Some news: I started a new job this week. Digging through some of my old emails to prepare for the new role, I found this nugget from 2012:
I’ve said to you before that I think you’d be a fantastic candidate. You’re young, articulate, personable, and most importantly I think you have the integrity and vision to help sort out politics in this city.
I also want to have a candidate (hopefully you!) ready to win a Dáil seat at the General Election after next, which is where I think there’s going to be a real breakthrough for the Greens again nationally.
That email was sent eight years ago to one Brian Leddin. At the time it was implausibly optimistic; the Green Party were polling at 2% nationally, we had never even won a council seat in Limerick, at that point I had one local election and one national campaign under my belt as a Green Party member, and I didn’t exactly have a winning mindset. I was also on the Party’s National Executive. With only a single part-time member of staff it was up to volunteers like me to help keep the party running, and I have memories of composing the national members’ newsletter from my kitchen table to try and keep our members motivated during that time.
Eight years later, I was proud to manage Brian’s election campaign where he won a historic victory by becoming Limerick’s first Green Party TD.
What motivated us through those eight years? I think it was partly seeing so many of our peers leave Limerick, either for Dublin or further afield, both before the economic crisis and after it. Our local perspective was that a different kind of regional development was possible, one that placed the development of compact regional cities, teeming with life and prosperity, at its core. A city that could hold on to its young people and offer a modern, sustainable, and European quality of life. A city that could play its part in responding to the great global justice issue of our time: climate change.
Which brings me back to the new job. When Brian asked me to leave my job as a software engineer and take a hefty pay cut to come and work as his parliamentary assistant, I didn’t hesitate for a second. We have spent so much time over the last eight years, debating the future of our city and our country, and working to make it better. It’s time to take the next step forward.
I’ll be working both in Limerick and in Leinster House, trying to support Brian as best as I can with his legislative duties and his responsibilities as a public representative. Irish voters (rightly!) demand a lot of their TDs. A number one preference vote is a serious vote of trust, and we will have to work hard to repay that trust.
The efforts made to engage the public on this project have been significant and should be welcomed.
In drawing up the master plan, consideration should be given to how the development should be phased. In some cases this might mean that buildings might have an interim use that is different from their final use. This was successfully achieved in Grangegorman.
The development should be an exemplar, demonstrating that our regional cities are capable of significant housing growth in a manner that is sustainable and compatible with our obligations on climate change.
The development should developed as a car free development. Any car parking should be placed at the very southern fringes of the site, in a manner that will will allow future conversion of the car parking spaces to more productive uses. No vehicular access should be available on the North, East or West sides of the site. Significant and secure bike parking should be provided.
The majority of apartments in Limerick are 2-bed apartments. Consideration should be made to increase the diversity of apartment sizing, especially 3-bed and even 4-bed apartments which might be attractive to families. Currently 4-bed houses attract a premium in the Limerick property market.
The site should facilitate through cycling for the public from Roxboro and Careys Roads to Parnell Street. In general the site should be developed with excellent permeability for pedestrians and cyclists from all sides of the development.
Public/affordable housing should be mixed evenly through the development. It should not be possible to visually distinguish public and private housing in the development.
Consideration should be given to prevailing winds on the site and how they can play a role in cooling buildings. The development should include lots of trees and plants.
A specific biodiversity strategy for the site is needed so that insects and wildlife can thrive on the site.
The master plan should be ambitious in terms of how many housing units and square metres of office space can be delivered. However phasing should allow for a portion of the site to be developed relatively quickly.
Grangegorman built a playground on their campus as an early part of the development. This helped to encourage the public to come in to the development and provided footfall and community amenity at an early stage.
This January I will be starting an MSc in Transport and Mobility in TU Dublin.
I’ve been a bit of a transport nerd most of my adult life, from being on the national committee of Rail Users Ireland when I was in Dublin, to being involved with Limerick Cycling, Liveable Limerick, An Taisce, Get Limerick Moving, and the Irish Pedestrian Network once I moved back to Limerick.
After so many false starts, starting with the excitement ahead of Transport 21 in the early ‘00s and continuing through the ‘00s and ‘10s, I think we’re finally at the stage where we’re realising how we can use transport as a tool to transform our economy, our society, and our environment.
