Image by Niall Carson – PA Images/PA Images
On Friday, May 25, 2018, an overwhelming majority voted to repeal Ireland’s abortion ban, signaling an historic event. More than 66 percent of Irish voters voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Previously, abortion was only allowed in extreme cases and excluded cases of rape and incest. Thousands traveled back to Ireland to vote in the historic referendum, just like in 2015, when the country voted on same sex marriage. Women and men traveled as far away as Argentina, Canada, and Japan to the #HometoVote campaign. Alejandra Ríos of Left Voice spoke with two Irish activists, Muireann Meehan Speed and Maurice Casey who both traveled from Oxford to Ireland to vote to repeal the ban.
Could you please explain something about the eighth amendment and its history?
In 1983 the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution granted a fetus in the womb an ‘equal right to life’ to that of a pregnant woman. In effect, it established a clash between fetal rights and the right to liberty of the woman carrying it. By design, it placed a constitutional prohibition on abortion in all cases.
The 8th was placed into the constitution following a referendum instigated by the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), a coalition of hard-line Roman Catholic individuals and groups. Abortion was never legal in Ireland before this point, and there was no appetite, political or popular, for it to be granted at that point. PLAC emerged in response to a fear among Catholic social forces that a judgment akin to the US Roe vs Wade case would bring in these rights via the ‘backdoor’ of a European or Irish court. There was also a general anxiety among reactionary forces that groups such as the beleaguered Irish Family Planning Association embodied the Irish wing of a conspiratorial international abortion lobby. The same campaigners who emerged as PLAC’s talking heads also fought against the introduction of contraception to Ireland and would oppose the legalization of divorce. They exploited a period of political instability in Ireland to push for a referendum that would make Ireland’s constitution ‘pro-life’, despite the absence of a politically powerful pro-choice campaign to oppose.
A determined Irish feminist movement joined other civil society groups in resisting the 8th amendment in 1983. A central argument, later revealed to be a tragic prophecy, was that the vague and legally unprecedented wording of the 8th amendment would lead to women dying. But PLAC was backed by a then key opinion-maker in Ireland: the Catholic Church, which had not only a captive church going population, the highest in Europe, but also control of schools where anti-abortion propaganda was brought to the classroom an then brought home. The anti-amendment campaign was defeated by a 67% vote in favour of inserting the 8th amendment into the constitution.
At its most extreme, the 8th amendment not only prohibited legal and safe abortions in Ireland, it also enforced a nationwide ban on information relating to abortion. UK women’s magazines, for example, had pages that advertised abortion services torn out by Irish distributors.
A pattern was also established whereby Irish citizens went to the ballot box on abortion whenever the unworkable 8th amendment led to abject tragedy. Momentum for repeal gathered pace in the wake of Savita Halappannavar’s death in 2012. She was an Indian dentist who died from sepsis contracted after being refused a termination in a hospital in the west of Ireland. This sparked outrage on abortion, or rather the lack of it.
The amendment has remained a time-bomb in the constitution with the repeatedly proven potential to explode in horrifying and unexpected ways. Historically speaking, we should view the 8th amendment as one juncture in the wider narrative of patriarchal power in Ireland. Policing women’s right to a public life, in Ireland as elsewhere, has remained a hallmark of this process of subjugation. It says a great deal about how far Irish society has travelled since 1983, and the resolve of Irish pro-choice campaigners, that the 8th amendment is now history.
The 8th amendment is reflective of an Ireland in which religious ideology controlled law, a brutal, violent Ireland whose ghost still haunts us. A country that sexualised us from before we could talk, in an Ireland that tortured women in religiously run laundry operations. It instilled notions of modesty and chastity and traumatised women and children, when we had sex, in Mother and Baby Homes, and the evidence is there to prove it. An Ireland that murdered us and our ’illegitimate’ children, hiding our graves away or dumping them in a septic tank beside Tuam Co Galway’s Mother & Baby home. Every Irish person has been harmed by this, and therefore, we could not accept another 50 years of the denial of choice.
