Ireland's fiercest culture war yet is being fought on our lampposts 3 years ago

Ireland's fiercest culture war yet is being fought on our lampposts

The war over Ireland's Eighth Amendment is being fought with streetlights and zip-ties.

In late May, Ireland will go to the polls to decide whether to repeal its constitutional ban on abortion — the Eighth Amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann. As the country hurtles towards this landmark moment, much of the attention has been focused on the respective canvassing approaches of the Yes and No campaigns.

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As both sides set about ramping up their efforts to sway the public over the crucial home stretch, another ban has come into focus: Ireland's regulatory ban on paid political television and radio ads.

Unlike the United States — where it's hard to get through a single commercial break without prospective congresspeople, senators, district attorneys and judges telling you why you should vote for them — Ireland's airwaves have been swept clean of political campaigning.

What this ultimately means is that campaigns must take to the streets, relying on the traditional tactic of turning streetlights into totem polls of slogans, soundbites, and in the case of the upcoming referendum, sinister warnings.

The perceived importance of posters was made very clear this week when Together For Yes raised over €300,000 on the opening day of its fundraiser — money that is entirely earmarked for a major poster and leafletting campaign.

But with six weeks to go, the posters we've seen so far have already generated much clamour and consternation.

One poster, published by a group called Abortion Never, simply reads "Babies Will Die." One from the opposing side, designed by Together For Yes, reads "Sometimes a private matter needs public support." Anyone looking at the posters from an outside perspective would never draw the conclusion that these two posters are arguing over the same issue.

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Alan Kinsella, an expert on Irish election literature who runs the @ElectionLit Twitter page, said that the No side of the campaign was quicker out of blocks with their posters, surmising that "They knew the law better so they were ready to go when they were allowed. It was a shock, you went into town and suddenly, there was foetuses and such stuff looking at you."

"The No side are more experienced," Kinsella tells me. "They've been at this for years. That particular lobby is on the go nearly 40 years at this stage. They have the knowledge of referendums whereas Together For Yes are a civic group with a different make-up. Obviously there are people with political savvy, but the No side would be more experienced with political campaigns."

Kinsella was more open-ended on the matter of whether or not the No side's speed off the mark will benefit them in the long run, saying he feels, from the Yes perspective, it could have been a tactical move.

"You see the No posters going up and that helps the [Together For Yes] fundraising... It could be that they were waiting for them to go up to cause a reaction, to get their own to mobilise. Because in a way, they actually sickened a lot of people, they saw them and said 'Oh Jesus, what are we in for over the next six weeks?' And that, as a tactic, may have worked."

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Kinsella's final verdict on the No side's approach was that they were earliest to rise, and will succeed in appealing to their base, but he added a strong caveat.

"I can't see any undecided people being any way influenced positively by them."

Annie Hoey, the national canvassing coordinator for Together For Yes, said of the No side posters: "Personally, I would always be concerned about the impacts that those kind of posters would have on somebody who has experienced the tragic loss of a pregnancy or has had to travel. Does it evoke some difficult memories that they don't to have evoked when they're simply going to work or school? I know people have had very sad losses of pregnancies and that these posters are very upsetting for them."

Director of Communications for Save The 8th John McGuirk answered this question of trauma by saying, "The nature of this campaign is that it is traumatising, it is traumatising for people on both sides. We've had women on our side of the debate who have had babies with fatal conditions who have passed away who feel like they're made to feel like they should have had an abortion."

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The group behind the "Babies will die" poster is Abortion Never, which was founded this year in connection with the National Party. Abortion Never's website reinforces the hard line seen on their posters: "There can be no watering down of the message that needs to be heard by the Irish people. We are a unique campaign in that our target audience is not the middle ground but the potential voter who has been lulled into a sense of false security by the 'polite' debate up to now."

McGuirk disavowed the tack taken by Abortion Never, saying "That is not our poster, we did not put that poster up and we would not have put that poster up."

James Reynolds, Deputy President of the National Party, saw less of a distinction between the two approaches.

"On terms of strong wording and stating the obvious, their poster hits the mark," he says. "The colour scheme may be different, we have green and black, but that's aesthetics. The message is similar."

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Reynolds further noted that Save The 8th have "a striking poster which Abortion Never hasn't that says 'A licence to kill?' We hadn't 'kill' in our posters, but they are correct. Their poster hits the mark."

It's a poster that McGuirk had spoken to me about.  "I think probably the most hard-hitting poster that we [Save The 8th] have up is the one that has a 12-week-old baby on it with the slogan 'A licence to kill?'". It is worth noting that by '12-week-old baby,' McGuirk is not referring to a baby that was born 12 weeks ago, but a foetus in utero 12 weeks into the gestation period.

"What we're asking people there is two things: Number one is can this unborn child be killed for any reason? And number two: do you trust politicians with the power over life and death in relation to that unborn child?"

"I would reject any allegation that our posters are extreme or graphic."

Irish actor, writer and longtime pro-choice campaigner Tara Flynn disagrees.

"Things like 'Licence to kill?' It's meant to push buttons, it's meant to get a reaction. It not only negates that decision-making process, all that I went through," she says. "It reduces it to a really horrible soundbite and essentially is saying "You're a murderer" to people who have done the best that they can in a crisis situation."

She emphasised the importance of face-to-face communication over the prominence that has been given to posters, saying, "My belief is that as horrible and upsetting as they are, I think that this campaign has been and will continue to be conducted in the conversations we have with people who already know and love and trust us."

"A strong poster campaign is really good in terms of boosting morale but I don't think posters will replicate the real thing that will win this referendum, which is talking to people and appealing to people's hearts and minds on the issues."

You can feel the tension on the top-deck of a Dublin Bus as one rolls to a stop, eye-level with posters designed to provoke a reaction. Take your earphones out and you'll hear muttered conversations between companions. Sometimes you'll learn they're voting yes, sometimes you'll learn they're voting no. Many still aren't sure. But for now, Ireland's poster war — a culture war fought on lampposts — rages on.

"One thing I want to emphasise is that it's a horrible, thankless job putting up posters, particularly with the weather we've had," McGuirk tells me. On May 26, it will certainly feel thankless for whichever campaign is defeated. For the other, however, it will surely have all been worthwhile.