- At Marxism 2018, Cailín McCaffery gave a powerful speech to a packed auditorium about the lack of abortion rights in the North and the need for a new Ireland. Her call for change was met with loud and determined applause. We have published the full transcript of her talk here on Rebel.
The Repeal referendum was a watershed moment for the North. The campaign was incredibly inspiring. Tens of thousands on the streets, knocking doors, talking about choice, talking about class – it was an incredible struggle to be involved with. And when the vote was won, we shared that sense of victory. Because we could feel the impact it would have for the North. And because we were down there too. Hundreds of activists from the North on buses and in cars, joining the canvasses around the country. Many of them, like myself, were young women. And so many were politicised by the campaign and have gone on to join protests in the North.
There is very much still a need to protest in the North, because the law we face, which criminalises people who need an abortion, is having very real consequences.
There is an example of the reality of this law going through the courts right now. A mother has taken a judicial review to the High Court, because she faced prosecution for procuring abortion pills for her young daughter who faced a crisis pregnancy. Her daughter visited her doctor soon after and mentioned the termination. The doctor was required by law to inform social services who told the police, who then took the child out of her classroom to be questioned without a parent or guardian present. Then they brought charges against her mother and dragged her through the courts. Now that same mother is back in court, appealing the decision.
This is how we are treated in the North. We’re made to feel afraid to speak to our own doctors. We’re afraid to speak to our doctor about medical procedures. This is not right.
The reality is this: it shouldn’t be this way. 75% of people polled by Amnesty said they support a change in the law and 65% say abortion should not be criminalised at all. That’s a huge majority. The problem is that politicians in the North are lagging far behind the public. The DUP’s health spokesperson said recently that if Stormont gets back up and running and abortion is brought to the floor, they will block it.
No surprise there. Stormont has failed to legislate for abortion rights for decades. They have failed the thousands of people who have been forced to travel for terminations during that time. I feel that I must be clear at this point that it is a really positive step that Sinn Féin have voted to change their party policy abortion rights. But we cannot forget that for ten years of Stormont, they were opposed to it. Their policy change does not erase the fact that for years, every election, People Before Profit activists faced abuse at polling stations—were called baby killers and worse—by Sinn Fein members and representatives.
Just one year ago, Michelle O’Neill said Sinn Féin “isn’t in favour of abortion” and the party “does not favour United Kingdom style abortion laws” – the very limited 1967 Act. What a difference a short time and a mass campaign on the streets of Ireland can have.
Of course, the Repeal referendum didn’t only shift the Sinn Féin position. The ardently anti-abortion party, the SDLP, felt the pressure too and were no less than forced by pressure to change their policy to allow MLAs a conscience vote on abortion.
Now that the Assembly is down, the ball is somewhat in Westminster’s court. A recent supreme court deemed the lack of abortion rights in the North as a ‘clash’ with human rights. Human rights legislation is not a devolved matter, but under the duty of Westminster. The very brave Sarah Ewart now takes her case to the High Court to prove that the law breached her human rights after she was forced to travel to England for a termination after being told her unborn child would not survive outside the womb.
But Westminster and the courts have also failed people in the North on this issue. Only very recently did they vote to allow us to access abortion on the NHS in England. Before then, the costs were astronomical for working class people, forcing many into dangerous positions. The pressure from Repeal, though, has been felt across the water too. A recent bill which seeks to decriminalise abortion right across the UK resoundingly passed its first reading.
The reality is clear though – we cannot solely rely on those institutions that have failed us for far too long.
Of course, we should continue to campaign and to protest for the kind of reforms that are going through parliament. It is the right thing to do for the women who would ‘#RatherBeHome’. We have to continue to support and bolster the court cases and the bills because they can bring about relief from the harsh conditions facing women.
But it’s clearer now than ever, with the Belfast Rape trial, the Cork rape trial, the #metoo movement that has reached Ireland, the campaigns that have sprung up in the wake of repeal – for childcare and better sex education in schools, free of the catholic church – that there are very deep, sexist inequalities in society beyond abortion.
And because many of these inequalities have their roots in the political system, the matter of parliamentary bills will never be enough for real equality. Let’s go back for a second and presume that we do win the reforms that are currently in Westminster to allow us the right to abortion, like the Repeal legislation. We will only ever be granted an abortion if the state deems it a ‘good abortion’ and the powers that be are satisfied that a woman has passed enough tick box tests to deserve said abortion.
Even if we win that limited change, the individuals facing these situations often still have to face the burden of economic inequalities. Those individuals won’t have true choice. What choice do they have if they’re homeless, waiting up to ten years on a housing waiting list? Only the choice to have a termination rather than face raising a child in those conditions. Benefit cuts in the North are leaving so many just one week from destitution. A Tory policy has been introduced that says that you have to prove you were raped before you can access tax credits for the child resulting from the rape, if you already have two children. If you can’t prove you were raped, can you afford to have a child? What kind of choice is that? Unemployment, low wages, a sexist system that finds against women in rape trials because of their underwear and goes on to deny tax credits because the court said she wasn’t raped.
What we need is an upheaval of the current system that presents us with a false choice. And to replace it with a fairer society, where housing, clothing, educating and feeding people is a priority and a given. Where we can make real decisions about the world around us, rather than the fake democracy that faces us now – one vote every four years and just deal with the consequences in between. We need equality that goes beyond the basic reforms on offer.
That goes for North and South, of course. And no better way to fight for it than together, across the border. I heard Eamonn McCann describe the Belfast rape trial protest in a way that sums this up perfectly. The trial was like a lightning rod. #MeToo anger was already bubbling under the surface and it spilled over in a massive way. The protests seemed spontaneous (and they were!), but only because the anger had been bubbling for some time. The protests erupted in Belfast and Derry but also in Galway, Dublin, Cork and more. The fightback that had already begun was galvanised right across the country. And as Eamonn said – ‘we weren’t protesting *for* a United Ireland, we were protesting *as* as united Ireland, for a new kind of Ireland’.
And it really did feel like we were fighting for a new kind of Ireland. It was the same feeling that we had during Repeal. We need exactly that kind of fight to deliver the new Ireland that we so desperately deserve.
A socialist Ireland.
One with proper democracy and choice – not reliant on Stormont or the Dail to deliver real equality. For one, because they are stocked full of neoliberalists. Two, because the very foundations and the set up at Stormont is sectarian. The promotion of two main blocks of nationalism and unionism legitimises this squabbling of both communities for housing, public services and benefits. It gives cover to austerity. And finally, because Stormont and the Dail, and the courts for that matter, are fundamentally limited by the system they operate in.
The resounding message that came out of Repeal was this: The North is next. But the North is not next. The North is Now. The fight is now to win real choice. Real equality. A socialist Ireland.