What triggered the calling of the referendum on the eighth amendment?
The referendum on the 8th amendment was in part catalysed by events over the last six years. However, it was also the culmination of the impact of a 35-year history of the denial of reproductive justice for women and people in Ireland. Irish women activists have been fighting back for decades and abortion activism in Ireland is only part of the long history of feminist activity around women’s rights. From the fight to legalise contraception in the 70’s and 80’s, to the battle for divorce won in 1996, to the fights that continue today for justice for those who suffered and died in Mother and Baby homes, Irish feminists have had a lot to do. Thus, the contemporary campaign for free safe and legal abortions was borne not only out of a sense of grave injustice regarding the absence of bodily autonomy for women, but also out of a growing contempt for Ireland’s long history of institutionalized misogyny.
The triggering of the recent referendum can thus be disaggregated into short, medium and long term causes.
Over the longer term, after the referendum was passed in 1983, its advocates started to throw their weight around. First they tried to shut down family planning clinics they accused of being abortion information providers. Then they tried to close down student unions that gave information on British abortion clinics. This coercion began to open the eyes of the wider public on the unseen implications of their 1983 vote. In 1992, in what became know as the ‘X Case’, the Irish High Courts placed an injunction on a 14-year-old, suicidal after becoming pregnant through rape, whose parents sought to travel to Britain with her for a termination. There was uproar. The Supreme Court then found that the 14-year-old’s declaration of suicidal intent if the abortion was not carried out, meant that a termination was lawful in that case.
A referendum later that year granted a constitutional right to travel for an abortion and a right to information. Simultaneously, a majority refused to allow suicide as grounds for abortion. The public mood had decisively swung toward choice. Successive governments were too conservative and too cowardly to do anything about that until 2018. Until then, the vision of a wholly abortion-free Ireland was sustained by the fact that Irish abortions simply happened in England. Pro-choice groups led an unceasing battle against the hypocrisy of Ireland’s abortion laws.
Over the decades, the piecemeal attempts to soften the effect of the amendment failed to quell the growing sense that the 8th Amendment had no place in the Irish Constitution. Moreover, the moral authority of the Catholic Church began to decline following numerous scandals and sexual abuse cover-ups. The Irish Public became increasingly outraged at the Church’s (and the state’s) heinous treatment of pregnant women in Mother and Baby Homes and in Magdalene Laundries. The Catholic Churches’ grip on Irish society progressively weakened, and their moral authority appeared disingenuous.
Anti-Choice elements in Irish society did not disappear quietly. In response to the public’s creeping dissatisfaction with the 8th Amendment, a right-wing group called Youth Defence, formed during the 1996 divorce referendum initiated (with US funding) a billboard, poster and flyer campaign stating that ‘abortion tears her life apart’ and that there was ’always a better answer’, Paradoxically, their propaganda spurred a new generation of pro-choice activism. The ‘Irish Choice Network’ was formed. This collaborative pro-choice effort sowed the seeds for the recent referendum and (re)energised the abortion activism and debate in Ireland, in terms of both more formal political manoeuvres, as well as more informal grassroots activity.
For example, in 2012 an abortion bill submitted by TD (MP) Clare Daly was debated for the first time in the Dáil (southern Ireland’s Parliament), and the first annual March for Choice was held in September that year to commemorate International Day for the Decriminalisation of Abortion. The marches mushroomed in size over the past 6 years, growing from just over a 1000 people to tens of thousands marching annually in the years that followed.