Enabling the sustainable mobility of our population will have untold benefits. Our economy will have a great future once we can decouple its growth away from carbon emissions and gridlock. Our society will benefit from becoming more compact and more connected, both with each other and with places of work, education, and entertainment. Providing top quality facilities for people to walk, cycle and take public transport will improve our cities, towns, and villages. Supporting active transport will have a real impact on the health of our population.
Transport currently makes up 20% of Ireland’s emissions. We need a pathway to get this down to zero, and quickly. Electric vehicles are not a panacea and we need to find ways of prioritising walking, cycling, and public transport to grow our economy and increase social mobility without the limiting factors of carbon emissions or traffic jams.
Mobility affects many areas of life. Solving mobility means considering where we build houses, offices, shops, and schools. It means properly considering cells of activity in communities to make sure they are properly served. It means applying inclusive human-centred design principles to make mobility accessible to all. It means efficiently using all the arms of the state to deliver effective solutions.
There may not be a semantic difference between the terms “transport” and “mobility”, but I prefer to think that “transport” involves the outputs of investment: the cycle lane, widened footpath or tram service. I like to think of “mobility” as the outcomes or the “how it works” for people: it’s the safe cycle to school with a friend, a convenient commute to a new job, an easy trip to a hospital appointment, a Saturday adventure with a grandchild. There’s always a temptation to focus on the hard engineering of transport but considering mobility requires you to think of the person making their journey, and trying to make it as attractive and effortless as possible.
It’s going to be a balancing act travelling to Dublin to do this course while maintaining my commitments to work as well as the voluntary commitments I have in Limerick. But I really feel it’s worth it, because with the inevitable national shift away from funding roads to funding public and active transport about to get underway, we need access to the latest research and best practice in Limerick. Many of the mistakes made in the east of the country haven’t yet been made in the mid-west, and I believe we can use a relatively small investment in mobility as a force multiplier for economic growth and social inclusion outside Dublin.
Pedestrians should be top of the transport hierarchy but this can be difficult without a dedicated organisation to advocate for their needs. Neasa Hourigan was so frustrated last year by the inaccessibility of Dublin’s streets for pedestrians, especially walking with her daughter who has a visual impairment, that she set up the Dublin Blockers Twitter account to document some of the barriers Dublin’s pedestrians face in simply trying to get around. She later formed the Irish Pedestrian Network to try and formalise a group to advocate for pedestrians, inspired by the recent success of various cycling advocacy groups.
Neasa came to Limerick in September and there was good attendance for her meeting in Narrative 4. There was a sense that we needed a group in Limerick to be a local presence for the Irish Pedestrian Network, to be a voice for better facilities for pedestrians in Limerick City, and throughout the towns and villages of County Limerick.
A lot of people who attended the meeting in September got involved in the campaign to improve the plans for O’Connell St. The fact that we were unable to persuade councillors and officials to accept that even part of our main street should be reserved for pedestrians makes the establishment of Limerick Pedestrian Network even more urgent. Now that the council has passed plans for O’Connell St, it’s time to formalise a voice for pedestrians.
There will be a meeting on Monday 11th November 2019 in 2 Pery Square at 7pm to try and establish a steering group. The task of the steering group will be to properly establish the Network over the next six months, reaching out to different groups to make it as inclusive as possible, and linking in with groups who are already working in this area. No matter how we travel, almost all of us start and end our journeys as pedestrians. If you’re at all interested in helping to give a voice to footpath users, especially those with mobility needs, I hope you’ll consider coming along.
I suspect I’m howling into the wind with this, but Limerick City and County Council have a draft Corporate Plan, and they’ve asked for feedback. Here is mine. The online submission process requires you to make a discrete ‘observation’ on each section, which makes the whole thing a bit disjointed, so I’ve put it together slightly differently here for coherency.
The Corporate Plan is a playbook for what the Council plan to do over the next five years. A new Council is elected every five years, hence the time period. They define the Plan themselves as:
“Limerick City and County Council’s Corporate Plan is a strategic framework for actions over a 5 year period and is a central component of our business architecture, linking policy, organisational activity, governance and performance management and actions.”
