Repeal the 8th: What A Long, Hard Trip It's Been for Women In Ireland

When Hot Press was launched in 1977, Ireland was a poor home to anyone who deviated from the Roman Catholic hegemony which controlled every aspect of Irish life. It would get worse before it would get better. But with the result of the Referendum to Repeal the 8th, we have finally come of age as a Republic.

I don’t give a damn what anyone says. This isn’t about triumphalism. It isn’t about wanting to rub the other side’s noses in it. It isn’t about shutting down the opposition. It isn’t about nastiness or cruelty, or anything like it. 

There are fundamental issues involved. There have always been – and it would be stupid and wrong to pretend otherwise. 

But first and foremost, the response of the Yes side to the result of the referendum is about something much more immediate, positive and beautiful than any of that. It is about a feeling, at last, of belonging. That justice has been served. That, after all these years, women will finally be treated with respect and dignity in this country. And it is about the happiness and the satisfaction that flows from that – and in particular from the fact that this is something that Irish people have voted for. Overwhelmingly.

There is no point in hiding it. When the results of the referendum to Repeal the 8th Amendment came through, the feeling of sheer, irrepressible joy, and of release was, I don’t know... indescribable. It was a feeling after all. A sweet, powerful, emotional feeling. But language cannot fully express something like this, that sets the heart pounding, the pulse racing.

The euphoria hit first when the results of the exit polls carried out by The Irish Times and RTÉ came hurtling down the mojo wire on the night of the vote. The numbers were enough to take your breath away. There was a need to step back. Could this really be happening? Are you sure? 

I was in a restaurant at the time, with my life partner, closest friend and fellow campaigner through thick and thin, Máirín Sheehy. We checked the numbers again. No, we had not misread them. We started to receive calls and texts from family members and friends, anxious to share the news. In the restaurant, the staff, all wearing Yes badges, were also grinning from ear-to-ear through the after-dinner clean-up. There, and on the way through the streets of Dublin, I hugged and high-fived friends and strangers alike. At one point, it became impossible to quell the quiet tears of joy that ran down my face. 66 to 33. Incredible.

It was the end of a long, often dark, sometimes extremely hard, and frequently bruising, journey. But we had finally broken through to the other side. We had thrown off the old shackles. We had taken Ireland with us, out of the grim shadows, and into the light of a new dawn, a new day – and hopefully a new era.

It really was, in so many ways, a magical and historic moment. 

PATHETICALLY HOSTILE

It is hard for people who weren’t there to realise just how horribly repressive Ireland was, to grow up in, in the 1960s and 1970s. 

The sneaky, claustrophobic, deadening hand of censorship smeared itself over every form of artistic expression here, cutting off or shutting down much that was great or potentially great. The most grotesquely puritanical, religiously-motivated complaints from a few twisted members of the public were taken seriously, and acted on by the petty zealots of the Censorship of Publications Board. 

Sex was the big taboo. Anything which implied that people might have a sex life outside the confines of marriage was suspect. Homosexuals didn’t exist. Books which strayed from the straight and narrow in their depiction of sex and sexuality were banned. Publishers were sucked into the web of repression. They took on the prejudices of the God squad, who snooped constantly, trying to identify and summarily crush bohemians and others of low morals.  

At the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church, contraception was illegal in Ireland. By all means, the privileged male elite of the Vatican allowed, with fantastic generosity, women could try to avoid becoming pregnant by aiming to have sex only within the so called ‘safe period’. But, in truth, of course, this was just a way of enforcing the idea that every sexual act should carry within it the possibility of procreation. And that less sex was better for everyone.

If you wanted to fuck, there had to be a risk of pregnancy. it was as simple as that. And, male or female, you could put up or shut up.

But what about blow-jobs? They didn’t exist. Neither did masturbation, except as something that had to be confessed as a sin. So much of this brainwashing was carried out covertly. The church controlled the schools. They had been given a licence by a craven State to get inside children’s heads from the get-go. And they tried to: Christ did they try. 

I remember clearly one of the only fragments of what someone might have thought passed for education about sex and relationships in Synge Street CBS, where I went to school. “My advice about girls,” the brother in charge – a brutal, cold, viciously sour character who regularly punished people en masse – said to us, on the last day before the summer holidays, at the end of third year in secondary school, “is to stay away from them.”

The evil temptresses. They’ll have your trousers down around your ankles before you know it. They’ll use their witchy ways to force you to sin. The Jezebels. The whores.