Just one month following the first annual March for Choice, the 8th Amendment again become the focus of national and international attention, following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. Given that she was facing an ‘inevitable and impending’ miscarriage, Savita repeatedly asked for a termination, yet was refused. By way of explanation, one of the midwives told her that Ireland was a Catholic country; therefore her pregnancy could not be terminated while a foetal heartbeat was still present. Two weeks later, Irish Journalist Kitty Holland reported on the story and all of a sudden Ireland’s draconian abortion laws were on the agenda everywhere. The death dominated the political agenda for the weeks and months to come. More then that, the death of the 31-year-old dentist precipitated a huge rallying cry for changes in Irish law in respect of abortion, with her name becoming synonymous with what was wrong.
In January 2013, the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) was born, following a national pro-choice meeting in Dublin. Activists from all over the country, and even in the Diaspora, came together in the fight for free, safe and legal access to terminations. The first goal was to ensure that the X case was legislated for, despite 21 years having passed since the Supreme Court ruling. Following repeated crises and sustained pressure on the Irish Government, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed. Though the Act was overly restrictive, the newly formed ARC, alongside the Coalition to Repeal the Eight Amendment, had won their first victory. Activism around access to abortion grew exponentially over this period – with juridical and legislative attempts to challenge the amendment coming hard and fast. More importantly however, a whole new generation of Irish women (and men) were increasingly angered by government’s continued determination to export the problem of abortion to the UK. They saw it as an abject failure of the state to align with the contemporary reality of crisis pregnancy and reproductive healthcare in Ireland.
In 2014 ARC ramped up their efforts to repeal the 8th amendment, rolling out petitions, street stalls and pro-choice events throughout the country. These occurred alongside the growing visibility of the REPEAL project (and the now famous white on black REPEAL tee-shirts), the x-ile Project and organisations like TMFR and AIMS, all of whom called for the relaxation of Irish law on abortion. Moreover, activists grew ever more determined that Irish women and people would have access to abortion, despite the financial and legal impediments that they faced. In response, voluntary-led organisations like the Abortion Support Network and Need Abortion Ireland were established – they sought to provide the support to people in Ireland seeking to terminate a crisis pregnancy that the state refused to. These organisations proved particularly vital to those groups of people upon which that the 8th amendment exerted its most negative effects, such as those with precarious legal status or without the financial means to travel. After all, access to abortion was and is very much a class and race issue – those with the means to travel did. However those without were forced to continue their pregnancies, or to take abortion pills illegally without medical supervision and risking up to 14 years in prison for doing so. Although no one has ever faced prosecutions in Southern Ireland, two women in Northern Ireland faced prosecution for taking them, under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act.
International condemnation grew also. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Ireland was in breach of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), and in June 2014 the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights stated its concern with Ireland’s ‘highly restrictive legislation on abortion’ and called for a referendum to repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. Then in 2016 the UN found that Amanda Mellet, who had been carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality, to have been subjected to discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment due to Ireland’s abortion ban. It called for the strict prohibition to be reversed.
Rather than acting decisively on the issue, the Irish government outlined its plans for a ‘Citizen’s Assembly’ in July 2016, in which randomly selected though demographically representative men and women would consider the issue and make recommendations. Pro-choice activists, numbers of whom were growing day by day, were increasingly dissatisfied with the Irish Government’s failure to engage directly with the issue.
A particularly exciting and decisive moment in the fight for free, safe and legal access to abortion in Ireland was the ‘Strike 4 Repeal’, which took place on International Women’s day in March 2017. Thousands of activists, mostly college students, took to the streets in ‘strike’ at the failure of the government to hold a referendum on repeal. The centre of the city was shut down for four hours, and the government was under increasing pressure to address this issue.
Despite the fact that many were apprehensive about the outcome of the Citizen’s Assembly, it’s 100 members, following evidence from expert groups, lobby grounds and interested parties, recommended a very liberal conclusion; the 8th amendment should be replaced and abortion should be allowed up to 12 weeks. After the Citizens Assembly, the government set up a cross party parliamentary committee to listen to health and legal experts and overwhelmingly the experts said the 8th Amendment must be taken out of the Irish constitution. Many of the politicians who went into this process with an anti-choice position shifted to a more liberal outlook. However, this was not just due to the persuasive efforts of experts, but also because of the activity on the streets. The Irish State’s treatment of women was under a spotlight. The lack of free, safe and legal access to abortion was just one facet of the state-sponsored misogyny that was driving women to get involved in the political process like never before, particularly at a grassroots level.
