One week before the referendum, Becca Bor caught up with key activists from the Repeal campaign, including actor, author and comedian Tara Flynn, People Before Profit TD Brid Smith, Dublin City Cllr Emma Hendrick and Traveller community rep Eileen Flynn to discuss the challenges of the Repeal campaign so far and the significance for Ireland, North and South.
1. How has the Repeal campaign been going so far?
Tara Flynn: Gruelling, sometimes brutal; we are countering outright lies and attempts to undermine us. But it’s also uplifting and exciting, because it really feels like we are getting there. So many people come up in private, or write to activists about their experience. They may never wear a Repeal jumper or attend a march, but they will vote Yes. The solidarity among activists—checking in with each other, holding each other up, offering grace in the face of vile abuse—is something very special. I will never forget it.
Brid Smith: The campaign has been amazing so far, especially the number of people coming out to canvass. It’s taken everyone aback. There is a great spirit and great positivity in the campaign. But there are some problems and for me the biggest is with the messaging. You can see from the polls that the number of ‘Don’t Know’ responses to the referendum question has increased, and the number of definitive ‘Yes’ responses has gone down. I know from my experience of talking to hundreds of people in the Dublin South Central area that it is not really coming across that this vote is about giving women choice.
People think they are being asked a question about their own moral view of abortion up to 12 weeks. The referendum is not asking if you personally would have an abortion, but rather if you think people should have the opportunity to decide for themselves in consultation with their own doctor when they face a crisis pregnancy.
In my experience, when you explain that to people, many of them come around to voting yes. And that is proven by the Irish Times poll which showed that when asked the question ‘Are you in favour of repealing the 8th amendment?’, 47% of people said yes, but when asked the question ‘Are you in favour of giving the women the right to make their own choice?’, 62% of people said yes. So I think it is very important that until the day of the referendum, we use our campaign to get out the message of choice.
Eileen Flynn: As a Traveller woman, the campaign has been extremely hard, to be honest. Because of religion and culture, much of my community is not in favour of repealing the 8th amendment. Though there is a minority that does. I think this campaign has created a little bit of space for Traveller women working together alongside other women. And it is the first time in Irish history, I think, that working class women, Traveller women, and ethnic minority women have all worked together in a mass and sustained way. And it is a lovely thing to see, you know.
However, we are still getting a little bit brushed off. And we are a little bit like tokens. I don’t mind being a token—the loudest voice in the room will get heard. From the campaign I can see that others are trying to engage with us more, a little bit more. We might get a minute to talk, while someone else has 10 minutes to talk. But within that minute we get to say that we fought for this space, and we aren’t going anywhere even after the referendum. So in a sense, I think the campaign has empowered women, especially women who are at the lower end of the scale in Ireland, to come up and not be afraid of saying that we are experiencing injustice too.
Emma Hendrick: Overwhelmingly there has been a really positive response on the doorsteps, especially in working class areas, where the right to choose is clearly gaining traction. People are becoming more aware of the facts. The No side aren’t sitting well with many people due to their use of graphic images on posters and their intimidation tactics on the doorsteps.
However, I would say there is a slight disconnect between the activists on the ground and the top of the official campaign. On the doorsteps we are being questioned about the proposed 12 weeks on request period. We have found it useful to use terms like ‘women’s rights’, ‘bodily autonomy’ and ‘choice’. Whereas the official campaign seems to avoid these words and questions.
2. What drew you into activism around Repeal in particular and reproductive rights in general?
Brid Smith: You’re going back a long way there, but as a young woman I was acutely aware of the discrimination that women face in the workplace and in political life. Women faced a huge amount of discrimination going back 40 years when I was a young woman, and so I became active in my trade union and then in politics. I couldn’t sit back while living in a society filled with inequality that treated me and my sisters differently to my father and my brother. I became quite active in the original campaign to stop the 8th amendment in 1983.
Now, however, many odd years later, the campaign to remove the 8th feels much different because there are tens of thousands of young women out on the streets, out fighting and not being held back by fear of the church or backlash from society – that darkness from the 1980s has been lifted. Now we have a really vibrant and attractive movement, whereas back in the day, it was a more difficult fight. Today the Repeal campaign is the place to be if you want to change the world around you.
Tara Flynn: Not being able to stay quiet about hypocrisy. It’s clear the 8th doesn’t work, even as it’s intended. It prevents nothing and only adds hardship. As I’d been directly affected by the 8th and had a crisis pregnancy myself, I felt like a hypocrite not sharing the story and saying: “There are so many of us out here!” They were pretending we weren’t. But we are. And there’s a full grassroots movement of us and I’m proud of every single one of us who wouldn’t get back in our box.
