Monday, May 21, 2018

On the Doorsteps

As you doubtless know already, Ireland is going to hold a referendum on abortion on Friday. The proposal is to remove the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which was introduced by referendum in 1983, and which guarantees the equal right to life of the mother and the child. The abortion legislation which is proposed by the government if they get a "Yes" vote is quite extensive, and will allow abortion for any reason up to twelve weeks, and for even longer periods in special cases such as "fatal foetal abnormality".

I haven't written much about this referendum on the blog, because I know all my readers will be pro-life already. I've concentrated my online activities on Twitter and Facebook.

Me and my pro-life posse

I've also been door-to-door canvassing since the middle of February. This is something I've never done before and it's more than likely that I will never do it again. It's a very big step for a natural introvert like myself, so I thought it would be worth writing a blog post about it.

I hate approaching people. I hate bothering people. Once I'm talking to someone, I'm not really shy and I can even be garrulous. But actually starting a conversation has always been difficult for me. Starting a conversation with a complete stranger is even more difficult. I'm the kind of person who will wander around in circles for ages before asking directions of somebody.

But this referendum was simply so crucial, I felt I had to make more of an effort than just writing letters to the newspapers or on social media. So I signed up as a canvasser at a pro-life conference, in early December. I didn't hear anything back, so a few weeks later I signed up as a canvasser for another pro-life group, online. I spoke to someone from the group on the telephone, on my last day of work before Christmas. He told me someone would be in contact with me about a canvas in Finglas, a suburb near my own suburb of Ballymun.

December turned into January and I didn't hear back. (I suppose these pro-life groups are mostly staffed by volunteers and it's difficult keeping for them to keep track of everything.) I'll admit that I wasn't too upset about this. But, in February, my conscience finally got the better of me and I decided to follow it up. I got in touch with them again and got the exact details of the next canvas.

We met in a supermarket car-park around 6:30. I was alarmed at how few of us there seemed to be, about half-a-dozen. I found myself talking to a male civil servant, around my same age, who was eventually assigned to me as a partner. We were given orange high-visibility vests to wear and a stack of leaflets to distribute. I was extremely nervous.

To my relief, my partner did all the talking on this first night. I quickly realized that there wasn't all that much talking involved. I'd envisaged heated and intense debates about the development of the embryo and technical legal points, and I'd done some cramming beforehand. But here was nothing like that. At least half of our knocks provoked no response, so we simply put our leaflets through letter-flaps and into mail boxes. 

When somebody did engage us, it rarely went beyond a few words. The vast, vast majority of householders I've spoken to have been perfectly polite, even friendly. I suppose I have spoken to a few hundred by now (though I'm bad at estimates) and there have only been about half-a-dozen angry or hostile responses.

Most people are rather cagey. They accept the leaflet and they smile, but they don't give any indication of their views. Some, however, are very effusive No voters who thank us for our efforts.

More people have declared themselves to me as No voters than as Yes voters, but I suppose that's only to be expected. I even wonder whether some of them are just telling me they are No voters to get rid of me. I've always been very wary of politicians' claims about the response they get "on the doorsteps", and actually canvassing door-to-door myself has made me more way. It's impossible to tell the real lay of the land, in my view. At least, I can't.

On the whole, I would guess that the areas I have canvassed (Ballymun and Finglas) have a majority of No voters, but I would only guess that tentatively. It should be borne in mind that these are both working-class areas. The stories I've heard from other canvassers indicate that more affluent areas are considerably more pro-choice. I've even been told stories of "abuse" from people in such areas (apparently this happens more with leaflet distribution on the street, than with door-to-door canvassing).

But let me return to my first night's canvassing.

I spoke to my partner as we walked along. He was also a Catholic, and held all the same same views as me. He was a very pleasant fellow and I rather envied the ease with which he chatted to the householders.

Around eight o'clock, we packed up. I was surprised how quickly the time had gone. More canvassers had appeared during the evening. I felt a sense of euphoria at having done it.

I canvassed in Finglas for a few more weeks. Each time, I was paired with somebody different. (It was nearly always a man, rather to my dissatisfaction-- I'd been told that the preference was to have a male-female pairing, which made perfect sense to me. Although I believe men have an equal right to an opinion on abortion, I can't help feeling more comfortable with a woman by my side.)