Following 35 years of piecemeal attempts to mitigate the 8th amendment’s glaring injustice, and to quell the disquiet amongst Ireland’s feminist activists, the government could no longer ignore the rising tide of opinion that things needed to change. The movement for reproductive justice had transformed from a marginal to a popular one and so, finally, a referendum on the question of whether or not to repeal the 8th amendment was called. This was a culmination of the work of sustained attempts on behalf of pro-choice activists to dismantle the archaic denial of bodily autonomy in Ireland.
Was there a unified campaign for a yes vote
There was a unity in diversity that contrasted greatly with the disarray of the opposition. Together for Yes (TFY), the civil society campaign that fought for the Yes victory in the referendum, was initially composed of three groups: the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment (CR8A). Even before they gathered together under the TFY umbrella, these groups already overlapped to a large extent in both membership and aims. The structure of TFY allowed for a unified approach to political messaging and a centralised point from which to direct canvassing, collate polling information on the ground, distribute campaign material, etc. Politically, it was a unified women-led campaign.
One of the more interesting aspects of TFY was how it relied on pre-existing ARC groups across the country to instantly mobilise a nationwide grassroots campaign for a Yes vote. Since 2012, when ARC was founded, affiliated pro-choice groups emerged across Ireland. These groups were established as explicitly feminist and non-hierarchical collectives of activists. In anticipation of a repeal referendum, these localised groups carried out direct action work to spread a pro-choice message, including in rural and traditionally conservative Irish constituencies such as Donegal and Tipperary. After TFY was launched, all of these ARC groups re-titled themselves as TFY groups while adopting the messaging and branding of the umbrella campaign. These pre-existing gathering of activists with local knowledge and experience were integral to the referendum victory.
Following victory for the Yes campaign, the groups gradually reverted to their pre-referendum identities (i.e. Tipperary Pro-Choice, Leitrim Abortion Rights Campaign, etc.) and are continuing to organise locally to assist the legislation regulating abortion through the Irish parliament, provide solidarity with the campaign for reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, and carry out other feminist actions. Campaigners across the world have much to learn from these activists on how to organise and broadcast a progressive message to a constituency that may not be accustomed to hearing one.
While there are reports that the campaign nationally was timid in putting a straight ‘woman’s right to choose’ to the public, effectively that was the argument that won. Up and down the country, working class fathers and elder sons argued with ‘No’ canvassers that it was a woman’s decision and that, as men, they had no right to impose their will. Whereas people voted in ignorance in 1983, in 2018 they voted as a consequence of bitter experience. The only rational response was that it was a woman’s right to have control over her own body.
Could you tell us about the #Home to vote campaign?
There are currently 750,000 Irish people living abroad, with an estimated 40,000 eligible to vote. Therefore, like the marriage equality referendum two years ago, part of the focus for the campaign in favour of repealing the 8th amendment has been to encourage Irish emigrants living abroad to return home to vote. Pioneered by the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (LIARC), NUS and USI, and grassroots groups like Abroad for Yes and Repeal Global, the Home to V8te Campaign sought to encourage people to “take one trip home so that the 10 women every day who travel from the Republic of Ireland for an abortion will no longer have to make that journey.”