I wouldn’t have known what the word meant at the time, but this was the patriarchy at its most pathetically hostile and prejudiced at work. These… (I need to take a deep breath and hold back here)…  these ignorant, celibate men… knew nothing about women. They knew nothing about romance. They knew even less about sex. Their job was to create an aura of sin and guilt around the whole idea of girls and boys – or horror of horrors, members of the same sex – enjoying one another’s growing sense of individuality. It was all about what you couldn’t do. What you shouldn’t do. 

This is what we were force-fed: the whole damnable wreck which is the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude to sexuality. To me, it always smelt foul. And it was.

SORDIDLY SECTARIAN

That was in or around the time that I realised clearly, for the first time, that there is no God. I also felt, in my gut, that all of the secretive, noxious, shame-filled propaganda we were being fed was having a profoundly negative, damaging effect on everyone down whose throats it was rammed. It made me, for one, sick. I wanted out. And so I began to forge my own way.

I remember the McGee case, in 1974, in which a 27-year-old mother of four had to go to the High Court to establish her right to use contraception. She was suffering from cerebral thrombosis. Her life had been endangered during her second and third pregnancies. She’d had a stroke and been temporarily paralysed. She was told by her doctor that if she became pregnant again, her life would be at risk.

Her situation in many ways prefigured what happened much, much later to Savita Halappanavar. Neither Church nor State gave a shit about the possibility that Mary McGee, mother of four, might die. The courts came to the rescue, as they would – both in Ireland and, as with homosexuality, in Europe – on so many occasions subsequently, deciding that married couples had a constitutional right to make private decisions on family planning. The law had to change. 

I suspect that it was this decision which inspired a cadre of Roman Catholic zealots to demand that an anti-abortion amendment – the 8th Amendment – be inserted into the Constitution. They wanted to head off at the pass the possibility that the Supreme Court might decide that a woman – for example, one who might die if a pregnancy were allowed to continue – would be entitled to an abortion in Ireland.

Every inch of the way, attempts to liberalise the laws on contraception and on homosexuality were opposed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and their bullying lay foot soldiers. The line of continuity between all of this and the referendum on the 8th Amendment is clear. Forget the devious, placatory nonsense which is trotted out nowadays. The Roman Catholic Church wanted to control – or to continue to control – women’s fertility and their bodies. 

The bishops, and their lay cronies, were determined to impose on all of us a set of conditions which would ensure that women would be forced to stay at home doing ‘women’s work’. And until 1973, the State had played along, insisting that women had to leave the public service when they got married. All of this was a way of subjugating women, an ideology which sadly has been at the heart of most religious thinking for the past two thousand years and more. And still is… 

I remember too when Gay Sweatshop came to Dublin in 1976. The decision of the Project Arts Centre to invite them was widely denounced. A Fine Gael Councillor, Ned Brennan, hit the front page of the Evening Herald. “We don’t want any funny bunnies in Dublin,” he said.

Doubtless, phone calls had been made by the Archbishop. Either way, Brennan was giving voice to exactly what the hierarchy were thinking: they reviled the idea of homosexuals and what they got up to between the sheets. The idea that this talented, colourful, politically motivated theatrical troupe might flagrantly proselytise for ‘queers’ here was unconscionable. It couldn’t be allowed in Catholic Ireland.

You thought the recent decision to force the Project Arts Centre to remove the Maser mural was bad? In the wake of the Gay Sweatshop controversy, the Project lost their grants from the Arts Council and from Dublin Corporation (as Dublin City Council was known then). Ultimately, through sheer determination and a refusal to lie down and die, they found within their number the resources to carry on. But the State had spoken. Gays could go and screw themselves. ‘We’ didn’t want them in Ireland. 

That was the climate on the run-in to the launch of Hot Press in 1977. Make no mistake: as a direct result of the over-weening influence of the Roman Catholic Church, Ireland was a sick, twisted, repressive and sordidly sectarian place. And I’m not even talking about the North. 

SOLD LIKE LIVESTOCK

The first ever cover of Hot Press is a fascinating study. At the centre is our cover star, Rory Gallagher. Around him, is a mad collage of rock ’n’ rollers and reprobates. And at the bottom is a picture of the cabinet of the day, with Fine Gael Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in the centre. 

Now, look carefully behind the man who in 1974 famously crossed the floor of the Dáil to vote down a bill to allow the sale of contraception, which was being introduced by his own Minister for Justice, Patrick Cooney. Immediately over the right shoulder of Liam Cosgrave, we placed a picture of two men kissing. It was a statement of intent. 