Here are my observations. The Plan is divided into ‘Goals’ so I’ve followed their headings.
Inclusion of legacy road projects contradict the goal to transition to an environmentally sustainable low carbon resource efficient economy
Inclusion of legacy road projects make this goal contradict Goal Six.
The first aim of a “smart integrated transport network that improves connectivity and increased use of sustainable travel modes.” is great.
The second point listing off a bunch of legacy road projects is not.
Government policy is clear that transport emissions need to be reduced, not increased.
This goal does not need specific projects listed, especially if they will all increase emissions and unsustainable suburban sprawl. The list of projects could be replaced with a commitment that infrastructure will be built to encourage compact growth in Limerick city and in the towns and villages of County Limerick. This would directly align this goal with the National Planning Framework.
Removal of the list of roads projects will allow flexibility in the plan.
Positive emphasis on climate change and biodiversity
This is great. I’m glad to see a commitment to biodiversity as well as transitioning to a low carbon economy.
Plain English would make this draft plan better.
It should be possible and a goal in itself to simplify the language in the whole draft Corporate Plan. A lot of the draft plan is difficult to understand. It could be made simpler without any loss of meaning. If the plan was simpler then more people could understand it.
Consider this sentence:
“Provide direction and vision around digital infrastructure provision with an objective of Limerick becoming more attractive to new investors and supporting local business to gain competitive advantage in the digital market place. We will also work to yield economic benefits for Limerick from the impact of disruptive technologies.”
It could be replaced by this:
“We would like to make Limerick more attractive to local businesses and new investors. We will do this by helping businesses to take advantage of new technology. We will set an example by using new technology in our work and showing companies how to benefit. If we are successful we will improve the local economy.”
This document is incomplete.
This document is incomplete according to Section 134 of the Local Government Act 2001. The Local Government Act is clear on what is required in a Corporate Plan:
A. A statement of the principal activities of the local authority.
B. The objectives and priorities for each of the principal activities and strategies for achieving those objectives.
C. The manner in which the authority proposes to assess its performance in respect of each such
activity, taking account of relevant service indicators and of the need to work towards best
practice in service delivery and in the general operation of the local authority.
D. Human resources activities (including training and development) to be undertaken for the staff
of the local authority and, where appropriate for the elected council.
E. The organisational structure of the local authority, both elected council and staff, including corporate support and information technology and the improvements proposed to promote efficiency of operation and customer service and in general to support the corporate plan.
This document is missing C to E.
It would have been more appropriate to either present the full plan for public consultation, or to acknowledge that the public were being asked to comment on an incomplete version of the plan.
Cities need good data. I helped Breandán MacGabhann set up the software for his air quality monitors around the city (you can check the readings out on Twitter – mine is on the Dock Road). Councillor Brian Leddin recently asked at a council meeting how many traffic counters were around the city – the answer was only three. We’ve a transport strategy coming up, a controversial incinerator planned for the outskirts of the city: wouldn’t it be great if we had more data to back up our decisions?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while but I lack the time to put it together – I wanted to write it down in case someone else was inspired to put something similar together.
Enter the Smart Bird Box
I’ve been following various attempts to measure air quality and traffic using the Raspberry Pi hobbyist computer. I think with recent advances in machine learning and solar power that it’d be possible to deploy a network of smart sensing devices that could measure traffic flow and air quality at various points around the city. The cost would be a fraction what commercial sensors currently cost. The data that they produce could be open to the public.
I think a bird box would be perfect for this. They are cheaply available and designed to be weatherproof. And they would also be handy for birds to nest in!
A system would need to run without power. Solar panels on the roof of the bird box coupled with a battery pack would allow the system to run without mains power. The PiJuice project supplies panels and batteries that would be suitable for this.
Air quality sensors
Breandán has sourced relatively cheap sensors for temperature, humidity and particulate matter (). A NOx sensor could also be added.
Using a raspberry pi camera, machine learning could be used to detect how many cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians are passing. This article describes such an approach. Traffic counts could be recorded every five minutes. It’d make a great introductory machine learning project if someone was interested in messing around with TensorFlow.
