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'Heartbroken': After defeat in 2018, what's next for Ireland's pro-life campaigns?

Activists are taking a long view, as they hope to one day change Irish abortion law.

Updated Jul 6th 2019, 4:36 PM

pro life 997 copy Today's Rally for Life in Dublin Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

OVER A YEAR after Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, pro-life campaigners have gathered in Dublin today for the movement’s annual rally.

Facing up to the fact that 66.4% of people voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2018 to pave the way for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland, the pro-life side is now planning its next steps. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie ahead of the march, anti-abortion campaigner and spokesperson for the Life Institute Niamh Uí Bhriain, said many people are “heartbroken” following the result last May. 

It’s a feeling reflected in the video that currently welcomes visitors to the Rally for Life website. As footage from an old march plays, viewers are reminded: “When we stand for LIFE, we are not alone.”

For Uí Bhriain, the rally is partly about boosting morale among those still recovering from last year’s vote. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for people to come together,” she said. 

In terms of ambition, it’s relatively modest – and Uí Bhriain is aware that Ireland’s pro-life campaigners are not going to be able to change the law overnight. A 10 to 20-year time-frame is more realistic if the new constitutional provision, allowing the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion, is going to be repealed, she suggested. 

The new legal landscape is also an alien one to pro-life campaigners. For the majority of the state’s history, it’s been enough for the campaign to defend the status quo on abortion – retain, as opposed to repeal. Put simply, the tactic was preservation as opposed to protest.

pro life 24 copy Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Now, pro-life activists are going to have to take the opportunities as they arise to push for changes to the current legislation, which they see as too liberal and poorly drafted.

The news that an abortion was carried out at the National Maternity Hospital after a couple were told that their baby had a fatal foetal abnormality but a series of genetic tests later found that that was not the case has already been taken up as a major failing of post-repeal Ireland.

“Catalysts for change sometimes arise – a black swan,” Uí Bhriain said. 

“Proactive”

Like most political campaigns, the pro-life campaign is disparate and fragmented. On one side, political figures like Peadar Tóibín are trying to fuse left-wing party politics with pro-life policies, while on the other figures like Uí Bhriain are trying to target the online, social media ecosystem. 

For the Aontú leader Tóibín, the pro-life campaign can’t afford to take a single-issue approach anymore. Tóibín, who resigned from Sinn Féin after being suspended by the party for voting against abortion legislation, acknowledged that Ireland has changed.

“The pro-life movement is very diverse. Many people’s heads are down and are broken-hearted,” he said. “But they need to snap out of it.”

“There isn’t a seat in the country that will be won on this issue alone,” Tóibín said. Instead, his party is aiming to attract voters who care about issues like Direct Provision and mental health funding, but also have concerns about abortion law in Ireland.  

It’s the “bread and butter” issues that matter to people, he said. For him, a party that is pro-life and progressive can appeal to these people. 

pro life 005 copy The march outside the Customs House today. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Uí Bhriain has taken a somewhat different approach. Like Tóibín, she attributes the failure of the pro-life side to win the referendum on a media landscape she says was overwhelming pro-choice.

“The biggest mistake for us was that we didn’t fully understand the support of the media for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment,” she said.

Her response – alongside other pro-life activists – has been to found an alternative media platform. 

Gript, which has a typically right-wing and conservative approach to news and debate, is currently just a collection of social media pages.

But with 8,000 likes on Facebook and 3,500 followers on Twitter, the page co-founded by Uí Bhriain has a not inconsiderable following.

Uí Bhriain says a dedicated Gript website will be launched at the end of July and will counter the “sheepishness that sometimes clouds our view” in Ireland. 

She says funding will come from sponsors and from readers who want an “alternative” to Ireland’s media. 

Recently, the page has covered everything from Traveller evictions, Irish farming and the claim that the sex education bill making its way through the Oireachtas could lead to children being taught about masturbation – a claim that has been factchecked by TheJournal.ie.

Youth vote

One of the striking trends in last year’s referendum was the sheer extent of young people who backed repeal – nearly 90% of people aged 18-24 voted in favour of repeal. 

To successfully change Ireland’s current abortion law, the pro-life side will have to win converts from among the pro-choice young people who voted in large numbers last year. 

pro life 016 copy Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Katie Ascough became one of the faces of the pro-life campaign after the former University College Dublin Students’ Union president was impeached in 2017, following a row over the publishing of abortion information in a student handbook.

Ascough, who spoke to TheJournal.ie by email, said that there was a “level of disconnect between the pro-life message and the Irish people in the lead-up to the referendum”, blaming the pro-choice side for removing “abortion from reality”.

She called for a “ground-up” approach that prioritised grassroots activism.

Young people, she said, could yet be convinced of the merits of pro-life arguments: “I believe my generation truly cares about women, and that in time they will recognise abortion is not the answer.”

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