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Eighth Amendment

Tears, relief and pride: A day in the RDS count centre

We spoke to people on both sides of the campaign as the results were counted at the RDS centre yesterday.

Image uploaded from iOS (1) TFMR members speaking at the RDS Count Centre

IT WAS THE TFMR families who did it. When reporting on a national event like this, your job as a reporter is to remain non-emotional and non-partisan. It’s not, after all, about you.

But as the parents from TFMR – Termination For Medical Reasons – spoke of their happiness about the anticipated Yes vote in the Eighth Amendment Referendum, it was hard for those present to stop the tears pricking their eyelids. No matter what side you were on, seeing people so visibly affected by a referendum result could only make you emotional.

These were the people who first made their deeply personal and affecting stories public back in 2013, when four women spoke about having to travel to the UK for terminations after fatal foetal abnormality diagnoses during much-wanted pregnancies.

As they stood in the RDS count hall on Saturday afternoon, surrounded by campaigners and reporters, you could almost hear them exhale after weeks of pent-up nerves. For Amy Walsh, whose baby daughter Rose was stillborn at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, the results were a “huge relief”.

She and the other parents who spoke were not just thinking of themselves – they were thinking of the other parents who would be given FFA diagnoses in the future, a future where legislation would allow them to decide what they want to do, to make a choice that, should it include termination, would not have to involve travelling far from home.

We had all heard the stories of babies’ remains brought home in boots of cars on unbearably long ferry journeys; of ashes of firstborns being delivered to the front door by courier. Now, as Walsh put it, parents “will be looked after compassionately, surrounded by their family and their loved ones at home”.

“Now Ireland can work towards changing how these couples are treated,” fellow TFMR member Jennifer Ryan said. “For those who make that heartbreaking decision to end their pregnancy, they will no longer be kicked out of their country and made feel like criminals for their difficult choices.”

No more shame, no more hiding.

Referendum buzz

Image uploaded from iOS (5) Aoife Barry Aoife Barry

The RDS count centre, where the TFMR parents gave their statement, was full of personal stories like this yesterday. As the tallies were counted in the early morning, the hall was buzzing with people. Volunteers diligently counted Xs on sheafs of white paper, the empty black ballot boxes standing open behind them. A podium in the centre of the building awaited the feet of the returning officer later that afternoon.

It was an overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ crowd at the RDS, with Repeal jumpers and Tá badges everywhere you turned. There were babies with badges on babygros, and hi-vis jackets a-plenty.

A picture of Savita was placed behind some of the tallies, smiling her smile that this generation of Irish people won’t forget. Her death led to an outpouring of grief from strangers; a tragedy that changed a nation.

Those in the RDS who were on the Yes side had released a sigh of relief the previous night. The RTÉ and Irish Times exit polls had put paid to any trepidation regarding outcome. Campaigners of both sides knew that the Yes side was going to win. The only question was how great a margin it would win by.

The No campaigners were in the definite minority at the RDS – a handful of them, perhaps 15, stayed for hours halfway down one of the sides of the hall. The occasional pink LoveBoth hi-vis top or No badge could be glimpsed, but they got fewer as the day went on.

Unlike what we may have assumed beforehand, the day wasn’t going to be a nail-biting one. To show up to the counts as a No campaigner was to know you would have to accept defeat.

Cora Sherlock, leader of the LoveBoth campaign, spoke to reporters early on in the day. There were no celebrations due for the No campaigners. It was, said Sherlock, a “sad day for Ireland”.

“I’m disappointed and I feel it’s a sad day – a devastating day for us,” she said, while surrounded by reporters from home and abroad. “The Eighth has done a fantastic job protecting mothers.”

The No campaign had got a headstart on campaigning, putting up posters across the country and becoming visible early on. There had been much discussion about the ‘undecideds’ turning into ‘Nos’ at the ballot boxes yesterday. But that belief turned out not to be true.