The system could incorporate a GSM modem to upload the data it records every hour to a server. Or if there was a nearby wifi network with a friendly owner, our bird box could connect to that. A server script could dump the data into a database, and offer a way to request data for different time ranges. The system doesn’t need to be complicated.
Not forgetting the birds!
A second infrared camera could be added to record images of any nesting birds who chose to make our nesting boxes their home.
The bird box would be recording images but would not be storing them, the machine learning would be on the device and in real time. Source code could/should be open sourced and auditable.
I’m describing a complete, standalone, remotely monitorable system. But really the way to start would be to find a place where power and wifi could be delivered with a view onto a busy street. My balcony overlooks the Dock Road in Limerick and I’d be happy to open it up to hackers.
Here’s a rough estimate of the hardware cost per box.
Bird box: €5
Power management: €60 for controller, €30 for battery, €90 for solar panels
There’s evidence of a shift in thinking in Limerick about transport. My social media feed is alive with enthusiastic Limerick sustainable transport advocates eager to share best urbanist practice from other European cities. The government has set targets for a large reduction in emissions from transport, and there is an optimism that solutions to get us there might actually lead to a better quality of life for all. Thirteen councillors elected said they agreed or strongly agreed that 10% of the transport budget should go on cycling, in response to questions from Limerick Cycling Campaign.
I’d like to go a bit further and advocate that 70% of our transport budget should go on walking and cycling. It sounds like a lot but it’s utterly achievable and would result in a healthier and happier city and county. It’s inspired by a graphic from the Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets (the cool transport nerds call it DMURS apparently. Here’s a PDF link), the official guidelines for engineers designing streets in Irish cities towns and villages.
If that’s the hierarchy of sustainable transportation, then why doesn’t Limerick’s €38 million transport budget reflect that? Here’s how I’d split the money.
Forty percent on infrastructure for pedestrians
Whether we drive, use public transport, or cycle, we all start and finish our journeys as pedestrians. The only way of spending money that benefits everyone in Limerick, regardless of income or other status, is to spend it on walking. Yes we need a superblock in the city centre to make it a world class walking environment. But we need more: in our suburbs, our county towns and villages, we need space to walk, where a family can walk two, three or four abreast comfortably, where kids can play and old people can sit and we can interact and be comfortable in our environment. Spending nearly half our transport budget on walking (with a special emphasis on those with special mobility needs, like buggy and wheelchair users) will transform our city, our towns and our villages.
Thirty percent on infrastructure for cycling
Spending thirty percent of our transport budget on cycling has the potential to take a huge number of cars off the roads. The majority of journeys taken in the city are of a length that could comfortably be taken by bike, even by someone who isn’t athletic (proud slob cyclist and owner of zero items of lycra clothing here). We could connect all primary schools in the city with top-quality, segregated cycle lanes that kids could use to cycle to school. We could identify all the main areas of employment and make sure that workers can get there easily and safely on bikes.
Twenty percent on infrastructure for public transport
We need fully segregated bus lanes between Raheen and Castletroy via a superblock in the city. If we had the infrastructure, we could get to town in 15 mins, even at peak times. The distances are shorter between Caherdavin/LIT/Moyross and Roxboro/Southill but some bus priority measures on those routes would make journey times shorter. The most important bit is to surround a mostly-pedestrianised city centre with bus lanes in either direction.
Ten percent on roads
We still need to maintain our roads, and driving will always be necessary for some. But cars should be at the bottom of our hierarchy: and we certainly shouldn’t be spending the vast majority of our transport budget encouraging more people to drive. The new Limerick Transport Strategy will undoubtedly contain some white elephant road projects. We should have the courage to reject them and focus on a more sustainable and better future.
In the morning I often think of a woman I never met. Natalia Jimenez Martinez was 30, living on the quays like me, and working in Castletroy. And like me and quite a few of my friends, she would cycle into work, crossing town and turning right at the Hunt Museum to head east on her bike. Except for one morning in 2014, when she was turning right like I do every morning, and she was crushed by a truck carrying medical supplies, and killed instantly. I think about Natalia, because I think about me and many of my friends who cycle every day along the same route, and I wonder when it’ll be me or someone I know who will lose their lives to a careless driver.
