In the face of a divisive referendum, and increasingly divisive online debate, we speak to some of the people going door to door for Repeal and learn how the centuries-old practice of canvassing creates meaningful conversation.
In the moment of a referendum when our whole society turns to face itself, connected through conversation, we begin thinking about where we all stand. But what is the most valuable place to meet and talk? Twitter has proved its social and political worth as a tool for mobilising people quickly and providing an open platform, but it has limitations. It often lacks a middle ground. For many people, undecided and wondering about the issues, debate on Twitter can be blunt and confrontational. So where can these more nuanced conversations happen between strangers? In navigating our way through these incredibly complex ideas, maybe we need to rely on simple exchange? Meeting face-to-face, a subtlety in gesture and tone, a respect in listening. It seems to explain why canvassing has existed for thousands of years and continues to happen despite contemporary technologies.
From laptop to doorstep, I’ve been talking to people who are having conversations about Together For Yes online and in public to find out more.
Aoife, 40s, lone parent and member of Parents for Choice
“That’s my tip for anyone thinking of canvassing. Lean into gentleness.”
How did you get involved in canvassing with Together for Yes?
I started canvassing because I’ve been involved in Parents for Choice and I’m really, really passionate about the Repeal Movement. Parents for Choice have been running child friendly coffee mornings, so I’ve been doing those. But it’s a lovely liberal bubble really. I tend to be talking to people with the same mindset. So I really wanted to get involved in canvassing.
What was your first time canvassing?
My first time going door to door was for marriage equality. But particularly for this I just couldn’t wait to get going. I feel like this referendum will be close. And if it goes the wrong way, from my point of view, I would never forgive myself unless I’ve given it all I’ve got. The most I can do is all I can do.
This is so important. I’ve a soon-to-be five-year-old daughter and I feel a huge responsibility to do everything I can. I’m not shy. There’s nothing in my way. I’m a single mom, I’ve been getting babysitters so financially it’s a bit of a commitment, but it’s the right one.
Has the way you’re thinking about the issue changed since you started canvassing?
Not really. But I’m empathetic. I’m empathetic to anybody’s reservations. This isn’t like marriage equality. I do understand the nuances. Marriage equality for me was just a story of love and letting people get married. I couldn’t understand the nuance in anybody’s objections there, to me there just were none. Whereas I can understand people’s reservations here. I think those reservations can be met in a gentle way by clear explanations. I’m really keen to have those conversations.
Are you active online?
I am active, but I don’t debate online. I wouldn’t waste my energy. But I engage with other Repealers working out reasoned arguments or sharing factual arguments for concerns people might have. I’ve gotten a lot of online training and support too.
What do you see having the biggest impact on people in conversation?
It’s the personal stories. I think when they have a reservation you’re just saying, ‘If that was your daughter how would you feel?’ Of course they want to support their daughter and of course they don’t want her to have to carry out a pregnancy that she doesn’t want. You have to be gentle and so respectful. They have genuinely felt reservations and I think anyone who does vote ‘no’ is doing so in good conscience. For people who are on the fence, we can help to allay their fears or answer questions.
What are the canvassing experiences you’ve most enjoyed?
Great camaraderie, great fun. It’s a lovely sense of getting out there and doing something positive. I’ve been meeting really lovely people and a great cross-section of people. When you’re an adult you don’t necessarily meet so many people outside of your immediate circle. Canvassing is totally cross-generational, multicultural, it’s really lovely. It’s a common passion and goal. There’s a man out canvassing who’s blind, he’s incredible. A really articulate and warm man that I never would have met. He’s a great voice for people with disabilities for choice.
Are there a lot of people out there canvassing for the first time?
Yes, there’s a lot of first-timers out there. It’s mostly first-timers. Mostly people who are non-political who feel passionately about women’s rights. This is something that has stirred the imagination.
What do you think about the way platforms like Twitter make space for the debate?
I think the people putting up images of foetuses are doing themselves no service, they are shooting themselves in the foot because everyone is offended by that. Really and truly, everybody is offended by that. Clare Daly was asked who was the most influential speaker on the joint Oireachtas committee who changed peoples’ minds and she said the woman from One Day More campaigning for No. Because she was completely void of empathy for the other side.
Do you think canvassing works?
