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pounding the streets

Make no mistake, today's March for Choice is just the beginning of a long ground war

How are both sides shaping up Ireland’s abortion debate?

IMG_0454 Students of Sharda Public School Almora in lndia this week ahead of today's march. Sorcha McCauley Sorcha McCauley

TODAY’S MARCH FOR Choice may be the fifth annual march by abortion rights campaigners, but it’s far beyond the fifth step in a fight that is undoubtedly reaching a crucial phase.

As politicians farm out the job of deciding on the Eighth Amendment to next month’s Citizens’ Assembly, momentum towards a referendum is inching slowly forward.

It’s within that context that at least 65 organisations and an expected 10,000 or more people will march in Dublin today.

It’s also within the context of jumpers and badges bearing the ‘Repeal’ slogan becoming more common on Irish streets. It’s within the context of uproar surrounding dodgy pregnancy advice clinics. It’s even within the context of familiar faces from previous abortion debates returning to our screens.

But is it really different this time around? Are we about to see a debate that will truly make a generational change to Ireland’s abortion laws?

While that remains to be seen, it is certainly clear that both sides are preparing for such a battle.

“We reached a tipping point over the summer,” says Ailbhe Smyth, Convener of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment.

We see huge swathes of young people identifying this as their issue. And I think that’s a huge turning point because it also very much draws energy and enthusiasm from becoming involved in social change. That was there from the Yes Equality campaign in the same-sex marriage victory.

Project Repeal / YouTube

In certain ways, the primary idea behind the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment is to corral the energy and enthusiasm Smyth talks about.

The coalition is made up of 65 different pro-choice groups, about 15 to 20 of which have joined since the summer, and endeavours to provide strategic thinking for the movement as a whole.

It runs workshops for activist groups to hone arguments and boost their social media reach while also providing legal advice. It’s also at the forefront of lobbying politicians.

“A lot of our work is about thinking through what needs to be done. Strategic thinking for a referendum, ” Smyth explains.

7/9/2016. Abortion Protests Issues Pro-choice activists at a Dublin protest earlier this month.

But while pro-choice campaigners refer to a tipping point in the conversation around Ireland’s abortion laws, an equally emboldened pro-life lobby argues the opposite is the case.

Niamh Uí Bhriain of The Life Institute instead says that their canvassers on the ground are finding that people aren’t engaged with the issue.

“I think amongst ordinary people there’s abortion debate fatigue,” she says.

A lot of the time for them it’s more heat than light, you know people with opposing views, arguing with each other on the radio and to a large degree we feel that people are switched off.

5/7/2016. Pro Life Campaigns Issues Aifric Ni Fhloinn, Cora Sherlock, Emma Sisk and Lorraine Mc Mahon of the pro-life campaign. Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

An engaged public or not, the Life Institute is preparing for a referendum ground war.

They claim to have directly canvassed 100,000 people in the past year as part of their ‘Life Canvass’ carried out by 1,712 trained volunteers.

Úi Bhriain says their canvass has hit over 40 constituencies and adds they they’re aiming to grow their team to 2,000 canvassers.

“Everybody knows you start your ground campaign way in advance of everything being called so you can really get your message out there to the people,” she says, before briefly explaining the training canvassers get.

It’s a fairly intensive training process. It takes about three to three-and-a-half hours and some people come back more than once. You go through the issues and you give them information and you also teach them how to canvass.

PastedImage-61053 Life Institute canvassers in Letterkenny.

While it may be preparing for a referendum, the Life Institute is still working to block such a ballot. Its canvass operation is part of that effort.

It’s akin to a double-edged strategy to convince politicians that there’s no appetite for a vote and to win one should it come to that.

“It could bring us to a point where the government might realise that there isn’t this big demand for a referendum but it will also lay the groundwork for a referendum if that comes,” says Uí Bhriain.

Barge pole

The political element to the debate is an interesting one, not least because many politicians don’t want to touch the issueAllied to that, there are indications that in the event of a referendum the main parties may not whip their members to campaign on either side.

But Uí Bhriain believes that, when it comes down to it, politicians won’t remain quiet.

“They do have somewhat of an obligation to voters to stand up for what they said,” she says.

“I think in any case, because abortion is something that people have such deeply held beliefs on, when it comes to a referendum they will be more willing to speak out.”

PastedImage-82887 'Save the 8th' leaflets from the Life Institute. Facebook / LifeInstitute Facebook / LifeInstitute / LifeInstitute

Pro-lifers aren’t the only ones also canvassing, however.

Smyth says the coalition she leads is currently working on mapping out the exact number of people who are pounding pavements on the ground.

She says that numbers have “really taken off” since June but that, again, it’s about coordinating the multiple groups involved, many of whom are local organisations.

Others are individual Union of Student Ireland groups that make up about 14 separate pro-choice branches.

There’s even more than that though with Smyth pointing to groups that have grown under the aegis of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) and have since expanded.

The ARC is the main organiser of today’s annual march and spokesperson Linda Kavanagh says this year feels “quite charged”:

I feel like every year since its inception in 2011 we say it’s been an outstanding year for pro-choice activism but it feels quite charged currently. Repeal and pro-choice voices have taken to the streets in a big way, either on the walls or on their jumpers.

Kavanagh says the campaign is about both pushing for a referendum and also about reminding people how Ireland’s abortion laws affect women.

PastedImage-43489 The theme of this year's march is 'Rise and Repeal'. Instagram / FreeSafeLegal Instagram / FreeSafeLegal / FreeSafeLegal

Recent commentary on the Eighth Amendment has claimed that such a tight focus on the experience of women leads to the sidelining of the unborn and carries the risk of alienating undecided voters.

Asked directly about this and about how the pro-choice argument could widen to bring undecideds on side, Kavanagh points to the people marginalised by Ireland’s abortion laws.

“People, including myself when I first became interested in the topic, didn’t realise that a lack of abortion access disproportionately affects marginalised people.”

Raising the money to travel for an abortion and the cost of the procedure can be difficult or impossible for some people, making it a class issue. While EU citizens currently can travel to England easily, we don’t know what Brexit has in store and we also know that it’s difficult for non-EU citizens to travel.

Repeal not replace

30/7/2016. Abortion Protests Issues Sorcha Fitzgerald holding Maser's now famous Repal logo. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

The Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment views next month’s Citizens’ Assembly as unnecessary. It views it with suspicion for a number of reasons, foremost among them the number of unknowns that still surround it.

“We don’t really know the basis on how the 99 citizen members will be chosen,” Smyth argues. “We don’t know what the agenda will be. We don’t know how they’ll be going about nominating the expert witnesses on the issues they discuss, we don’t know the precise timeframe.”

The coalition on the other hand is sure about its position.

“Ever since the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed, the decision was made to ensure that a referendum be held to repeal the Eighth Amendment. And when we say appeal, we will not look for or accept a recommendation which says there should be a replacement.”

Today’s March for Choice begins at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square at 1.30pm and will march towards Leinster House.

Read: Campaigners says posters advertising pro-choice march removed illegally in Dublin >

Read: ‘I cannot save my daughter, and it destroys me. The one kindness we can do is shield her from pain’ >

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