It’s time we acted.
We have a great cycle path along the canal and river out to UL. I use it every day, as do many others. We need to build on this and build a safe cycle network in Limerick. First step is an east-west spine through the city – a safe and segregated route through the city that you would let your child cycle on. There is a route that would connect primary, secondary and third level education establishments. There would be some inconvenience for car owners as the cycle route would take some road space away from cars, but there would be many benefits, and there are opportunities to improve facilities for pedestrians too by making footpaths wider.
The route would be a straightforward one, starting at the beginning of South Circular road and extending the entire length of the road on the left hand side, past Mary I, Scoil Mháthair Dé, St. Clement’s and Laurel Hill (and a block away from Limerick School Project and The Model), down Henry Street and around Arthur’s Quay, then turning right at the Hunt Museum along Charlotte’s Quay, joining up with the canal path out to UL.
It would need to look like this:
A two-way, fully segregated path that cannot be parked on. Wide enough that you can go two abreast and chat to your friend on your way to work. With signage that tells motorists to yield at junctions, with a raised level and tightened corners for crossing car traffic, and traffic lights where necessary. A quality piece of infrastructure that would get kids out of cars and onto bikes, solving much of Limerick’s traffic problems in one swoop.
More female secondary school students in Limerick city drive themselves to school than cycle according to the Central Statistics Office. This statistic saddens me. This route could change that.
There would be some outrage too of course. Some residents on the South Circular Road would no longer be able to park their cars right outside their houses. Most of the road would have to become one-way. Nobody likes change. There would be familiar calls for the cycle lane to go somewhere else (O’Connell Ave needs to be a priority for public transport and has a massive hill in the middle, going down the Dock Road would make no sense), or that it would be a waste of money, and a thousand other reasons. But if we’re serious about Limerick, if we want our home to be a serious European city that can attract people to work and to come on holidays, we need to stop the 1970’s thinking about roads being just about getting cars through as fast as possible, and think about all those secondary school students driving themselves to school.
I’ve spoken to a lot of families in Limerick who would love to cycle to work or school, and who would love to leave the car at home and cycle into the market on Saturday morning with the kids. Many don’t because they feel it’s too dangerous. With the right infrastructure we can change that. And once we build it we can extend it out all the way to Raheen Industrial Estate, and start work on a north-south spine between LIT, Caherdavin and Moyross, and Roxboro and Southill.
I’d love to work with anyone I can to make this a reality. Drop me an email (contact details here) if you’re interested in helping, and also check out Limerick Cycling Campaign’s ongoing work to make Limerick a better place for cyclists.
The young people of Limerick who marched demanding action on climate change deserve more than empty platitudes. We owe it to them to get serious about climate change, and to take action to lessen the burden on future generations. It’s shameful that our young people have to march because we as adults have neglected our obligations. With that in mind I’ve jotted down a few things that I think we can do right now here in Limerick, to answer the call from our young people to take action.
Dump the M20
The road between Limerick and Cork does not have enough traffic by European standards to merit a motorway. The M20 would cost a billion euro, money that we would borrow from future generations saddling them not with the bill for a misguided monument to regional aspirations, but the bill of dealing with the increased emissions that would result. The M20 would encourage unsustainable long-distance commuting by private car. We could use some of the money to upgrade the rail service between Limerick and Cork – the first train doesn’t get in to Cork until 9:30 and involves a 40 minute wait at Limerick Junction. To be clear, you cannot credibly support climate action and also support the building of a €1 billion motorway that isn’t needed.
Build houses where kids can walk to school
If you build homes near schools (and shops, workplaces) you give people a choice. You don’t force people into a car. You allow people who can’t afford a car the same access as those who do. We will strengthen our towns, villages and cities by building homes in the centre of them, not in the outskirts. If we are to drastically cut our transport emissions we need to rethink the way we plan communities. Increasing density in the villages of County Limerick will make it easier to provide bus services, fibre broadband, and will make local shops more viable.