This campaign proved highly successful, with thousands returning home to vote on the repeal of the 8th amendment. On the day of the vote itself, #HometoVote was trending on twitter, with analysts predicting that around 20,000 people had traveled home to participate in this historic referendum. Coming from places as far flung as Argentina, Asia and Australia, Tokyo, Buenos Aries, and Nairobi, many were greeted with cheers upon their arrival. Large numbers wore the now infamous (at least in Ireland) REPEAL jumpers, and those from the UK especially spoke of entire flights filled with self-professed ‘repealers.’ The return of the Irish Diaspora proved a particularly important feature of the campaign in its closing hours, with some undecided voters arguing that the droves of Irish emigrants returning home in order to secure bodily autonomy for pregnant people in Ireland persuaded them of the importance of a yes vote. In a country whose history and experience is so defined by successive waves of emigration, and whose Diaspora still retain a particularly strong connection to the ‘homeland’, the Irish living abroad have proved once again to be a particularly important political weapon in transforming Irish society for the better.
Could you tell us about the fundraising activities organised to help with the cost of travel to be able to vote?
Irish electoral law is very strict. It currently excludes Irish citizens living outside the State from voting, unless they have been abroad for less than 18 months, and intend to return within that timeframe. Even those who are eligible must travel back to their home constituency to cast their ballot, at a cost that prohibits many. This is where a number of different fundraising initiatives came in to ease the financial burden of this journey.
In a great act of solidarity, a motion was submitted by the NUS Women’s Campaign to support the repeal of the 8th campaign at a National Executive Committee meeting in February 2018. Importantly, part of this motion mandated the NUS to subsidise travel costs for Irish students eligible to vote in the upcoming referendum. In response the NUS set up a travel bursary fund to assist students in covering the cost of their travel, and encouraged individual students unions across the UK to do the same. Successful motions were submitted and passed in Oxford University, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sussex and Goldsmiths.
Electoral law in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) states that an individual can accept a political ‘donation’ of up to €126.97 – approximately £110 – before they have to register as a ‘third party’. In turn, third parties cannot accept overseas donations. Therefore, this was the limit any individual student union, in conjunction with NUS funds, could provide for any individual student. The latest figures suggest that over 500 Irish students in the UK were funded as part of this initiative, with many more being encouraged to return in the process. This was an unprecedented act of solidarity by UK universities, and demonstrated how student unions across the UK were willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the 170,000 Irish women and people who have been forced to travel to the UK since 1980, as well as the countless others who have been forced to break the law by taking the abortion pill at home, risking 14 years in prison by doing so.
Another important fundraising activity was the Abroad for Yes Facebook group (open to donors and voters only). It is estimated that more than €30,000 was donated to Irish citizens voting for abortion rights. People posted their referendum voting cards to confirm their identities, GoFundMe pages or PayPal accounts, and trip information, allowing for donors to give what they pleased. Other donors directly booked travel for voters. Incredibly, some travellers received donations totalling in the hundreds over a matter of minutes in order that they could return home to vote. Even more remarkable is that 36 hours before the vote, Abroad for Yes doubled in size, growing from 3,000 to nearly 7,000 members. Recipients of online donations described having their travel funded in a matter of hours for last-minute tickets.
What do you think the result of the referendum will mean for Northern Ireland?
While Ireland may be partitioned, with 6 counties in the North of Ireland legally forming part of the United Kingdom (UK) and the remaining 26 forming the Republic of Ireland, both jurisdictions held a de facto ban on abortion until the very recent referendum. The UK’s 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, therefore it is the only place in the whole of the UK where abortion is banned. Moreover, the North of Ireland is one of the last remaining outposts of a draconian abortion regime in Europe, alongside Malta. While Southern Ireland’s ban on abortion was kept in place by the 8th amendment, Northern Ireland’s draconian regime is dictated in law by sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Therefore, legislative change in Northern Ireland does not require a referendum. Instead, it seems, abortion reform may have to come from Westminster. Up until this point the UK parliament has been able to ignore or overlook the issue. However, the result on May 26th means that at least in the short term, it will be difficult to continue to sweep this issue under the rug.