Elsewhere on the cover was the then-little known future President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, highlighted by Hot Press for her work in the cause of women’s rights – and in particular for her handling of the McGee case. 

In those days, we were howling into the teeth of a gale. But at least it was a start. Ireland was a hopelessly narrow, bigoted, theocratic country, run for the benefit of Roman Catholics, in which women were routinely squashed under the heel of the patriarchy. They were abused and betrayed. They were marginalised and discriminated against. They were treated like dirt. And the insertion of the odious 8th Amendment into the Constitution of Ireland in 1983 put the dictatorial tin hat on all of that.

Ever since that first, scene-setting issue, Hot Press has campaigned for sexual freedom. We wanted Ireland to change. We argued for a more liberal, open, inclusive and caring society. But we also tried to act in that spirit. We gave an unprecedented freedom to writers in terms of the language they could use. We introduced the first ever mainstream gay column to an Irish publication with Bootboy. We ran a Sex Aid column that won for Hot Press a special award for pioneering work in relation to sexuality from the Irish Family Planning Association.

As we chipped away from the outside, the very foundations of the edifice of Irish Catholicism began to crumble. I won’t repeat every detail of the mounting series of scandals and outrages that cumulatively undid the Roman Catholic Church here: it would take forever. But the stranglehold in which they had held the nation was gradually weakened, enabling Irish people to think for themselves at last. 

It is enough, I think, to say that during the week after the referendum result, another scandal erupted, involving the illegal false registration, by the nuns, in a home run by the Sisters of Charity, of the birth details of children who had been adopted. And yes, that is the very same order that had wanted to control the new National Maternity Hospital. 

Some of the children were, of course, sold like livestock to doubtless well-meaning American Catholics. Over the ensuing decades, a rosary beads-long contagion of lies was foisted on both the birth mothers and the children, to frustrate the efforts they made to make contact with one another. The actions of the nuns, and of the institution that they ran, were shockingly two-faced, dishonest, loveless and reckless of the common good. 

It was all about the institution. It was about control. And in particular, it was about controlling women and their fertility. That was at the heart of Roman Catholicism. That was why the 8th Amendment had been inserted. And it stemmed, ultimately, from a blind fear, and a mostly unspoken and unacknowledged hatred, of women.

MORIBUND OLD IRELAND

This is what we had been fighting against. And this is what was at stake in the referendum. Could this toxic mixture of prejudice, fear, hostility and condescension – “we know best” – be defeated? Could the Yes campaigners persuade the Irish people that they should, in fact, trust women to make decisions about crisis pregnancies?

It seemed clear from the vote in the Same Sex Marriage referendum, that Ireland had undergone an extraordinary transformation since 1977. Would that translate into a Yes vote in the referendum? This was the ultimate test.  

During a campaign in which every trick in the book was tried by the anti-choice mob, it was impossible to know for sure. They lied. They bullied. They bent the facts. They distorted the figures. They shouted the opposition down. They removed Yes posters. They engaged in a typically cynical campaign of disinformation.

They even roped in the Pope, to say that he was coming to Ireland later this year. And ‘indulgences’ were put on the table.

At times, listening to No campaigners hogging airtime, talking over Yes advocates and broadcasters alike and generally appealing to the very worst in people, a current of fear was impossible to eradicate. What if voters believe this – or even some of this – propaganda? Towards the end of the campaign the threat of “foreign” abortion clinics coming into Ireland was thrown into the mix, in a desperate bid to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment in favour of No. It was a new low. 

Might these throwback foot-soldiers of a moribund old Ireland succeed in worming their way into people’s hearts and play effectively on their deepest anxieties and fears? You couldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility.

VOTE FOR FREEDOM

In the end, Irish people saw through the cynicism and the scare-mongering. Approximately 70 percent of women are estimated to have voted to Repeal. It is, by any standards, an extraordinary statistic, reflecting a complete change in the complexion of Irish society. Almost 63 percent of men also voted Yes, confirming the scale of the seismic shift that has taken place.

But the most important figures are probably these: 85 per cent of 18-to-24 year olds are estimated to have voted Yes. And the percentage of Repeal-voting 25-to-34 year olds is almost as high at 83 percent. 