Eileen Flynn: For me, it was really case X that shifted my opinion. Because I know that abortion happens. A lot of Traveller women are not allowed to have sex until they are married. If they do have sex, they will have to marry the father, and for some women they may choose to never marry that man. So, there can be more opportunity for her if the law is changed. I don’t want any woman to have to go on a plane and have an abortion alone. To have her life put at risk because she can’t do it here in her own country.
In 2015, I became pro-choice. Previously the first time I did public speaking was at Trinity College when I was 18 years of age, speaking about Pro-Life and about how we should look after the child. I wasn’t educated on the issues, I never got a good sex education in school. I was caught up in the whole religious values, and the cultural values. We tend to think that this doesn’t happen in our community. But, of course it does. I was educated about some of the cases. I said to myself in 2015, that is that woman’s choice and it is none of my business. It is up to that woman and she is no less of a woman if she had an abortion.
Emma Hendrick: Personally, I had a friend who had to travel for an abortion and it really angered me; the shame she felt and the fact she had to leave Ireland to access healthcare. I also had a number of miscarriages, and I really felt the 8th amendment impacted on the care I received. I wasn’t told or explained what was happening to me and the word miscarriage was never used until after the fact. I was treated like a vessel and dismissed. I was given no explanation to what exactly was happening to my body, and the potential life within it.
I was frustrated that the unborn was viewed as equal to me; a living breathing woman with hopes, dreams, a future, a family, and an actual life. There should not be a time that my life can be put at risk to justify the right to life of the unborn. If the anti-choice brigade really ‘loved both’ as they claim, there would be proper support and services in place for children to reach their full potential no matter their class.
3. What do you think is the significance of the Repeal movement and what will be the significance if we win?
Tara Flynn: The significance is that even in the face of a wall of old indoctrination and attempt to control, we fought back anyway. We were told we would never even get a referendum, and now look. Anything is possible. People have power. No matter what the result, Ireland has changed forever and we won’t go back to not challenging one cruel ideology anymore.
Emma Hendrick: I think the movement is significant considering how it has politicised a whole generation of young women. It is a vibrant, young, militant movement that has placed women’s rights at the heart of the political agenda. It has made many women aware of the class issue that surrounds abortion access. It is also very clear that the more liberal centre of the campaign want Repeal to be contained to a single issue campaign. All TDs, with the exception of the radical left, voted not to include socio-economic reasons in the Joint Oireachtas Committee proposed legislation. Now there is a push back from the liberal centre to not protest or criticise the government over the current cervical cancer check scandal. The hypocrisy stinks.
If Repeal wins it will further loosen the hold conservative right-wing Catholics have on women in Ireland. There was a huge outpouring of anger late in 2017 when it emerged that the new national maternity hospital was going to be run by the religious order—the Sisters of Mercy—and that any medical procedures that goes against a catholic ethos would not be performed. A light is being shone on the misogynistic culture in our society that shames woman for wanting control of their own body. For me, it’s not just about repeal anymore. It’s about real choice; from #MeToo, to #IBelieveHer, to fighting for adequate housing and pay, to the fight to win proper support for women who choose to continue with their pregnancy.
Brid Smith: The significance of the movement already is that it is a part of the fightback of women globally on all sorts of issues, from #metoo, to pay equality, the right to consent and abortion rights. This is not just an isolated reaction, it’s part of a global movement. If we win, the result will be one of the best political outcomes in the history of this state because it will put to bed the idea that lives can continue to be controlled by the church and the state as they have been since De Valera established the Catholic sectarian state in the South of Ireland.
And I do think it will have a huge impact in the North too. It will spill across the border and influence the movement in the sectarian state in the North. I don’t think we can quite measure the significance if we win yet, but it will undoubtedly be huge for the future of this country and for the rights of women. It will have a massive impact on the fights for childcare rights, for equal pay and the rest.
Eileen Flynn: Ireland has changed. We have people from the Traveller community, we have ethnic minorities, we have all of these different groups of people. And some of these people are the most vulnerable within our society and the women within those communities don’t have a voice. I do think that by the skin of our teeth we will win. My father was a Kerry man and he loved hurling. He used to say the game isn’t over until the whistle blows. At the end of the game you could go ahead with one point, and people will say, “Jesus Paddy, you only won by one point.” My father would say back, “well with that point we still got over the bar and we are champions.” Basically, getting over the bar, that is all we need to do. And afterwards we have bigger fish to fry as well. We can’t stop pushing because we have to make sure the legislation put in place is going to work for all women.