Stop car-dependent developments on the outskirts of the city
Limerick and Clare County Councils are planning a “Northern Distributor Road” to open up development north of Limerick City in Clare. UL are planning a “new town” in the fields of south-east Clare. LIT want to convert an abandoned Celtic Tiger shopping centre into a remote campus. These would all be car-dependent, emissions-heavy developments that would hollow out our city and be unserviceable by effective public transport. We’ve lots of free sites in the centre of our city. Let’s use them to build houses, shops, offices and educational facilities.
Expand community-run insulation programmes
Tait House Community Enterprise in Southill is a community-owned social enterprise that does free home insulation upgrades for people receiving certain welfare payments, and provides commercial insulation services for private homeowners, providing jobs and keeping money in the community. We need to find more ways to support organisations like this, giving people warmer homes and more prosperous communities.
Get serious about sustainable transport
The bus service in Limerick is of woeful quality, and although many of us gripe about Bus Éireann, the fact is that we have designed our city to facilitate the private car, and it’s no surprise when buses get delayed for hours in traffic jams. We need to take space away from the car and give it to buses, bikes and boots. A Luas-style service could easily be run between Raheen, city centre and Castletroy, if we reduce traffic lanes and give buses segregated space.
Complete the transition to wind energy
We can no longer justify burning dirty coal for electricity up the Shannon Estuary at Moneypoint. We need to expand windfarms, giving communities ownership so they have a stake, and further reduce our emissions from electricity generation.
Support local food enterprise
Agriculture is a huge source of emissions in Ireland. The main cause of this is a misguided national agriculture policy, but there are still things we can do about it in Limerick. We have some of the best grazing land in the world down this part of the country, and yet much of it is used to produce generic powdered milk for export, some of which is made into breast milk substitute and sold to developing countries. This is emission-intensive, low-value and low-employment agriculture. We can change this by encouraging local food businesses, especially in the dairy sector, to produce high-value desirable products such as cheese. This will provide more income, more local employment, and reduce the emissions per euro earned by agriculture in Limerick.
Listen, and act
The youth of Limerick have spoken in their numbers. We need to listen. They have asked us to act and we need to act. The time for whataboutery and dodging responsibility has gone. Let’s listen to the young people of Limerick and give them a better future, before it’s too late.
I played a small part in the 2018 abortion referendum campaign in Limerick. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to take part. My memories are imperfect, but six months on feels like a good time to get some of them down. They don’t represent a comprehensive account of the referendum campaign in Limerick, just my personal experience.
I attended my first campaign event in February. I was invited to talk about my experiences canvassing for the Marriage Equality referendum three years previously. I don’t think anyone was in any doubt that this was going to be a very different campaign. I was pretty sure we were going to lose. That marriage referendum made waves around the globe but the margin of victory wasn’t exactly emphatic in the end: 62/38. At the start of 2018, the polls showed some indication of support for repealing the eighth amendment, but Irish referenda tend to narrow significantly in the last two weeks of campaigning. Chatting with political friends from various parties I couldn’t find anyone who was remotely confident this was going to pass.
I remember thinking how lonely the campaign was going to be. I was determined to play my own part, to knock on doors and ask voters to show compassion for people in difficult situations. But I certainly couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to come out on cold evenings to talk with strangers about the termination of pregnancy. It seemed especially cruel to ask women to knock on doors to ask for basic reproductive rights that would be available to them in the majority of countries around the world.
And yes it was small at the start. About six to ten canvassers for the first few nights. Not many canvassers for the third largest city in Ireland. The task felt impossible. We started two months out from the vote because we knew we had a lot of ground to cover. But at that stage in a referendum campaign, many voters aren’t fully engaged, they might only have a vague sense of what they’re going to be asked to vote on, and with a contentious issue like abortion, many were understandably reluctant to discuss it with strangers.
We trudged on. Three political parties had agreed to split the organising of the canvassing in the city into three: Jimi from the Social Democrats organised canvasses in the west of the city, Dave from Labour co-ordinated the east, and with my Green Party hat on I co-ordinated the north city. This involved an inordinate amount of poring over maps and spreadsheets which I think the three of us enjoyed more than we liked to admit, even if we did often find ourselves in the small hours of weekday mornings entering canvass returns or tracing an efficient route through an estate for the next day’s canvass. Members of Sinn Fein and Solidarity also joined us on the canvass. But most of the canvassers in Limerick were not party political and for most it was their first involvement in political action.