Yes. And the training gets you thinking about how to be more gentle. When you’re so passionate about something, it’s easy to not be gentle. That’s my tip for anyone thinking of canvassing. Lean into gentleness. Anyone voting ‘no’ is doing it in good faith. They might hold religious beliefs that you might not share but you try and meet them where they’re at. It’s about listening.
Rob, 30s, organising member for Dublin Central Together For Yes
“I’ve come across a few older men saying It’s a woman’s decision, I don’t think I should vote on it and so you’re having that conversation [that it’s] a generational opportunity to have a say and make sure that it is a woman’s decision going forward.”
When did you first start canvassing?
I suppose it goes back a good few years. I was probably pro-choice before I even knew what the 8th amendment was. I joined Ogra Sinn Fein when I was about sixteen and was having debates at that time to set policy for the youth wing of Sinn Fein. I was on the pro-choice side of things then, arguing against the tide even at that time. I left when I was about 21 and wasn’t involved in politics for a long time. I joined the Dublin Central Campaign last year. We started canvassing around November last year, going ‘round to chat to people. So that’s when we started our campaign going door to door. It’s kicked off in a big way since January really.
Can you remember the first time you went door to door?
I would’ve canvassed in local elections in Waterford aged sixteen but I don’t think much intimidates you at that age. When I was in college we would’ve gone up to the North to canvas in assembly elections and that was probably a little worrying. We were going in to areas that weren’t Sinn Fein areas. I mean I don’t want to talk too much about Sinn Fein when it was a short time in my life, fourteen years ago, but cutting my teeth canvassing like that not too long after the Good Friday Agreement… that probably set me up. I didn’t care too much after that.
How has canvassing for this referendum been?
I think with this campaign I feel like once you treat people with respect and have a civil conversation, I’m not too worried about how that conversation goes to be honest with you. I think that a lot of the worries that people have going to the doors is the stuff they hear being thrown around. The usual anti-choice terms. They bounce off me because I’m never going to be affected that directly by the 8th amendment. I’m never going to be affected in the same way as someone where that might be their life experience. I’m lucky I suppose.
Do you think that feeling that it’s something that will never affect them stops other men getting involved?
No. No, not really. For myself I haven’t really come across that apathy I suppose. It’s an issue people have an opinion on. On the doors I’ve come across a few older men saying it’s a woman’s decision, I don’t think I should vote on it and you’re having that conversation about why you need them to vote and get involved at this one key time. A generational opportunity to have a say and make sure that it is a woman’s decision going forward. Amongst my own group of friends we have this sort of left-right split anyway.
Have there been any moments speaking with those anti-choice friends that have helped having similar conversations on the doorstep with a stranger?
So my best friend is on the pro-life side of things and we’re in a WhatsApp group with about forty fellas. We were debating and he said, “I just can’t see how it wouldn’t be used as contraception” with a screenshot of a statistic from the UK of how many repeat abortions occur each year. And it goes to show I thought he was being a bit of a messer, disagreeing with me for the sake of it to get an argument in front of the lads. But actually he was thinking about it, and he was researching it and that’s a concern of his that has to be addressed and reassured. It was illustrative that people are taking this seriously even if outwardly it might seem like they’re not.
Do you have any canvassing memories that stand out?
There was a woman aged 86 in Ballybough recently, she had really nuanced views. She said, “It’s so hard for me because I’ve been brought up believing everything the church taught.” But the one thing she couldn’t stand over was doctors’ hands being tied. There’s one other one I’ll tell you about, a guy in Drumcondra. He came out and said, “I’m 98% voting no but I’ll listen to ye for the sake of my 2%.” And we had a good chat with him and it was really open, asking what his opinions were. As we were going off we were joking with him about it and he said, “Right, I’m down to 90%.” So that’s really good, maybe we’ll get back to him again and have another chat. That was nearly my most positive one, that was a hard sell. I was buzzing coming out of that.
What’s the key difference in the conversations you get to have in both spaces?
I admin our Facebook and Twitter pages with a big group of others as well. There’s no comparison really. You cannot beat that face-to-face conversation. I imagine some of our own canvassers when they’re online they’re as capable of being, whatever the word is, maybe as aggressive as some of the voices on the other side are. But on the doors everyone’s a lot more polite and willing to listen. There’s no actual rows on the doors. There’s no nuance online. If you’re trying to get a meaning across to someone, to have a proper conversation, even if they’re a friend, it can get lost. No politician in Ireland canvasses for the good of their health. It is what works. Conversations… maybe it’s everyone or maybe it’s Irish people but they’re so into face-to-face conversation. They’ll remember a friendly face on the door and that contact.
