IN SUMMING UP Ireland’s historic repeal vote, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the world it was the culmination of a ‘quiet revolution’. The aim was to sanitise, to suggest this was a change that came without social struggle. This is because Leo Varadkar doesn’t favour protest and struggle.
The reality is the movement for Repeal faced opposition from a conservative Dáil and often hostility from media figures too.
While social attitudes have inexorably progressed over 20 years, the establishment in Ireland has been craven, slow to even loosen, never mind break, its historic ties to the church and only doing so when left with no alternative.
Just last year, the State was set to hand over the National Maternity Hospital to a Catholic order and was only stopped by a public outcry – a clear example of the gulf between the political establishment and ordinary people.
The Taoiseach’s characterising of repeal as ‘quiet’ was particularly disingenuous. Tens of thousands, primarily young people and women, loudly and actively campaigned for over five years since the death of Savita, and were constantly told to tone it down. An active movement developed from Savita’s death, with myriad groups being formed.
The countless marches which took place were told by most of the politicians who strode the Dublin Castle stage that there was ‘no appetite’ for change. It wasn’t that things were quiet, they simply didn’t want to hear.
Several Repeal and Fatal Foetal Abnormality Bills were voted down in 2015 and 2016 while Leo Varadkar himself was Minister for Health and 10 pregnant people a day were quietly leaving the country, with at least three more taking abortion pills. Disgracefully, the politicians blamed the people who ‘weren’t ready’.
Banning political emblems
In the Dáil, the main reflection of the grassroots movement outside was the socialist left, now being written out of the script. When Solidarity-People Before Profit TDs brought the movement into the Dáil by wearing REPEAL jumpers, political emblems were swiftly banned.
The Socialist Party first published a Bill to repeal the 8th Amendment in September 2014 and it was voted down by the FG/Labour government in May 2015. In the 2016 general election, Solidarity-People Before Profit promised to introduce another Bill. The new government was feeling the pressure on the issue of the 8th and came up with the idea of outsourcing to a Citizens Assembly.
It was the Citizens Assembly – 99 ordinary people, not politicians – who came out with the proposals to decisively deal with official Ireland’s abortion hypocrisy.
Five years of street campaigning
Through street campaigning over five years, the huge change in societal attitudes and the pro-choice sentiment that actually existed was evident, yet we regularly were told by mainly middle aged and middle class male TDs and journalists that we activists would lose a Repeal vote.
At a time when the Repeal movement was gaining massive momentum, a spate of articles appeared in October-November 2016 castigating it for being too ‘shrill’ and ‘a new tyranny’ likely to alienate ‘middle Ireland’ – a mythical beast portrayed as inherently conservative. This notion of middle Ireland was proven by the vote to be a false construct.
Direct actions and civil disobedience which broke the law were also deployed in the struggle. In conjunction with ROSA and Women On Web, I took part in the abortion pill train in October 2014 and abortion pill buses in 2015 and 2017. The aim of these actions was to get word out to the wider public that safe but illegal medical abortion pills existed and they could take their rights into their own hands.
By creating the actual fact of widespread use on the ground, we wanted to show not only was the status quo untenable, but so was very limited abortion law that excluded such use. Awareness of the pills grew through these and other actions. Use tripled and is acknowledged as having a decisive impact on politicians voting for the 12 weeks legislation on the Oireachtas Committee.
The real root
The real root of this historic vote is that mainly youthful, female and non-binary people, who have been radicalised by the oppression of the Eighth Amendment and of women and LGBT+ people generally, built the basis for Repeal over the years through marches, the popularising of Repeal on jumpers, through art and culture and in so many ways.
While doctors and politicians from traditional parties tended to dominate official campaign debates, it was the active involvement of tens of thousands on the ground in the referendum campaign - a social and political movement in itself - that was critical to the resounding win.
In pretending all was quietly achieved, the establishment fears lessons could be drawn — that protest, militancy and people power actually work and that these methods should now be adopted to challenge other forms of discrimination and inequality such as demanding full separation of church and state in education, health and other spheres; challenging a sexist culture where women are paid less and are objectified and subjected to violence; and ending an economic system where 1% control the wealth and political power.
Ruth Coppinger is a Solidarity TD for Dublin West.
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