Indeed, the result of the referendum on the 26th May catapulted Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion regime into the international spotlight for arguably the first time. The result has generated significant momentum not only across grassroots feminist movements both North and South of the Irish border, with organisations like Alliance 4 Choice reporting an exponential increase in applications to get involved, but also within England, Scotland and Wales. Moreover, politicians who up to this point had overlooked the issue were suddenly interested. However, this mood shift that favoured the relaxation of abortion restriction was already taking place prior to the referendum result. The effort to bring Northern Ireland’s reproductive healthcare system in line with the rest of the UK had intensified in recent years, both within Northern Ireland itself, as well as in the UK more generally.
For example, in just October last year, grassroots feminist activists held the largest ‘Rally 4 Choice’ in the territory’s history, with thousands calling for a change in the law. Even prior to the referendum result, organisations like Alliance 4 Choice were growing rapidly, and many civil society organisations were responding positively by signing on to their demands. Due to the pioneering work of UK MP Stella Creasy in conjunction with the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign and Alliance 4 Choice, those travelling to England, Scotland or Wales for terminations are now entitled to funding from the UK government.
Indeed, the movement for change was galvanised long before the referendum on the 8th amendment was called. Polling in Northern Ireland shows consistent, widespread, cross-community support for liberalising abortion laws, but there hasn’t been a legislative assembly sitting at Stormont (the devolved parliament in Northern Ireland) for over 18 months. The second largest party in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, liberalised its position on abortion at a party conference last year and played a leading role for ‘Yes’ in the Republic of Ireland’s referendum. The hard-line and seemingly unwavering anti-abortion position of the largest Northern Ireland party, the Protestant-fundamentalist DUP (who also oppose gay marriage), means that it is extremely unlikely that Stormont can be the architects of reform.
Therefore, pro-choice activists have turned their attention away from local party politics in order to bring Northern Ireland in line with both the Republic and Great Britain. In February 2018, the United Nations condemned the UK Government, saying that the current restrictions on abortion access in Northern Ireland constitute ‘grave’ and ‘systemic’ violations of women’s rights, and may amount to torture or degrading treatment. Therefore, pro-choice activists argue that it is the sovereign responsibility of Westminster (the UK parliament, in London) to uphold human rights across the UK. With no devolved legislature in Belfast, Theresa May must act, despite being in power at the behest of the nine DUP MP’s from Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin have the remaining eight MPs from Northern Ireland, but refuse, as Irish republicans, to take an oath to the British monarch and sit in the London parliament.
On 5th June this year, Labour MP Stella Creasy successfully tabled a motion for an emergency debate on the responsibility of the UK government to liberalize abortion laws, following decades of inaction. More specifically, the debate on the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences against the person Act (to decriminalize abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) represents a major shift in the Westminster response to the denial of abortion rights in Northern Ireland. While some MPs, including all DUP Westminster MPs and Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, Tory MP Karen Bradley argued that it was a devolved matter, the consensus seemed to be that the principle of devolution does not trump the responsibility towards human rights protection. Prior to this, in 1972, Westminster refused to tackle sectarian discrimination in Northern Ireland on the basis that that was a ‘devolved’ matter. The decision led to the Troubles and more than 3,000 deaths over 30 years.
In a highly anticipated ruling on 7th June 2018, the UK Supreme Court decided that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have a standing to bring a legal challenge, but still formed a majority view that the current law on abortion is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, with Lord Kerr noting that the law ‘treats the pregnant woman as a vehicle and fails to attach any weight to her personal autonomy’. The Court went on to indicate that if an individual victim had brought the same legal challenge, the Court would have issued a declaration of incompatibility under section 4 of the Human Rights Act. Only hours after the Courts ruling was announced, a Belfast woman, Sarah Ewart, who travelled to Britain for an abortion after being told her baby would not survive, announced her intention to take a case to the High Court. She claimed she was seeking a formal declaration that Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion were incompatible with human rights law.
This would place further pressure on Parliament to address the lack of abortion provision in Northern Ireland.
