The Repeal of the 8th amendment on 25 May 2018 was a seminal moment in Irish history and an amazing moment, one that starkly illuminated the fact that we are no longer a country dominated by the Catholic Church. The dazzling victory felt even stronger than that of the same-sex marriage referendum. It was a hard-fought result, one that couldn’t have been achieved without mass participation in the repeal movement. Everywhere, but especially in urban and working class areas, the issue of abortion was discussed and women shared their experiences.
This was one of the crucial differences compared to previous efforts to liberalise Ireland’s severe abortion laws. The atmosphere of shame and silence that prevented the reality of the need for safe and legal abortions from being expressed was shattered by women having the confidence to speak out in a fashion that was unprecedented for Ireland. With sincerity and conviction, canvassers swayed those who held reservations into voting for repeal. As one of the canvassers in Dublin Bay North put it:
Personal stories and individual experiences that weren’t readily available on television or even on the web were key to the success of the campaign.
Editors Kath Browne and Sydney Calkin invited a range of contributors to write for an anthology that analyses the campaign and also the implications of the result for Irish society and, indeed, the international struggle for reproductive justice.
Different perspectives on the politics of Repeal are offered by Theresa Reidy, Linda Connolly, Fiona de Londras, Máiréad Enright, Sydney Calkin, Elżbieta Drążkiewicz-Grodzicka and Máire Ní Mhórdha. For analysis of the campaign itself, the book draws on Mary McGill’s reflections of events in rural Ireland and the Repeal story within the Irish language community is covered by a chapter from Lisa Nic an Bhreithimh. Lorna O’Hara discusses the power of the iconic ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural, while Eric Olund’s research is in regard to the press. The aftermath of Repeal and its potential consequences both here and internationally are discussed by Richard Scriven, Kath Browne, Catherine Jean Nash, Noëlle Cotter, Lisa Smyth and Dorota Szelewa.
Dublin Bay North during the Repeal the 8th campaign
There is something of an academic flavour to the book, but the editors are to be commended on their inclusivity and in particular the publication of ‘Campaigning for choice: canvassing as feminist pedagogy in Dublin Bay North’, a chapter by Niamh McDonald, Kate Antosik-Parsons, Karen E. Till, Jack Callan and Gerry Kearns. The framing of the chapter suggests that its value is in providing a case study of successful feminist pedagogy, but really, there is wealth of more general lessons that can be learned from the experience of Dublin Bay North Repeal group, ones that are important for wider campaigns and, indeed, our own socialist project. It helps that Independent Left’s own Niamh McDonald is a contributor to the chapter. Niamh was Chair of the Dublin Bay North Repeal the 8th Campaign and with her voice, along with others, we hear from working class women who shaped the outcome of the referendum.
One of the challenges facing the group was in how to maximise the energy of the many people new to political activism with the experience of those who had years of experience in trying to bring about reproductive rights for women. They solved this with a number of strategies: there was a ‘buddy’ system, to team up those new and less confident about knocking on the doors of strangers with those who were familiar with such activity; they avoided a potentially patronising and top-down stultifying effect by placing an emphasis on the empowering of the new voices; the internal social media conversations were egalitarian and encouraging (i.e. were not heavily controlled by moderators); decision-making was transparent and democratic; activists with a political background were welcomed but no one party was given a pre-eminent role, finally, respect was reciprocal. Newer activists might say,
My buddy had been knocking on doors for months, and gave me great advice, and boosted my confidence. It also made me feel safe.’
While the more experienced activist could recognise that the enthusiasm of the new activist was encouraging and helped lift her, ‘on bad days.’
All in all, the campaign provides a model, not just for feminist pedagogy but a methodology for creating an inclusive grass-roots campaign. The success of this approach, the fact that Dublin Bay North Repeal retained members and grew to the point that 80 – 100 canvassers were assembling and knocking on doors every day, was decisive in bringing about one of the largest votes for Repeal in Ireland. Overly hierarchical organisations inevitably stifle people who want to express themselves but are not used to doing so. To win the argument around Repeal it was absolutely critical, however, that women of our community, of the working class, got to speak and got to be heard. As one canvasser summarised the situation: ‘our arguments were based on compassion and real life experience’. Real life experience was heard by canvassers, was brought into the campaign and shared, and working class women as canvassers themselves reflected the reality of the necessity of abortion rights.
Dublin Bay North Repeal activists were self-aware enough of the importance of their achievement that they consciously strove to preserve the lessons of the campaign by issuing a survey to members in the aftermath of the vote and with 125 responses, obtained essential feedback from which the lessons of the campaign could be drawn. Very much to the credit of the editors, these lessons have been included in After Repeal.
Some twenty-percent of the Dublin Bay North campaign members were male and among them and one of the founders of the group was Councillor John Lyons. The launch of the book during the election campaign is very timely, firstly because, as John Lyons put it in answer to a question on Twitter to all candidates from the @DBNRepeal account, there is still a lot to achieve:
It took a huge effort to get the referendum and win it, but we aren’t done. We have a legislative review this year, people still travelling, maternity hospital ownership, we need exclusion zones, a countrywide service with no barriers to access. I want to see all goals achieved.
Secondly, it has emerged that the Green candidate, David Healy, is pro-life, voted against Repeal, and endorsed pro-life social media posts. It took some effort for this information to become public and it would be tragic if Dublin Bay North returned a majority of anti-choice TDs after such an inspiring campaign. Yes, climate change is a very urgent issue, but as Not Here Not Anywhere have shown, the left in the Dáil have just as good a record as the Greens on environmental issues and its therefore possible to express support for radical action on climate and the continuation of the struggle for reproductive rights in the general election.
Kate Antosik-Parsons, contributor to the Dublin Bay North chapter in After Repeal expresses why she is voting for Councillor John Lyons in the general election of 2020.