- 11 May 18
By canvassing for a ‘Yes’ vote in the abortion referendum, women on both sides of the border will advance the cause of freedom in Northern Ireland, as well as the Republic.
One of the most striking assertions of Irish unity since partition came in the last few days of March, when tens of thousands stormed the streets North and South shouting out together for change across the island.
The events had been sparked by the conclusion of the rugby rape trial in Belfast.
A mainly-women crowd of more than 4,000 gathered outside the City Hall in Dublin and marched to the Department of Justice on Stephen’s Green. Placards proclaimed, “Stand with Survivors,” “Overhaul the System,” “IBelieveHer,” etc.
The same sentiments were inscribed on placards outside City Hall in Belfast, and were heard, too, on demonstrations in Cork, Derry, Galway and Limerick.
These were not demonstrations for Irish unity. They were demonstrations of Irish unity.
This is not a dimension of the events which mainstream parties or many in the mainstream media care to focus on - somewhat remarkably, or so it might seem, given that the other stories jostling for front-page space at the time had to do precisely with the way North and South should or might relate to one another in future.
The question of a hard border or a soft border or no border at all is currently under fraught, anxious debate in Dublin, Belfast, London, Brussels and across all the chancelleries of Europe. Apprehension thickens as to the consequences of failing to devise a clearly invisible frontier. (Perhaps they will offer a square circle as logo for whatever new arrangement they manage to magick up.)
Meanwhile, sisters are doing it for themselves.
The demonstrations sparked by the rape trial were largely spontaneous. But they didn’t come entirely out of the blue. We’d had a comparable all-Ireland response in 2012, when Savita Halappanavar died because medical authorities in Galway had put the teaching of the Catholic Church, as reflected in the Constitution, above her expressed wishes, the pleas of her family and the dictates of her own conscience.
In the years between Savita and the rape trial, an all-Ireland campaign of civil disobedience emerged to challenge the laws against importation and use of abortion pills. The campaign has spooked the authorities in both jurisdictions. They know it would be impossible in practical terms to dismantle the “underground” systems and charge the thousands involved in delivering the pills. Their only options are either to accept vast, organised defiance of the law, or to fudge their way towards regulation of the “trade.”
This is the main reason the Southern government has said that if the 8th is repealed it will propose to the Dail the effective legalisation of abortion “on demand” up to 12 weeks, covering the period for safe administration of mifepristone and misoprostol.
Meanwhile, the authorities in the North are edgy, uncertain and, increasingly, as unenthusiastic as their Southern counterparts about tackling illegal use of abortion pills. In the last three years, several women have either pleaded guilty or accepted a caution after being charged with possession or use of the pills. One woman is awaiting trial for having obtained pills for her 15-year-old daughter. (A review of the decision to bring charges against her is pending.)
On the other hand, none of three Derry women, Diana King, Kitty O’Kane and Colette Devlin, who, two years ago, presented themselves to the PSNI with sworn affidavits that they had obtained the pills for others, has been charged. There appears to have been no follow-up, either, to a document with more than 200 signatures admitting importation of abortion pills for their own or others’ use.
The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act is still in force in the North, but neither the police nor the public prosecution service appear to have the stomach to enforce it in any serious way.
In this situation, a vote to Repeal the 8th would give a huge boost to the campaign for liberalisation of the law in the North.
All this represents significant advance – brought about not by persuasive moral argument or enlightened political leadership, but by determined pressure from below by many thousands of determined women.
Thus, the biennial conference of Northern trades unions voted last month to organise contingents of canvassers to cross the border to campaign for Repeal. This won’t be a mere act of solidarity. From now until May 25, there will be Derry accents on the doorsteps of Donegal saying, “Do this for us, too’.”
Women have died in this all-Ireland struggle. Savita and – who died the year after the 8th was inserted into the Constitution – are names which spring instantly to mind. I could name others whose names have never figured in headlines, and so, probably, could you. The price for the change which we could bring about on May 25 has been paid in advance.