Lessons from Repeal, 5 Years On

5 years ago today, the people of Ireland voted to Repeal the 8th Amendment to the constitution, and to grant women access to abortion and full bodily autonomy. It was also the culmination of the first campaign I ever worked (I ran the paid social for Together for Yes). The Repeal referendum was a profoundly important development for Ireland, for every woman I know, and for me personally, as a woman, a mother, and a soon-to-be full–time campaigner.

I previously ran Politics and Government at Facebook as a cross-party effort – pro-democracy, civic participation, all those good things. But after Trump, Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, I’d started to feel I had blood on my hands. Being able to volunteer for Together for Yes (as I was out on maternity leave, not in my usual non-partisan role) allowed me my first experience of being a political campaigner for something I believed in; pinning my colours to my arm and pouring my passion, energy and skills into the cause.

As a new practitioner, I learned a huge amount from Repeal about how a political campaign is run (and won), and many of those lessons have continued to apply through the five years since, as I have grown my digital consultancy and worked on campaigns in Ireland, the UK, the USA, Germany and beyond. So I would like to share three of those lessons, as I did with the EU24 campaigners I was honoured to meet in Brussels on Monday night.

  1. The No campaign was primarily driven by the pro-life lobby, aka the right, who were and are exceptionally well-funded and organised internationally. Even if support on the ground for extremist positions is small, they receive a lot of direction from international structures. We saw small villages in rural Ireland wake in the morning to find every lamp post had been covered with pro-life posters, while the Yes camp were still trying to figure out how to fundraise. When the tech platforms banned non-Irish credit cards from running campaign ads, the No ads switched off entirely. The money came from overseas, and the playbook for logistical organising and messaging. We see this continue very much today across Europe, and here in Ireland with the burgeoning far right anti-immigration organisers. We ignore them at our peril.
  2. You win the campaign from the ground and from the air. Together for Yes was a true multi-channel and ‘all voices have value’ campaign. We had lots of organising of volunteers in all different shapes, including canvassing and door-knocking, giving out badges at festivals, initiating conversations with friends and neighbours, etc. And we had lots and lots of digital, organic and paid, in every channel we could manage. As we gained momentum, we were ubiquitous, unavoidable. Every campaign department, every euro, every volunteer’s perspective had value. Though a campaign has to be well-structured, it should not be hierarchical. Field, Comms and Digital are not rivals, we all complement each other – every one success helps to lift all boats.
  3. Authenticity beats soundbites and high production values. Though the multiple images from the No side of beautiful babies and delicate foetuses were highly emotionally charged (some might say manipulative), it was the personal stories which really cut through to most voters. Being able to bring relevant messaging to personalised audiences, from people they can relate to, helped to break down some of the audience silos we feared. Grandparents for Yes, Farmers for Yes, Constituency groups for Yes – all of them allowed us to bring personalisation for cut-through and to persuade audiences through kinship that we all had shared values. But perhaps it was the organic storytelling on a Facebook page called “In Her Shoes” which I will remember most. First person narratives told of real women’s experiences of needing an abortion, from every possible background. Some stories were devastating. Some were uplifting. All were accompanied by a photo of the writer’s shoes. And every one made me weep. To this day, I still consider it one of the finest acts of digital campaign storytelling I have ever seen. It started almost spontaneously, driven by an individual activist based in Galway, but was brought to life by real people and their authentic voices, their true stories, their relatability, their humanity. 

The challenge to all of us progressives is to bring the same humanity, relatability and authenticity to all our campaigns. To organise deeply and laterally, using skills and commitment which can overcome deeper pockets and international playbooks. I will carry these lessons and the spirit of Repeal with me, as I look to the next 5 years.

– Clare O’Donoghue Velikic, founder and Director of ODV Digital

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