed had worked in a surgery performing abortions in the UK and had been horrified by what he had seen. The manufacturing of fake news and then using paid social media reach to spread it to vulnerable target groups while hiding it from everyone else had been credited with both Brexit and Trump victories.  It was clear we would see a lot of this (and we did) but not at all clear if it would impact the vote.

Lastly we knew the No side had huge amounts of funding stashed away and would therefore be able to massively outspend Together For Yes which at the start of the campaign had very little funds and only the (justified) hope that sufficient money could be raised. Visibly this huge resource gap was displayed in the disparity in the number of posters that could be paid for. No was literally able to piss away money up every lamp post while Together for Yes had to ration the number of posters at a level well below what some local campaigners considered the minimum needed (though by the end Together For Yes paid for vastly more posters than the Marriage Equality referendum).

With the benefit of hindsight victory now looks certain but that was not at all how it felt at the time. The book describes how,

“The general nervousness had been made worse by Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney rocking Cabinet cohesion by saying in January he was in favour of repeal but felt unable to support access to terminations up to 12 weeks … The Tanaiste would subsequently change his position and say he now backed the 12 week proposal. However that decision was conditional on a number of additional safeguards being put in place. He sought the introduction of a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion, prohibition on late-term abortions and permitting access to abortion pills up to 12 weeks of gestation (p. 115).”

“Early on in the campaign, the co-directors had attended a meeting in Fine Gael headquarters. They did not come away with the impression that a huge effort was being put in at party level, especially when they were told no more than €100,000 would be spent on the campaign by the party (p. 169).”

Or indeed even as T4Y was formally launched the campaign faced difficulties,
“The day before the Rotunda Hospital had distanced itself from the launch saying it did not support any political organisation or agenda … It had also been difficult to find an MC for the launch because at that point prominent people were reluctant to align themselves with Together for Yes (p. 117).”

Discipline when it was needed

By the launch on the 22nd of March, just about everyone actively involved in pro-choice politics was onboard with T4Y. Two weeks earlier on March 10th as the Rally for Life took place outside, the newly formed T4Y held a difficult strategy meeting. Grainne remembers,
“ was really the critical time of us saying ‘we're putting all this to you, we hope you believe as we do that this is the way to win the referendum campaign. It was having a real conversation about shifting into a different space from campaigning for abortion, to winning a referendum and mobilising the necessary over one million people to vote for repealing the Eighth. In the conversations that happened there was a really strong sense in the room of what's at stake here – we really have to win this because if we don't, when will we have this referendum again? We asked people to put their own groups aside for the next three months and form united Together for Yes groups. It was a really important meeting for all of us and built the ownership needed to make the campaign work effectively.”

In fact the discipline held by everyone on the pro-choice side for the duration of the referendum campaign was quite remarkable given the strength of disagreements that only became publicly visible in the aftermath. The anti-choice side was forever trying to discover and ferment division. Anti-choice spokes John McGuirk was regularly claimed to receive inside information from his ‘loyal mole’ but the reality is that nothing of significance leaked, not even the canvassing guide or the name of the organisation. As the book acknowledges “Incredibly none of the information presented that night leaked ahead of the actual launch”

The remainder of the books tells the story of a very successful campaign, and if you were involved it will be hard not to tear up at particular moments. For my taste, there is a little bit too much focus on top level media and messaging, the appearance on the Clare Byrne Live show is detailed over some 6 pages. I’d have preferred a much stronger focus on the challenges of co-ordinating the 19,000 canvassers organised into dozens of groups who in most cases had not known each other a month earlier. The story of how the campaign rapidly scaled up under extreme pressure and the challenges this created for the campaign is a interesting and important, but it’s only somewhat touched on in the ‘A Nationwide Campaign and the Irish Yes’ chapter.

Likewise there is I think there is a tendency to present some adaptations to circumstances as if they were planned all along. But at least in part that’s a product of what this particular book is, it is a joint effort of the 3+ co-directors written by a journalist. Avoiding any appearance of the co-directors punching down is probably wise. The production of the book will make it very much more straightforward for others to fill in further details and stories. Such critical but constructive accounts will be essential to capturing many of the other lessons.

I was possibly one of the few people to like the name Together for Yes as soon as I heard it. As I somewhat cynically joked the great thing about it was that it had its ‘use by date’ built into the name. It was a 68 day coalition pulled together for a particular purpose that was never likely to survive past the result. One consequence of campaigners ‘sucking it up’ during the campaign was a fair bit of trauma, hurt and anger with no where in particular to yell it at in the aftermath, this is somewhat reflected in the survey of 300+ participants contained in the “Learning from” report.

The follow up work that has been done in researching and producing this book and the forthcoming review is quite impressive in that context. This work can inform those organisations and individuals who continue to carry the struggle forward. Winning Repeal was the end of one struggle but also only the start of what must be a constant battle to improve the legislation and defend and expand access to abortion in all of Ireland. If you were involved in Repeal read this and remember those moments when we were Together for Yes.

by Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)

(1) De Londras, Fiona (2019) ’Intersectionality, Repeal, and Reproductive Rights in Ireland’ in Intersectionality and Human Rights Law. Dunne, P. & Atrey, S. (eds.). Hart Publishing;
Rivetti, Paola (2019) Race, identity, and the state after the Irish abortion referendum. Feminist Review, 122 . pp. 1-7. ISSN 0141-7789