There are far more than three billboards outside Roscommon, and their opposing messages indicate an intensifying battle for undecided voters in the historic referendum on abortion this month.
On the roads into this quiet town in the middle of rural Ireland, it is impossible to miss the laminated placards fixed to lamp-posts. Some have one from each camp, vying for the attention of passersby in a polarised campaign in which voters have to make a binary choice between yes and no.
A few hoardings have been torn down in the night, in a sign of strongly held beliefs. But mostly, the people of Roscommon are holding their views close, unwilling to discuss with each other – let alone a stranger – where they will place their cross on 25 May.
There are very deeply held feelings here. The issue of abortion is very much at the core of Catholic belief
Three years after Ireland, where historically the Catholic church has been the undisputed moral authority, became the first state in the world to endorse same-sex marriage in a popular vote, people are going to the polls again.
This time, the Irish are being asked whether they want to repeal the eighth amendment – a clause in the constitution that protects “the right to life of the unborn”. The amendment means legal abortion is impossible in Ireland, even in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormality, although about 3,500 women travel to the UK each year for terminations and another 2,000 illegally order abortion pills online.
The referendum, along with public opinion surveys that indicate a majority in favour of repeal, is a measure of how far Ireland has changed within a generation or so. But Roscommon-South Leitrim, the only one of 43 constituencies to vote against same-sex marriage, albeit by a slim margin, may again buck the trend.
David Molloy, a local businessman, said: “There are very deeply held feelings here, it’s a small, tight community.
“The issue of abortion is very much at the core of Catholic belief. Even though there will be people here who have had abortions or know someone who has had an abortion, it would never be spoken about.”
In a campaign in which the generational divide is seen as significant, the county has one of the oldest age profiles in Ireland, largely a result of young people leaving to find work or go to university.
It has also seen a remarkable influx of immigrants in the past two decades: Brazilians recruited to work in the meat industry, eastern Europeans, and a smattering of families fleeing the war in Syria.
The changes have been striking. Once, the Catholic church was the only religious show in town; now there are more than a dozen Christian denominations, including a Nigerian and a Brazilian church. In nearby Ballaghaderreen, plans last year to convert a historic convent into a mosque caused a row.
Paul Healy, the editor of Roscommon People, a local paper and website, said: “There are dozens of different nationalities in the local school – a complete transformation from a generation ago.”
According to Molloy, cultural and social changes include tacit acceptance of things once seen as scandalous: couples living together and children born outside marriage, and “even one or two” gay partnerships.
“The influence of the church has taken a massive knock, partly as a result of the [child sexual] abuse scandals, and the cover-ups, but also because my generation are less deferential and more questioning. And then there’s the internet,” he said.
There isn’t the stomach for battle in the church that there was 10 or 15 years ago. There’s no sense of fire and fury
Even so, the town’s imposing Sacred Heart church, decorated with mosaics inspired by Botticelli and Michelangelo, still attracts a relatively healthy congregation on Sunday mornings, although many pews are sparsely filled.
Father John Cullen, Sacred Heart’s priest for just over a year, was reluctant to be drawn on the voting intentions of his congregation. “My understanding is that people are still trying to form an opinion,” he said with a revealing uncertainty, while firmly restating the church’s right to life doctrine.
According to Healy, “there isn’t the stomach for battle in the church that there was 10 or 15 years ago. There’s no sense of fire and fury. I think the no side is probably resigned to defeat, though it’s not a done deal, and there is certainly a hidden minority of people whose voices are not being heard”.
In Ballaghaderreen last weekend, a dozen yes campaigners in hi-vis jackets were taking the case for repeal door to door. By and large, they were received courteously, with residents fairly evenly split between yes, no and undecided.
Doireann Markham, one of the canvassers, said she was reasonably happy with the reception, “but I’m aware that typical [County] Roscommon discretion makes it very hard to call”.
Young people are going to go to England [for abortions] one way or another. It’s happening – we can’t ignore it
“Nationally, the wind is blowing towards a yes vote. But there is a wide expectation that Roscommon will vote no. We’re fighting an uphill battle, but it’s a national referendum, so every single vote counts,” she said.
Her impression was that as many as 40% of voters in the county had yet to make up their minds – double the figure from a recent national poll for the Irish Times. “There is absolutely everything to play for,” Markham said.
One issue that campaigners on both sides have come up against is the government’s stated intention to follow a vote for repeal with legislation allowing abortion on demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy. “People on the doorstep are definitely worried about the 12-week issue,” said Mary McDermott, a yes campaigner in Roscommon.
Sile Quinlan, campaigning for a no vote in Sligo, said: “When you explain to people that repeal will be followed by abortion on demand, they are very surprised and shocked. There’s definitely a feeling that it’s a step too far.” The proposed legislation would give Ireland a more liberal abortion law than the UK.
Quinlan tells voters that one in 19 pregnancies in Ireland ends in abortion, whereas in the UK the figure is one in five. “We look at Britain and we can see what the potential future is. When you ask people how they’d feel if Ireland was to move in that direction, there’s a very clear message that people don’t want to follow the UK,” she said.
She is “not particularly religious” and voted in favour of same-sex marriage three years ago. But repeal would mean “handing all power over to politicians to decide” on the subsequent legislation, and Quinlan feels that many people such as her – she was adopted after a crisis pregnancy – and those with disabilities would not be born.
She insisted there was strong support for a no vote and the media, seen as favourable to repeal, was not listening. “Many ordinary people feel that an equal voice has not been given to those who want to retain the eighth amendment,” Quinlan said.
In Roscommon, few people were willing to share their opinions. One exception was Denny Fehily, 65, a regular churchgoer and volunteer at the town’s museum.
“I think Roscommon will vote against repeal. There just aren’t that many young people and this is a generational thing. But I’m voting yes and so are all my family. Young people are going to go to England [for abortions] one way or another. It’s happening – we can’t ignore it,” Fehily said.