Nearly a month after the Repeal referendum, and the dust is still settling. How do we comprehend this result and where to we go from here? Rebel’s Becca Bor sat down with key activists including Sinead Kennedy (leading member of Together for Yes), Adrienne Wallace (People Before Profit), and Fiona Ferguson (an organiser of the Time for Choice Rally), to hear their thoughts on the result and the way forward.
1. Can you talk about how you are feeling after the tremendous victory for Repeal?
Sinead Kennedy: Initially it was a huge sense of euphoria. Nobody quite believed the scale of the victory. We thought in the last few weeks we would win, but no one thought it would be such a dramatic victory. Everybody was incredibly emotional and some of the media commentators said this wasn’t an appropriate response, but I think that is to misunderstand what this was about. No one was celebrating abortion, we were celebrating and remembering what a difficult place Ireland has been for women and marking that something momentous had happened. This was the culmination of a series of shifts that had taken place. People were saying things like “for the first time ever I feel like a free person”. I think that is why so many people were both so emotional but also so euphoric. In Dublin castle while we waited people were shouting “we made history” and “the north is next”.
Fiona Ferguson: I was at an outdoor concert in Belfast when the exit polls broke. Nearly 70% Yes. I immediately turned to find Repeal jumpers in the crowd, and I could see others doing the same. Tens of people were openly embracing and weeping and chanting Repeal. Over the border we immediately understood the weight of the victory, for tireless activists in the South, and for our own fight here. The momentum up North has continued since then. A group of us called a rally for two days later and hundreds of people turned up. Importantly, Together for Yes activists from Drogheda, Donegal and Dublin joined us and made a reality of the promises of a return in solidarity. They made the journey again, this time in their hundreds, to support an Alliance for Choice contingent just weeks later, and some joined a protest in Derry. After the victory for Repeal, activists in the North feel like our movement has been reinvigorated and solidarity from T4Y activists has already bolstered that.
Adrienne Wallace: I remember being at a Think Left Conference in Derry last year. Eamonn McCann referenced a quote from someone during the Russian Revolution. I can’t recall the source of the quote but I recall the sentiment. It referred to how everything looked different after the revolution. That the places around him, although structurally still sound, looked different. Eamonn compared this to a description from a Dublin worker after a successful strike. He mentioned how she described coming over the Liffey soon after the strike and that, for her, the City just looked different. I didn’t fully grasp this until the Sunday after the referendum result. I sat on my bed and all the rooftops in my estate looked different, the roads in my town, everything a different feel to it. It dawned on me later that it looked and felt different because something had changed, not just the Repeal of the 8th but how I interact with the world. My labour, and the hard work of the activists around me, our collective strength actually changed the country. Often our labour is something that we have no control over. We go to work for 8, 10, 12 hours. We are told where to stand, what to do, when we can eat—in a way it’s used against us. We can’t wait for Friday to ‘roll on’ and end the misery. But here, during the campaign, our labour changed so, so much. When we are the ones in control of it and not the bosses, it has the potential to spark revolutions, to win rights that have been robbed, to beat inequality. Marx spoke about our alienation from our labour and the affects it has. I think I finally understood what it was like to trump that affect, and however brief it was, it gave me a glimpse of what life might feel like in a better world. So yeah, I’m feeling pretty good after this victory!
2. Looking back over the campaign and over the years that you have been active around choice, are there any things that stick out to you? Any take aways?
Fiona Ferguson: What stood out for me about the Repeal campaign was how much further ahead the movement of ordinary people and activists was than politicians. I remember listening to Bernadette McAliskey call out Mary Lou McDonald from the stage of March For Choice 2017 and receiving rapturous applause. That struck me. And of course we now know just how powerful that kind of pressure would prove to be. Many politicians, Varadkar and Martin for example, were as good as forced to back Repeal because of huge pressure from the movement and from wider Irish society who wanted change. They may receive undue credit for ‘single-handedly’ delivering a Yes vote but, as far as I’m concerned, activists haven’t received enough credit for delivering politicians to a progressive position on abortion. There is an outside perspective that the people of Ireland are particularly conservative. Repeal has hopefully smashed that view.
Sinead Kennedy: After 1983 it was a very difficult period for many activists; when not only the 8th amendment was in place, but the attempt to legalise divorce loses and then the far right go after abortion rights information. They start to terrorise students by taking them to court. It was a very dark time in the 1980s where it was very difficult to be an activist. Most of the time activists spent was on ensuring that people had access to information about abortion. I think the struggle around information is important because we forget how difficult it was to get information then. Now you have literally everything you could possibly need in your phone, you just tap a few buttons, but that wasn’t the case. People didn’t have phones, there was no internet, so getting information was really difficult. So in those dark times there were lots of women and activists who continued the struggle just by ensuring that women had access to information, supporting women in their travel to Britain, whether financially or emotionally. That work is important to remember.