Do you think the anonymous nature of online conversation makes it less effective then?
Absolutely. We canvass to go out and persuade undecided people. To talk to them, reassure them that voting ‘yes’ doesn’t make them a bad person if they’re hesitant about that, that they’re doing the right thing. For us, Twitter and Facebook are about putting the message out there, getting recruits, showing people how we’re active, supporting other activists. It’s not so much about having a debate and trying to convince undecided voters. That’s what we’re doing door to door, nuanced conversations.
Emily, 30s Co-founder of Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice
“There’s over 100,000 migrants who can vote in Ireland so we’re doing a disservice to write off migrants as unimportant in the outcome of this referendum.”
Can you tell me a bit about the group Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ) and how you’re involved?
I was in the Abortion Rights Campaign for years and years and was also involved in Strike for Repeal. Claudia – another member of MERJ – and I were always the only migrants in the room during various coalition meetings. We worked on a lot of different anti-racism and migrant rights issues together. In the pro-choice spaces we were the only migrants and then in the anti-racist spaces we were the ones bringing up Repeal. We asked some activists that we knew if they would be interested in starting a migrants group that was pro-choice.
What was your first experience of canvassing?
Probably more than twenty years ago. That was mostly in the States. I would’ve been in college so eighteen, nineteen. I would just say that I don’t love canvassing if I’m honest. I love talking to people about issues. I love talking to strangers about the issues. There’s something that’s a little bit familiar… it can be a bit uncomfortable at times to go into someone’s personal space, you know?
Can you remember your first canvas?
I don’t know if it was my first but… I remember I brought my little brother, he was probably twelve at the time. It was great craic. It was just conversation and it kind of put people at ease a bit to have a kid there who was willing to engage. He was totally shy but it felt like a sense of community-building, which I think canvassing can be really good for. In a way we don’t always know our neighbours and it can be a chance to get to know people.
Is it different canvassing at a street stall?
We get a whole lot of people feeling very emboldened to say really horrible racist things to us. Anti-choice stuff. It’s more public. I don’t know why, but I think maybe the visibility of it and the fact that we’re kind of planted in one spot. For some reason it gives people more anonymity. Whereas for our individual members who have been canvassing in their local areas and on someone’s door, it’s a bit more intimate and I think a lot of people are sound. Even in interactions that have been racist or misogynistic, they aren’t as aggressive on their own doorstep.
Does it move the conversation a little bit away from the political and into the personal when you’re able to find that intimacy?
Yes, I absolutely think so. I think the traditional canvass, going door-to-door and talking to people, is really important but also, talking to people walking down the street when someone notices your badge, or on a bus, or in line at the checkout at the shop. Those are all really important.
What are the best ways of supporting migrants in the campaign?
At first a lot of what we were doing was about education. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know about the laws until they’re in that situation. And we’re an anti-racist organisation so we’re often in spaces that are specifically for migrants and we’re engaging in a different way. There’s no assumption that people even have the same language. But there’s a commonality among anyone who can get pregnant, when you do know about the 8th amendment. It creates a chilling effect, a kind of fear among people. For a migrant you might not necessarily have the support of your entire family, or financial support, you really look to people in the community for support. I think a lot of migrants who’ve gone through that and had the experience in those maternity services, not just crisis pregnancies but very much wanted pregnancies, they’ve seen the impact of the 8th and are very receptive to talking about it. We’re fighting for reproductive justice, which includes abortion rights but is not limited to it.
What are the biggest issues affecting pregnant migrants that an Irish person wouldn’t necessarily know about?
Well 40% of all maternal deaths in Ireland are migrant women (based on a report into maternal deaths in Ireland/UK 2015). If you think of Savita Halappanavar, a migrant woman of colour, Ms Y, a migrant woman of colour, and just recently the young girl who was sectioned. She was a migrant girl – a teenager – and Dhara Kivlehan, with Bimbo Onanuga… I could just name names all day of migrant women who died.
Have there been any moments that have stayed with you from canvassing for this referendum?
