‘North is next’: fresh fight for grassroots power that beat Ireland abortion ban | World news
Just a few years ago, the Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland was predominantly active in the capital of Dublin. By the time a landslide 66.4% of the country voted on 25 May to repeal the eighth amendment and give women easier access to abortion, the Abortion Rights Campaign had 36 offshoot groups outside the capital, including in counties where Catholicism and conservatism are deeply entrenched.
The Dublin-based organiser for the Abortion Rights Campaign, Cathie Shiels, knows how hard it is to stand in the middle of a remote Irish-Catholic town holding up a placard advocating for abortion reform. She comes from Donegal, close to the Northern Ireland border and the only county that voted “No” in the referendum.
The 33-year-old has been fighting for reform for the past six years and was one of thousands of activists in the big cities who returned to Donegal and regional areas to stand alongside women who desperately wanted change but who were terrified of the implications of urging people to vote “yes” in a small town.
“In Donegal we were called baby murderers,” she told Guardian Australia. “We were spat on. One man slowed down his car and wound down the window and threatened to knee-cap us. It was difficult, especially given how many women canvassing had undergone abortions. It is hard to have respectful, theoretical conversations with people about whether women should or shouldn’t be able to make decisions about their own bodies even though you’ve already made that decision in the past, you’re at peace with that decision, and would do it again.”
By having experienced campaigners such as Shiels standing by their side, women throughout Ireland who had never been politically active before were empowered to stand up to the no campaign and to share their own abortion stories to encourage those on the fence to vote for change.
Women came from the big cities to support their regional sisters, but they also rallied from across borders. Women in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US banded together to raise funds in support of the movements within Ireland and to buy flight tickets to send Irish women living overseas back home to vote. Activists from grassroots feminist groups in Northern Ireland, including from Alliance for Choice, took unpaid leave and gave up weekends to travel over the border and into the Republic of Ireland to towns such as Donegal to help the campaign.
“That’s why we keep saying, ‘the north is next’,” Shiels says.
“We will take our lead from activists in Northern Ireland to help them fight for reform there.”
Shiels acknowledges Northern Ireland will be a different, messier fight. It has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world and is the only part of the UK where the procedure is not legal, save for in truly exceptional circumstances. The UK prime minister, Theresa May, has resisted calls to allow MPs to settle the matter with a parliamentary vote, saying it is an issue for the devolved Northern Ireland executive. She has been accused of trying to avoid alienating her conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) allies in Northern Ireland who hold the balance of power and there is now pressure on her to call for a referendum.
There was already momentum for change in Ireland, which in 2015 voted in favour of same-sex marriage, and which last year elected its first gay prime minister. Meanwhile, the turnout at the annual March for Choice in Dublin had been doubling year on year. Despite this progress, Shiels says few expected a landslide result in favour of abortion reform. She believes the victory was so pronounced because of the work of grassroots groups such as hers. And Northern Ireland anti-abortion campaigners should take heed, she says.
“Even people who vote for the DUP want change,” Shiels says. “The people are way ahead of the government, and we will drag the government along with us.
“There is no going back because too many women have been politicised by this. They got up first thing in the morning to hand out flyers. They lead canvases through their towns and they wore their repeal badges and T-shirts like a uniform.
“They have proven completely unstoppable when they all come together. And they are coming for Northern Ireland next. Organising with women is a different animal entirely. No one is afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ or to ask for help. When we have conflict, we don’t split off and form our own parties. Women see the greater good, women work together, and it has been so beautiful to be a part of.”
The momentum for repeal was fuelled by a resounding anger, Shiel says. While the horrific and painful death of Savita Halappanavar led to protests and awareness, so many other women – some of them known only by acronyms – had been treated appallingly or had died, and this had added to the collective rage. Like the case in 2014 of NP, who at 12-to-14 weeks pregnant was declared brain dead after suffering a fall. Against the wishes of her family, including her partner, she was kept alive on life support because her foetus had a heartbeat, and the laws meant she needed to be kept alive until the pregnancy was viable.
“Nurses were trying to put make-up on this woman as her body was decomposing so her children wouldn’t be afraid of her,” Shiels says. “Then the high court, weeks later, ruled life support could be turned off, not in the interest of her or her family but because the likelihood of the foetus surviving was so low. This is Handmaid’s Tale stuff.
“So anger is an appropriate response from women. Women are learning they don’t owe anyone shit.”
It is not just younger, post-Catholic Irish women who were angered and organised, Shiels says. Many of the women who approached her during the campaign were grandmothers, who told her they wished they had been able to stop having children but could not access abortion or contraception when they were younger.
“At first I steeled myself when old ladies marched towards me, but instead they looked at our signs and said ‘thank you’.”
Social media also helped the grassroots campaigns to work together and to organise. Shauna Stanley, from the Irish Abortion Rights Campaign in Australia, ran a movement called “Diaspora Downunder Dollars for Choice”, which urged people in Australia to host solidarity and fundraising events in support of the yes campaign.
It resulted in a network of 20 events in Australia and New Zealand that raised more than $15,000. Most of the events were organised and promoted on Facebook.
“It was fantastic to see such grassroots organising from Irish people this side of the world, especially being so far away from home and with so many unable to vote due to the prohibitive cost of flights or through losing the right to vote because they had been gone too long,” Stanley says.
“But we’re not done and we are not going to leave other women out in the cold. The north is next. At least three women a day in Northern Ireland travel to the UK to access abortion and even once we officially repeal the eighth amendment in Ireland we don’t want them to travel down to Dublin when they should be able to have an abortion in the comfort of in their own locality.
“We can’t leave those women behind. We won’t.”
The Austrian-born Australian writer and feminist Eva Cox wants this momentum from grassroots feminist groups to move beyond the campaign for abortion reform, and for feminists all over the world to be as organised as those focusing their efforts on Ireland. Such a movement could have the power to spark a revolution, she says.
“What these groups need to be trying to do next is to fundamentally change society so that social issues are seen as important as economic ones,” she says.
“I’d like to see women’s groups really picking up on this stuff and saying, ‘We live in a society, not an economy. We’re social beings, not self-interested dead-shits’. We need to start really challenging what it is that we value as a society as a whole.”