The second thing which changes everything is the X case. There are some lessons in that because we moved away from the notion that abortion was some abstract moral, legal, medical issue, to where people were faced for the first time with the consequences of the 8th amendment. Here was a real live woman, a 14-year-old rape victim who was being dragged through the courts who were attempting to stop her travelling. Nine years before that they voted by 2/3 majority for the 8th amendment, but when this story breaks thousands spontaneously take to the streets, in what was one of the largest demonstrations in Ireland in a very long time. So the lesson is that anytime people were faced with concrete cases, they were always hugely supportive of women. Which is also why I think in the course of the campaign, stories were so important. Though little changed after 1992, again in 2012 when Savita Halappanavar died there were spontaneous rallies of thousands of people taking to the streets. And that coupled with a particular moment in history where unlike how the government in 1992, 1997 and 2012 managed to put the genie back into the bottle, this time they couldn’t. They thought they could buy it off with the and that didn’t work, because it was such a restrictive piece of legislation. And people just kept organising and campaigning and protesting and building and the movement got bigger and stronger. They attempted with the citizens assembly to put the brakes on and, in the movement, we were all highly critical of the citizens assembly; but I think retrospectively it was an important moment because it was here people were presented with facts, unbiased opinion and women’s stories, and the citizens pushed it much further than where the officials wanted to go. And after that it was a domino effect. The Oireachtas committee reports, we get the 12 weeks, and then it was just a case of waiting for the referendum date. But the highlight was the extraordinary campaign, it really was.
Adrienne Wallace: I think from the landslide victory we can take away that Ireland is a lot more progressive than we have historically been given credit for. The church and the state dominated for so long, but when these institutions were pushed back the people were able to lead much brighter, more progressive routes, be it on choice, water charges or marriage equality. I don’t think it is a random coincidence that the radical left have grown massively over this period either and it’s exciting to be a part of whatever’s next.
3. What do you think are the most important next steps?
Adrienne Wallace: I think it’s of huge importance that we bring the fight for abortion rights and marriage equality up North now. It’s ridiculous that a woman in Derry would be denied the healthcare her neighbour in Donegal will have access to. There are two rotten states in this country, but a fire has been lit and women and men are uniting in our struggle for equality—trumping the sectarian politics of green and orange in the process. In the South I think we need to focus on separating Church and State, getting the catholic church out of our schools and hospitals. We also need free childcare and the freedom to bring children up without the threat of poverty. A new Ireland is being carved out and it’s looking bright.
Sinead Kennedy: I think a lot of things are on the table now. It has only been three weeks but I do believe this is going to have long term consequences beyond abortion. We have already seen that immediately in terms of the ‘North is next’. There are questions about the separation of church and state, and getting the influence of the catholic church out of schools and hospitals. I think it is not just about that the campaign changed history, and it did do that, but it is that the campaign changed people. Because people felt that the victory belonged to them. It wasn’t just a thing that happened in the Dáil, there was something much more profound going on. I think it is too early to say what the consequences are of that, but people own that victory in a way that people don’t usually own change. Since this radical change comes through the actions of a mass movement, which is what happened in the case of repeal, that can have profound consequences that we cannot see in the moment, but I think it is a profound moment of possibility. And I suppose the challenge now is what we do with that, how do we organise around it. And how we don’t allow that energy to be dissipated back into a conservative political agenda. And also that we continue to struggle in the North as well.
Fiona Ferguson: The North is Next. It is pretty clear that a spotlight is now shining brightly on the North for its regressive law and our next steps have to ensure that the momentum from Repeal is not lost but taken and transformed into a coordinated campaign of our own. Without a sitting Assembly in Stormont, attention has shifted somewhat to Westminster, where responsibility lies for human rights in the UK; human rights which a majority of Supreme Court Justices deemed were violated by abortion law in the North. Theresa May and the Secretary of State insist, however, that abortion is a devolved matter and that we should wait for Stormont. If we are to have any success in keeping abortion on the agenda and not allowing politicians to bury their head in the devolved sand, then we need a movement on the ground like Repeal. If Stormont is to get up and running tomorrow, we should be under no illusion that they will suddenly grant abortion rights. We need a loud, sustained campaign to meet them on the hill. And if Stormont is mothballed, as is looking increasingly likely, we will need a movement loud enough that they can hear us from Westminster.