On the basis of these figures, the old Ireland against which Hot Press has railed is surely dead and gone: it is with Archbishop McQuaid and the Magdalene laundries in the grave. But this is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. There is more to do. Much more.

For a start, women in the North are entitled to the same freedoms as those in the South. We must wrest control of the schools from the religious orders, whose dead hand is still at the tiller in this crucial arena. We need to create a healthcare system of which we can all be proud. It is imperative to find a way of addressing deprivation and inequality; to redress the democratic deficit; to act on climate change – and so on. 

But a fortnight on from the vote, we are still entitled to feel good about the country we all have participated in creating. 

We have finally left behind the kind of brutal, repressive, paranoid attitudes of the past, which dominated this part of the world in relation to sex and sexuality. We have embraced openness and equality. We have chosen respect. We have chosen love.

There is now an attempt to portray the Yes side as the new Hitlers (only worse than the old). This is a deliberate, calculated misrepresentation. Under the ancien regime, people were not allowed to act according to their own conscience in relation to reproductive choices – even where they were victims of rape and incest.

The difference now is that people will be allowed, within democratically agreed limits, to make their own decisions. No one who doesn’t agree with abortion will be forced to have one. No ‘No’ campaigner will ever have to fly to England to not have an abortion. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ were never the flip sides of the same coin.

Personally, there is one other point I want to make: my mother was a committed Catholic. She was perfectly entitled to be. I respected that right without reservation and loved her deeply. 

I feel the same about anyone and everyone’s religious beliefs, including Scientologists and Moonies: they are entitled to them. I have good and close friends of almost every religion and none. Ultimately, it is each to their own, until those views impinge of the freedom or the health of others. And so there is no justification whatsoever for giving any one religion control of the laws or the institutions, or the schools, of a democratic republic.

In Hot Press, we said that a Yes vote would be a vote for freedom. A vote for care. A vote for compassion. A vote for women. The equality agenda has always been a central part of our mission. We desperately wanted to help to build a better country. Well, this is what Irish people have chosen.

And so, in time for this birthday issue of Hot Press, it seems all the more fitting to be able to say a huge thank you to everyone who voted Yes. Thank you in particular to all of the people who fought so hard over the years to bring about this change, including individual campaigners like Ivana Bacik and socialist TD Clare Daly, who brought a bill to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality before the Dáil in 2015, only to see it defeated by 104 votes to 20. Thank you to Ailbhe Smyth, Orla O'Connor and Gráinne Griffin of Together for Yes – and to all of the canvassers and activists who put in the leg work that's so vital to winning votes. Thank you to the courageous women, like Tara Flynn, Róisín Ingle, Saoirse Long, People Before Profit's Brid Smith, and many more, who told their abortion stories. And finally, thank you to the great citizens of Ireland.

Now it is the role of Government to legislate on that basis.

With the resounding Referendum result, women living in Ireland have been empowered in a way that would have been almost unimaginable when Hot Press launched 41 – or even more so at the time of the original referendum, 35 – years ago. Finally, we are a Republic at last.

Not a perfect one by a long shot. But we can work on that…

 

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It's "imperative" that the Minister for Health brings in regulations to ensure that rogue crisis pregnancy agencies are no longer able to give dangerous advice to vulnerable women, urges Labour Party spokesperson on Health Promotion, Martina Genockey.

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Government Warned It "Cannot Overplay Its Hand" On Abortion Referendum

Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin has said that the Cabinet has "little or no freedom for manoeuvre on the nature" of the abortion referendum it has committed to hold.

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Call For All-Party Approach To Repeal The 8th

The Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin, has called for an all-party approach in the Oireachtas on the passage of the abortion referendum bill.

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New Repeal the 8th Documentary

A new short film shows behind the scenes of the Citizens’ Assembly.

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Why the Eight Amendment affects all women

If there is one thing that Philomena Canning of Midwives for Choice would like you to know, it's this: the 8th Amendment is not just about abortion.

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Sinn Féin TDs Clash Over Eighth Amendment

In an extraordinary war of words, Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin has publicly criticised his party colleague Peadar Tóibín for sensationally claiming that the Oireachtas Committee set-up to examine the Eighth Amendment law has shown favouritism towards the pro-choice stance.

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Candlelight vigils to be held nationwide in memory of Savita Halappanavar

Seven vigils have been scheduled across various counties on October 28th to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the passing of Savita Halappanavar.

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'Handmaids' appear outside the Dail ahead of the Dail Committee on the 8th Amendment's first meeting this Wednesday

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