Yeah, on the stand we had this bunch of migrant men who are really, really supportive and would talk about their daughters. That’s been really amazing. Also, [other migrants] who might not come up to a pro-choice stall of all Irish people because maybe they’re nervous about their language but will approach us because we specifically say we’re migrants. That’s been really exciting. And it’s really important to note that there’s over 100,000 migrants who can vote in Ireland so we’re doing a disservice to write off migrants as unimportant in the outcome of this referendum.
Éilis and Anne, mother and daughter. Both turn 18 just before the abortion referendums (Anne in ’83 and Éilis this year).
“It’s a complicated issue and people find it difficult, but the fact that they will talk to you at the doors and engage with you and listen to you is a really positive feeling.” Anne
“I don’t want people to think I’ve been dragged out of my bed. Forced to come out. I genuinely want to be here… it’s just handy that I had someone to bring me along.” Éilis
So you’re seventeen… And this is the first time you’ve canvassed door to door?
Éilis: Yep, I’ll be eighteen just before the vote. I’ve done a leaflet drop or two but I’ve never canvassed. It was really interesting. We had a lot of really nice older people. That was kind of unexpected. And they all came to the door and I’d think “Oh… We’re probably going to have to hear a no.” But no, they were really all very nice and a lot of them were really on side, and open. They told us about their daughters.
What convinced you to come out?
Éilis: My Mam’s been going out for a while and I think it’s kind of cool to be able to do something proactive instead of just sitting at home. My circle of friends would all be very much on the yes side. So whenever I’m talking about the issue with my friends or people I already know we’re all just agreeing with each other and spurring each other on. It’s not really contributing anything towards the actual vote. I was a bit worried we’d get chased off the doorstep. We didn’t. It was grand. It’s a lot calmer than I expected. Everyone is really open to talking. Most people were in the middle.
Have you been involved in talking about it online at all?
Éilis: A little bit. Everyone would know where I stand. I wouldn’t get into debates because the vast majority of the time it’s just two people with completely different views making everyone angry. Nobody’s mind is going to be changed in any way. It’s just a back and forth. Like a lot of people would have an opinion but would also have concerns and not agree with every single part of one side. And there’s nowhere really online where people can talk about that. Maybe it’s just the whole barrier, no one can see you. People feel like they can say whatever they want and hurt everyone’s feelings.
How did you get involved in Together For Yes?
Anne: I’ve been involved with a group called Midwives for Choice. I’m not a midwife but I’m there because of midwives I know, and I’m also involved in the coalition. It’s always been an issue for me, I’ve gone on marches over the years. I was particularly upset by the vote in the 80s because I actually was 18, I was old enough to vote, but you had to be on the register for six weeks. I was hopping mad at the time and I have been ever since. That’s been there my whole adult life. And now I’m just watching my daughters and I just won’t stand for it to be the same for their adult lives. So that’s why I feel like I have to do whatever I can.
Was this your first time canvassing?
Anne: Yes. This is the first time I’ve ever canvassed. It was a bit daunting I suppose but I got paired with someone who’s very experienced and he showed me the ropes. You get into it really quickly and it’s not scary at all! You feel like, if you can help people in any way to think about it in a different way, to help them through that process, that’s worthwhile. It’s a complicated issue and people find it difficult but the fact that they will talk to you at the doors and engage with you and listen to you is a really positive feeling. You come away after you’ve canvassed feeling like maybe you’ve helped. I’m a bit worried about the vote and I suppose that’s why I’m out there, continuing to do it as much as I can. I started off wondering does canvassing do what people say it does? And I’m thinking now it probably does. It’s hard to talk about abortion. To actually have people answering their doors and being open to talking about it is a huge advance. A few years ago I don’t think people would have been comfortable doing that. I suppose even if people are ‘no’s’, when they see you coming to their door and wanting to engage in a positive way, it has a positive impact. The more people are at each other, the harder it gets to heal afterwards. Even the people who are solid ‘no’s’ are just ordinary people, and we, calling to your door but thinking the opposite way, are just ordinary people too.
Do you think you’d tell people that you’re her daughter in the future?
Éilis: Maybe not, I don’t know. I don’t want people to think I’ve been dragged out of my bed. Forced to come out. I genuinely want to be here… it’s just handy that I had someone to bring me along. Like, if I didn’t have anyone to go canvassing with I probably wouldn’t since it’s a lot of strangers and they’re all adults. I don’t really know anyone else my own age who’s done it.
Words: Maeve Stone
Photos: Killian Broderick