In 1983, when the 8th Amendment added a near-total ban on abortion to the Irish constitution, I was 15 years old, too young to vote. Yesterday, I felt very far from home as the polls in Ireland opened for a referendum on the 36th Amendment, which will, in effect, reverse the 8th. Wearing a ‘Healthcare not Airfare’ label on my bag felt like a futile gesture, until I got a nod and smile of solidarity from a woman I have never met and do not know, at Finsbury Park. Like all good Londoners, I never make eye contact with strangers on the Underground but then again, we were not strangers but part of the Irish diaspora. Irish citizens living abroad lose the right to vote in Ireland after 18 months, and I’ve lived here for decades. We may not have a vote but thanks to grassroots groups from London to Brussels and Berlin, we do have a voice. We asked ‘don’t know’ voters to vote yes for us. Longtime emigrants went back in droves, to canvass door-to-door.
As with Ireland’s referendum on marriage equality in 2015, the #HomeToVote campaign mobilised students and more recent emigrants, who are still registered to vote in Ireland. And they travelled back, some of them from as far away as Iraq and Argentina, wearing their iconic black Repeal jumpers and reminding the over-cautious Irish media that perhaps they had misread the public mood, and Ireland’s appetite for change.
Pre-referendum polls predicted a narrow victory for the Yes campaign, with a sizeable proportion of don’t knows. In the only poll that matters, the Yes side won by a large margin - 66% to 33% at the time of writing. Commentators often talk about Ireland’s urban-rural divide, but that is changing. I started volunteering with the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign because I was inspired, and shamed, by the energy and commitment of my sisters in Kerry For Choice. If they could stand up on the streets of Tralee in southwest Ireland, then why wasn’t I doing more to help them? And today, I am cheering myself hoarse as the results come in from villages and townlands, provincial towns and cities, where an army of amazing volunteer canvassers delivered a decisive and emphatic Yes vote.
As Tara Flynn said in her taboo-breaking stage play, abortion is not a funny word. Ireland’s hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, think-no-evil approach to ignoring the realities of abortion did not work. After 35 years of wishing the problem away, eleven women a day from the island of Ireland now travel overseas for an abortion, and three women a day take illegal pills they bought online.
This was widely seen as a campaign on women’s issues. But men did not stay on the sidelines - they were allies, knocking on doors, having the difficult conversations, voting for their wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters. So too were so many campaigners from Northern Ireland, who are working for safe, compassionate healthcare in their own jurisdiction, under the banner Alliance for Choice. Right now, women in Northern Ireland face a maximum life sentence for ending a pregnancy. This is not an empty threat. Four people have been before the courts in the past two years for causing their own termination or helping someone else to, and police have raided activists’ homes and workplaces. Friday’s historic vote in the Republic of Ireland is one to celebrate. I hope that sooner, rather than later, all women on the island of Ireland will get to make their own decisions about their own bodies.
Ten years ago, I told a friend in Ireland that in England people talk about abortions as part of their personal story, rather than an abstract religious debate. This campaign has changed that. Thanks to Tara Flynn, Roisin Ingle and all the other women who broke our shameful silence about abortion, we can no longer pretend that nice girls don’t terminate.