I was with my family in County Kildare when the exit poll results came in. Sixty-eight per cent of voters were in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. All the headlines spoke of an “emphatic” result, a “resounding” majority, a “changed” Ireland. The Irish people want the Irish government to, finally, after all these years, draw up a law permitting abortions.
My arms began suddenly shivering, strangely and uncomfortably, as soon as I saw the news. I know people say that only happens in stories – but, really, definitely, it happens in real life, too. All the hairs were standing up all over my body and I felt cold, then hot. Then cold. Then really happy.
This Repeal landslide is a given now (the final 66.4 per cent in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment) – but that’s not how it felt, 30 years ago, or 5 years ago, or even on Thursday.
There is so much to celebrate. This campaign has actually brought people together much more than it has divided them
It has felt hard and sad and strange for so many of us. For so long. And so this result – this emphatic and resounding result – is a relief, a joy, an endorsement. So much has been written about the bitter and divisive campaign in the run-up to Friday’s referendum – now it turns out that perhaps we were more together than we ever realised.
There is a sense in some quarters that celebrations will be muted – abortion is still a very serious issue, the politicians and broadcasters say. But there was whooping and cheering in the house I was in last night. And there will be celebrating. In homes and pubs and on the streets.
There is so much to celebrate. This campaign has actually brought people together much more than it has divided them. In my family, we’ve watched on in awe as my 61-year-old mum, who wasn’t involved with the campaign before this month, suddenly got on board in a big way – canvassing, leafleting, persuading, discussing. All last week, she spent her mornings handing out Together For Yes leaflets to commuters on the 7am buses and her evenings knocking on doors and talking to undecided voters.
The Repeal movement has brought families together – and it has brought women together, clearing showing the power of feminist activism.
Before 2012, when Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital after being denied a termination that would probably have saved her life, I had never actively campaigned for abortion rights in Ireland. But on the day that the news of her death broke, everything changed for so many of us. That night, I went to an impromptu vigil outside the Irish houses of Parliament and as I stood in the street, in the dark, alone amid hundreds of people, I recognised the brilliant work that was being carried out by stalwart campaigners – by Ailbhe Smyth, a feminist activist who has been working for reproductive rights since before the Eighth Amendment was even introduced in 1983. By Colm O’Gorman, the director of Amnesty Ireland. By so many others – artists and socialists and feminists and journalists.
Ever since then, the movement has grown and grown, involving tens of thousands of people who have stepped up and made this change happen.
People who marched and canvassed and sold merchandise and lobbied. Working hard to bring about this change. For their sisters and their daughters and their mothers. And for Savita. And for Miss X – the teenage rape victim treated so abominably by the Irish state in 1992. And for Miss Y – the asylum seeker forced to deliver her rapist’s child by caesarean section in 2014. And for all the others whose stories have shaped this campaign.
The issue is complicated by the tricky politics of Northern Ireland, of course, but the United Nations has been clear: Westminster must take responsibility
This emphatic and resounding Yes result is the result of grassroots campaigners working hard, working well, working together – as they tried to right the many wrongs that women in Ireland have endured over the decades.
There will be hungover heads and exhausted bodies now. There will be prosecco flowing and hugs and tears. But the swell of feminist activism that led to the Eighth Amendment being repealed will not abate.
The next battle is clear: abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and so was never affected by the Republic of Ireland’s laws and the Eighth Amendment. The restrictive abortion laws that exist in Northern Ireland are there because when the UK introduced the 1967 Abortion Act, it was never extended to Northern Ireland – and so women in Northern Ireland are still governed by punitive Victorian laws.
Girls and women in Northern Ireland are still being criminalised, put on trial, convicted and handed down sentences for having an abortion.
The Democratic Unionist Party – the Northern Irish party that props up the Theresa May’s government – is fervently opposed to abortion. But it must be challenged. The issue is complicated by the tricky politics of Northern Ireland, of course, but the United Nations has been clear: Westminster must take responsibility. In February, the UN stated: “The UK cannot invoke its internal arrangements to justify its failure to revise NI [Northern Ireland] laws that violate the CEDAW convention.”
Labour’s Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, is leading the way for change in Northern Ireland. In the lead up to Friday’s referendum, Ireland’s women were supported and shown solidarity by so many UK feminists. Now we all have to come together – in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, everywhere – and work for the women who are still oppressed.
Every woman deserves the right to access free, safe and legal abortion. Every woman deserves to feel her skin tingle with happiness and relief.
(If you would like to know more about abortion rights in Northern Ireland, Siobhán Fenton has written about it here.)