Sudden cross-party momentum behind repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act reflects a significant changes in the landscape of British politics since Hackney MP Diane Abbott tried to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland in 2008. A surge of political will was triggered by Ireland’s decision to Repeal the 8th amendment late last month.
A weak Tory government supported by fundamentalist DUP MPs has provided Labour with an opportunity to use abortion reform in Northern Ireland as a show of strength in opposition. Although broader political motives are clearly at play, the serious consideration of the decriminalisation of abortion via Westminster is more than welcome after decades of inaction.
The UK Prime Minister Theresa May, meanwhile, is walking a tightrope between placating the DUP and pressure even from within her own party to align Northern Ireland abortion law with the rest of the UK.
While pro-choice activists and politicians have redoubled their abortion reform efforts, the DUP have dug their heels in. DUP chair Lord Morrow has warned Theresa May that the DUP could walk away from their confidence and supply deal if she permits Tory MPs to vote in favour of abortion reform in Northern Ireland. MLA (ie. member of Stormont) Jim Wells stated on Radio Ulster that, when Stormont resumes, the unionist DUP would use a ‘petition of concern’ as a veto against abortion reform. This is a gross exploitation of a provision, open to a minority with 30% assembly support, designed originally to prevent a recurrence of unionist discrimination against nationalists. The DUP wants to use it to continue discriminating against women, unionist and nationalist.
DUP intransigence on abortion reform is undeniable, and the nature of Northen Irish politics means that they have no electoral incentive to revise their stance in line with public opinion (even if the DUP, one suspects, has far too much to lose in future Brexit negotiations to walk away from its alliance with the Tories over abortion). It appears, at least for now, that May and her cabinet will continue to rely on devolution as a get-out clause.
Yet the deadlock cannot hold forever. One thing is for certain: activists will not let up. In the last few weeks alone there have been a number of large demonstrations. As time goes on, this will place yet more pressure on the UK government to intervene. While abortion reform is far from a certainty in the North of Ireland, it seems as if it is more of a possibility than ever before.
Ultimately, the result puts abortion rights on the table in the last part of these islands. Just as the Northern Ireland State pre-1972 was unable to grant basic civil rights and to stop discriminating against nationalists, today the same is happening to women. The demand in the 1960s was for Britain, as the sovereign power, to override unionist intransigence. Today, if the DUP is unable to agree to change in the Assembly, it will have to come in from outside, whether through London alone or through the Dublin-London intergovernmental conference.
The northern state was given an opportunity to reform as a result of the 1998 agreement. If it cannot even satisfy women’s right to bodily autonomy, then its future is in doubt. The same goes for equal marriage and for Irish language rights. Demands for equality express basic human needs. Moreover, their satisfaction frees up society generally and breaks down layers of prejudice, and so will be good for society as a whole.
From what you have heard about the Irish government’s intention to bring forward a bill to liberalise the abortion law, do you think this reform will satisfy the demands of pro-choice campaigners? What would be the focus of the campaign now?
Pro-choice campaigners face many more struggles ahead and there is no room for complacency.
The legislation tabled by the government will be, by European standards, relatively restrictive. Irish parliamentary representatives who campaigned for a ‘No’ vote will also attempt to amend it, though they have a low likelihood of succeeding given the scale of the ‘Yes’ victory. The campaign will now focus on supporting the legislation and looking to extend reproductive rights to Northern Ireland. In addition, pressure will be applied to work towards ensuring that abortion is not only safe and legal but also free. Ireland currently operates a two-tiered health system, where those within a certain income bracket receive free medical care that is severely rationed and delayed. Wealthier individuals can avail, through private insurance, of private clinics with superior and fast-tracked services. The ‘free’ in the pro-choice slogan ‘free, safe, legal’ is an open-ended demand insisting that healthcare itself should be free to all.