Eoin Shanahan was one of the No campaigners in the RDS. “It’s a little bit like when your team has lost, and you’re still very proud to be part of the team – but you’re disappointed that they’ve lost, it’s a simple as that,” he said. Was he surprised by the results?  “Not terribly surprised,” was his answer. “I suppose if you asked me yesterday I would have said I think it would be closer.”

What does he want the Pro-Life Campaign to do now?

All they can do is to keep putting the message out there, and to keep pressure on their TDs. That’s what democracy does, it allows people to put pressure on their TDs to bring in laws and make laws to reflect their views.

“There will always be a Pro-Life Campaign,” he said. “And I will always be part of it.”

A day for women

The big announcement of referendum day was to be made in Dublin Castle, but the RDS was where campaigners and politicians could gather to show their faces and welcome the incoming Yes vote.

Health Minister Simon Harris, whose legacy is forever going to include bringing in legislation for abortion in Ireland, was in quietly triumphant form when he emerged from the blazing sunlight into the count centre. There was much pushing and jostling as reporters fought to get capture his words, words which were not about him, but about the women of Ireland.

“Under the Eighth Amendment, women in crisis pregnancy have been told take the plane, take the boat, today we tell them; take our hand,” said Harris.

Under the Eighth Amendment, women in crisis have been told you’re on your own. Today we say: we will stand with you.

Abortion Referendum count Sam Boal Sam Boal

Dr Peter Boylan, the chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the former Master of Holles Street, struck a similar note to Harris. He had faced heavy criticism from the No side during the campaign, and was a very visible Yes campaigner. But today wasn’t about him. The result, he said was “not about doctors, this is about women”.

This was a day for women of all kinds at the RDS – for the baby girls in slings nestled against their fathers’ chests; the young girl whose dad gently talked to her about how the referendum was about ‘giving women choice with their healthcare’; the young teens who hung on Minister Harris’s every word as he spoke to the press. For the women who were adults when the Eighth was brought in. For pregnant people. The students and the would-be politicians. The married. The single. Those who don’t identify as women but who are nonetheless affected by an amendment brought in decades ago.

“Old people, young people, working class people, middle class people, are voting Yes in large numbers for women’s autonomy,” said an emotional Workers’ Party councillor Éilís Ryan just after the tallies for Dublin Central were announced. As she spoke the word ‘autonomy’, she was almost overcome with emotion.

That she shed tears and had a broad smile at the same time showed the strength of her mixed emotions – happy that this was the outcome; sad that it had taken so long.

Grace Dyas, a theatre-maker and activist, was there in the crowd. Her last work, Not At Home, centred on women who travelled for terminations, while another recent project, Bring These Stories Home, was about bringing their abortion stories onto the streets of Ireland.

“When that narrative is in people’s heads it’s very hard to say no to that, it’s very hard not to empathise,” said Dyas of sharing women’s stories. “I feel like we’ve woken up in a new Ireland, I feel like we’ve woken up in a different country just like those women [who travelled] woke up in a different country, but it’s different in a better way.”

As Dyas said, it came to the point where “just saying something had happened was a political act”.

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Social Democrats councillor Gary Gannon uses his own work to spotlight issues around class in Ireland, and this was no different. When he got to the RDS, he went to the tallies for the area where he grew up, Sheriff St, to see how inner-city Dublin had voted.

“These are people who in many ways have been oppressed themselves, economically oppressed, and they showed in such numbers yesterday and overwhelmingly gave a Yes vote and a vote of trust,” he said with pride.

It’s a tonic to some of the other bad outcomes we’ve had in terms of Brexit and Trump, that this Catholic country – formerly Catholic country woke up and said ‘we trust women with their reproductive health’. I think things will be a little bit different now and I don’t think we’ll ever understand the significance of this vote today.

As the day drew on, the RDS got emptier and emptier. The crowds began to make their way to Dublin Castle, where the final result would be announced. The people had spoken: a change was gonna come for Ireland and its women.

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