Canvassers knocked on the door in pairs, with at least one female in the pair. All canvassers had to attend training. We were as obsessed with not losing votes as much as gaining them. The people of Limerick are a polite and friendly lot, and the majority who answered their doors were lovely. But every canvasser experienced a small amount of uncivility, hostility and rudeness. And without exception our canvassers were polite, calm and dignified in return in response. We were not going to be provoked into losing a single vote. I should add that the vast majority of No voters we met were polite and reasonable. I respected (and still respect) their point of view.
A month into the campaign, numbers had risen a bit, we had gone from three canvasses a week to six. It was clear that this campaign was going to be a lot bigger than we thought. We kept totals of everything, number of doors knocked on, the proportion that answered, the number that were “hard” yeses and nos versus the “softer” voters and the undecideds. I remember the first time we had more than twenty canvassers in the third week when we canvassed Ballynanty, I think that was my first time thinking that this campaign was going to be something really big.
We were blessed with two incredible leaders, our chair Yvie and our deputy chair Jennifer, who worked absolutely tirelessly behind the scenes. They never once sought to be front and centre of the campaign, always wanting to empower others. They made sure a dizzying amount of small things got done, and made sure that we were always focused on the bigger picture. We would not have been half the campaign we ended up being without their leadership, and they taught me some very important lessons about leadership without ego.
There were an army of people behind the scenes too, whose work was often invisible yet vital. Fundraising, social media, volunteer management, designing badges and flyers, canvass organising, messaging and policy, training, much-needed aftercare for canvassers, there were so many jobs that people took on and gave up their evenings and weekends to undertake.
Everyone was stretched to breaking point. Most of us managed to burn out at least once during the campaign. The numbers of amazing people willing to campaign kept rising. We also had a fantastic group canvassing the rural areas. Canvassing with them made me realise that the old clichés of the rural/urban divide on social issues in Ireland was redundant – people in country areas were just as engaged, informed and willing to listen to our arguments.
We also joined up with groups from other counties: we ran a joint canvass with the Clare campaign on the northern outskirts of Limerick, we helped a group in Charleville get started and canvass around South Limerick and North Cork. Paul Bowler from Kerry came up and helped to run training for male canvassers (which we quickly christened “manstraining”, to rhyme with “mansplaining”).
As a group we were from very different backgrounds and age groups, but I think we were similar in surprising ways. Most of us were quiet, and maybe even a bit shy. Most of us were incredibly nervous the first time we went canvassing and very few of us were ‘naturals’ on the doors. Yet I think we were all deeply motivated by a sense of justice and empathy for people in the most difficult of situations.
I can’t imagine how difficult it was for campaigners whose lives had been directly affected by the eighth amendment. Whether they chose to disclose their stories or not, I cannot begin to imagine the courage it took to open up their hearts to strangers, to encourage them to think about people in impossible situations.
We didn’t only just have our own fears to deal with, we had the fears of voters to deal with as well. Fear of sexuality, fear of women, fear of talking about anything that goes on “down there”. The taboos and silence that surround so many aspects of sex and pregnancy. The grief of people who had suffered miscarriages. The voters who found themselves, unexpectedly, talking on their own doorstep about their own abortions, sometimes after decades of silence.
Through it all we trudged on. Over 25,000 doors knocked across Limerick City and County in two months. Hundreds of amazing canvassers, young and old, men and women. At the end we were an army. The last week of the campaign, we almost ran out of areas to cover. We organised a leaflet drop of every door in the Limerick City constituency. For the last day of the campaign, I took the day off work with my friend Niamh to cover the few corners of the county that we hadn’t reached, starting at 9am and 30,000 steps later finishing half-way up a mountain at the opposite end of the county at 7pm.
Of course we won, after the profound shock of the exit poll, which nobody quite believed. Some people even tried to claim that the result was a foregone conclusion. But in Limerick, like around the country, we knew it was a victory hard-won, by the some of most incredible people I’ve ever met.
I am deeply thankful to all the repealers in Limerick for the privilege of being able to campaign with them.