The number of canvassers grew every week. There were men and women, young and old, Irish and non-Irish. As far as I can tell, all of them have been Christians. One canvasser was a Slovakian woman who wept when she told me about the persecution of Catholics under communism, during her childhood. Another was a Pentecostalist who told me: "The Catholic Church is an old house in which many things have been forgotten"-- which seems a bizarre statement to me. He was a very nice fellow, though.

Sometimes, we would begin the day's canvassing with a prayer, but not always.

The only really bad experience I've had during canvassing was when a woman came out of her house, threw the leaflet we'd just posted through her door at us, and started shouting: "Scumbags!". She demanded we produce a permit to canvas or get out of the area. My partner that night (a bus-driver) was cool-headed enough to reply: "Fine, call the police." But there have been no similar incidents.

Most people, though polite, are not inclined to talk very much. However, I am often surprised at how eager some people are to talk. Usually, these are No voters, but sometimes they are people on the fence who are genuinely interested in what we have to say. It's a very strange sensation, and I always feel rather taken aback by it. Somehow, I'd simply assumed that the vast majority of people today believe what they are told on television. The fact that so many are eager to hear what a fellow citizen has to say, in a face-to-face encounter, is quite reassuring to me.

Sometimes, the people who come to the door seem eager to talk for the sake of talking. On the second night I went canvassing, I spent most of the night at one door. The householder was a Yes voter who believed men had no right to oppose abortion. He was, however, very friendly and gregarious. He told us he loved it when Mormons called to his house. I don't think he was deliberately trying to hold us up, to stop us from reaching other houses. He just wanted to debate. I kept trying to move on, but my partner that night seemed reluctant to break away. We were there for twenty minutes or so.

Eventually, a canvas began in Ballymun, my home suburb, so I left the Finglas canvas, and went from canvassing once a week to twice a week. This time, I found myself in the role of the "veteran", as the two people organising it had not gone canvassing before. The woman I partnered with that first evening was an American missionary's wife, a non-denominational Christian. She was nervous about talking, so I did most of the talking at first. It's funny how someone else's nervousness always seems to make us more confident.

One night, a few weeks ago, we were coming to the the end of the canvas and one woman had to go home. This led to a reconfiguration of our pairings, but we now had odd numbers. The husband and wife who had taken charge of the Ballymun canvas asked me: "Are you confident enough to go on your own?." "Yes", I replied, rather pleased that I could honestly say so. (However, this was on the "home stretch" of the evening's canvassing-- I would not be so confident if it was a full evening's canvas.)

I am canvassing again this evening, for the last time. I suppose I could have done much more-- many of the volunteers have gone "all out"-- but I feel I'm pushing myself already. (Indeed, one evening a few weeks ago, I just didn't feel up to it and stayed at home.) On Sunday, I distributed some leaflets at the gate of my local church-- I was sent them unsolicited by the pro-life campaign, with specific instructions to distribute them outside the church gate after Mass. Since most people left in their cars, I only gave out a handful.

It's been a very interesting experience, on the whole. The nerves have never gone away, though they've lessened. I felt almost sick with nerves for the first few weeks. Now I only feel mildly nervous. The camaraderie of the canvas has been very pleasant, and I'm rather sad that all these people will have passed out of my life next week.

Of course, the result of the referendum is the important thing. As I've said, I'm reluctant to extrapolate from the responses I've heard. I don't know what's going to happen. Please pray for Ireland on Friday. 


  1. What a very interesting article. Even though the reasons for having to do so are unfortunate, it's a great thought thinking about complete strangers coming together for a common cause like that. Who knows? Maybe you'll meet them again some day.

    1. Yes, it definitely had its good side. I hope I do run across them again-- it's not so far-fetched. I'm glad you liked the article!

  2. Thank you for this - I have been wondering how this had been going. It really matters. You have got a lot of backbone - I can very easily understand the idea of feeling sick with nerves initially.

    Your reading of the 'lie of the land' is very interesting. I hope that the absolute and irreducible dignity both of the lives of the unborn and the lives of mothers makes itself known in all hearts.

    Prayers from across the sea for Ireland on Friday.

    1. Thanks for the prayers, we definitely need them. Yes, I would be dreading the canvas from the morning onwards, and even the night before. But when you're actually DOING it, it's not as bad as that.

      It's going to be a nerve-wracking couple of days, on Friday and Saturday.

  3. Thanks for this.

    Not sure if you heard this interview with John Water and Patrick Coffin (American Catholic) on the state of Ireland's soul concerning the referendum -

    1. No, I hadn't. Thanks for drawing my attention to it, I'll enjoy listening to it. Thanks for your kind words.