Compassionate, credible, united: how 'Yes' won the Irish abortion referendum

The pro-Repeal campaign won the referendum on Ireland's abortion ban because it maintained a unified front, focused on a caring and compassionate message - and avoided "bitter and divisive" rhetoric, a key comms figure has told PRWeek.

United for repeal: Poster launch in Dublin
United for repeal: Poster launch in Dublin

On Friday (25 May), 66.4 per cent of Irish voters supported repeal of the country's eighth amendment, which effectively banned abortion in almost all situations.

The pro-repeal campaign was headed by Together For Yes, an umbrella group led by three organisations: the Abortion Rights Campaign, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Together For Yes communications manager Amy Rose Harte told PRWeek the campaign was backed by an additional 97 organisations of different types, including trade unions, women's welfare groups, and groups representing professionals including teachers and doctors.

"The fact that we kept all of those organisations singing from the same hymn sheet for the three months of the campaign... was a huge achievement. It spoke to the fact there was a unity of support for a Yes vote."

Celebrities who backed the campaign included Mrs Brown's Boys star Eilish O'Carroll, who plays Winnie in the comedy show (pictured far right below with activists).

Photocall with Winnie from TV show Mrs Browns Boys (far right)

Harte said the group’s message was that abortion was a reality in Ireland, as thousands of women visit the UK to have abortions or buy abortion pills online.

"Therefore we said this referendum isn’t a vote on whether you want abortion in Ireland or not, because abortion is already here. This referendum is a vote on whether you want women to be able to access abortion services that are safe, that are legal and that are regulated.

"That was very much our core message from day one and we stuck with that strategy. Everything then in terms of our different announcements or various press events, the way in which we used our appearances on television, radio debates... we would have been constantly driving home that message."

A crowdfunding scheme that launched six weeks before the poll, with the aim of raising money for the campaign, smashed its "modest" target of raising ‎€50,000 within one week. It actually generated more than ‎€500,000 in four days.

"It had a massive impact both internally and externally," said Harte. "Internally it had a huge morale-boosting affect, and externally, it made people realise that there was a massive level of support for a Yes vote."

From the start, the campaign highlighted personal stories of women and couples who had travelled abroad to have abortions, which "had a huge emotional impact on voters", said Harte. Doctors who supported repeal were also prominent in the campaigning (pictured below are obstetricians with health minister Simon Harris), which "gave our message a huge amount of credibility".

Obstetricians join Health Minister Simon Harris on a canvass

"Care, compassion and change became three words that were very hugely associated with the Together for Yes campaign and it worked, thank God."

Harte said she "actively sought to bypass any potential for divisive rhetoric or bitter digs".

"That’s not to say it didn’t get robust at times, but certainly from a communications strategy point of view, we did our best to take the temperature of the electorate. We felt that nobody wanted to have a bitter and divisive debate and therefore we sought to just ensure that.

"We were respecting the fact that people find this a very difficult set of complex issues that they were struggling with, and we understood that."

The launch of a policy paper outlining why the Government proposal is the only way to support victims of rape and incest

She said the campaign sought to speak to the "huge number of undecided voters" in a "very moderate, reasonable, measured way". This is in contrast to the divisive and bitter debate during the last referendum on the subject in 1983, she explained.

The campaign held "a national conversation tour" a couple of weeks before polling day, when it took its message across the country.

"We called it a conversation tour because we understood that people needed to have the conversation about abortion and we needed to open that door and create a safe space for people. We created a narrative where it was slightly easier for people to have the conversation in a respectful way."


The view from PR experts in Ireland

Conall McDevitt, CEO, Hume Brophy

"I’d say the campaign was successful for several reasons:

"Firstly, the referendum was the culmination of a process that started with a Citizens Assembly, then an Oireachtas [Irish Parliament] Committee inquiry, the publication of draft legislation and the Campaign over a three-year period. People knew exactly what they were voting for and what would happen if they voted to repeal - unlike Brexit, for example.

"It wasn’t a quick revolution. It was a long, steady campaign centred on personal stories told, over time, by any number of women from very different backgrounds. It was also led by women. This created a grass roots movement. The political parties were not the only, or the loudest, voices.

"The Repeal campaign ran a very a positive campaign. The messaging was strong, evidence-based, compassionate and credible."

Colin Hart, creative director and founder, The Public House

"The 'No' campaign were incredibly aligned on their message from the outset; clear in their intention to make this referendum about life or death.

"The ‘Yes’ campaign had a more complex message. A message about choice and empathy is a more difficult sell - it’s open to interpretation, opinion and sway, however the ‘Yes’ campaign gained momentum, correlating with the national debate, through media and genuine influence from real people who had been affected.

"The real effect, although started by comms, came from a simpler source - people. Just prior to the vote there was a massive effort from the younger generation to lobby their parents (probably a learning from Brexit) where they went home, called home and tried to persuade more conservative family members to vote in the ‘Yes’ camp. With a sea of Yes and No posters everywhere, the country became like a lazy Vicky Pollard sketch, but the success lay in genuine stories, grief, pain and suffering that was slow out of the traps, but much more powerful in the long run.

"The day before the vote, demonstrating that every day of the campaign counts, the Yes side revealed the most striking and powerful image of their campaign - a mural of Savita Halappanavar, the woman whose death made a country stand up and say 'never again'."

Frank Condon, development & research manager, Public Relations Institute of Ireland

"Much of the success of the Yes campaign's victory in the referendum debate was due to the activisation and motivation of the civil society and grassroots campaign and the courage of women to share their personal stories of how the eighth amendment had affected them, their partners and their families.

"Much experience gained during the Marriage Equality referendum campaign in 2015 was leveraged - supporting those on the ground to knock on doors and talk to people. But it also built on similar approaches in terms of prioritising personal stories and lived experience, to advocate for the need for change.

"A determination to maintain an appropriate tone for a respectful debate was a big contributing factor to the success.

"It also helped that the public were highly engaged on the issue with much exposure to the issues over recent years (previous referendums, political initiatives such as the Citizens Assembly, the Oireachtas Committee, and media discourse). Engagement by and of many young people and new voters who would not necessarily be as heavy consumers of traditional media also played a large part.

"It was the strategy of basing the Yes campaign on solid research which was in turn used to craft messaging with a heavy reliance on individual stories that people could relate to as possibly affecting their sisters, daughters or granddaughters, that won out. While backing these up with relevant medical expertise to bolster these arguments.

"But above all it was the skilful development of narratives around care and compassion that built the key message of the need for change."

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