As for the future beyond these formidable tasks? A progressive Ireland is a country where pregnant people have complete control over their own bodies and can make choices about their own lives and healthcare unhindered by barriers of class or citizenship. One maxim pro-choice campaigners in Ireland have begun to use is: abortion ‘as early as possible and as late as necessary.’ As an intersectional and inclusive movement, the Irish grassroots campaigners behind the pro-choice movement will continue to lend their support to other struggles, such as the campaign to replace Ireland’s punitive asylum system (known as ‘Direct Provision’) with a humane alternative.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that, in 1983, the Irish pro-choice movement did not go away simply because it experienced a resounding electoral defeat. 35 years later, we should not assume that our opposition will recede into the background as a result of our landslide victory. We must defend the ground gained while seeking to advance it.
How do you explain the changes in Irish society that have led to gay marriage and the landslide vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment?
Historians of modern Ireland will argue over this very question for decades, but some answers already seem clear. Since the 1960s, the Irish Catholic Church has, initially gradually but then rapidly, by its own actions, lost all credibility as a moral authority. The systematic cover-up of sex abuse, revelations about religiously-run for-profit adoption rackets and the exposure of the national industry of incarcerated women’s slave labour that constituted the ‘Magdalene Laundries’ have rightly discredited what was once the most influential force in Irish life. In the immediate aftermath of the recent referendum, yet another adoption-scandal came to national attention. The Church response to these revelations, at both the national level and from Rome, has consisted of little more than denial, cover-up and silence, thereby eroding any chance the Church had to recover its esteem. A large number of votes in favour of marriage equality and in favour of repeal must be perceived as anti-Church votes. It became increasingly apparent that an organisation with a dismal track record of criminal abuses had little grounds to speak out for the vulnerable. It is important to point out that the leading Anglican bishops in the church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church also opposed abortion reform. The also have abuse skeletons in their closets. They are the dominant churches in Northern Ireland where fundamentalist Protestantism mirrors the Roman Catholic variety.
Such a widespread disavowal of the Roman Catholic Church’s duplicity would not have occurred without the courage of activists willing to challenge and expose it. Since the 1960s, civil society groups in Ireland have gathered strength. The Irish women’s movement led the way and inspired other campaigns such as the LGBT movement in Ireland. Although some reversals of progress were experienced (particularly in 1983), since the 1990s civil society groups have become larger, more vocal and more successful. This is due, in part, to improved economic fortunes in Ireland. But the globalised world has also connected activists together with their international counterparts, providing resources and comradeship from abroad. Now that the voice of morality in Irish society has been wrested from a scandal-wracked clergy, an intersectional and inclusive movement has taken on the task of speaking for the oppressed with conviction and legitimacy.
The referendum on marriage equality and the 8th Amendment can be seen as votes on two competing visions of Ireland that have been battling one another for decades. On the one hand, voters were asked to vote ‘No’, and uphold a culture of shame and social exclusion that has remained a hallmark of reactionary power in Ireland since the foundation of the state. But in both cases Irish voters chose by a landslide to instead vote ‘Yes’, and thereby vindicated a history of progressive social struggle for a more equal, honest and just Ireland. The task laid before the Irish left is now clear: we must continue to channel the momentum of this historical force into the future, not only to create a progressive Ireland, but to fight for a better world.
The landslide victories for ‘Yes’ in 2015 and 2018 do, to an extent, prove that Ireland has become a socially progressive country. Parliamentary politics, however, remains dominated by right-of-centre parties and the prospect of a left-dominated government appears far distant. But the organizational lessons of the ‘Yes’ victory offers a path forward for Irish progressives. Irish social movements have spent most of their history battling against the odds rather than standing in the limelight. As a result, Irish activists have a resolve and a fundamental aversion to complacency that explains much of their recent success and will continue to underpin future victories.
Muireann Meehan Speed is an activist in Oxford pro-choice and a PhD student
Maurice Casey is a member of Oxford pro-choice and PhD student who studies Irish history.