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27 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:21pm

The Irish abortion referendum shows that where people go, politicians follow

While many politicians played their part, this landslide victory isn’t theirs. 

By Niamh ni-mhaoileoin

In November 2012, when the news of the death of Savita Halappanavar broke, the grassroots response was immediate and immensely powerful. Protesters stopped traffic outside parliament, thousands of people wrote to their representatives demanding change.

For decades, brilliant feminists had been fighting for reproductive justice. But that day, the movement picked up the blistering momentum that carried us to last Friday, when 66.4 per cent of Irish people voted to repeal the eighth amendment.

That afternoon, I wrote a letter to one of my then-MPs, also a minister in the Fine Gael government:

“Today, like so many others, I’m deeply hurt. And am forced to question whether a country that willfully allows a woman to die in excruciating pain based on obscure morality is a county that I can call home. The death of Savita Halappanavar is the direct result of twenty years of political cowardice and moral failure. It’s a cause of shame for Ireland’s government and for the Irish people.”

To give credit where it’s due, in the six years since that horrendous day, that MP clearly did think long and hard about his obligations to women in Ireland. His name is Leo Varadkar, he’s now the Taoiseach and – for all his faults – on reproductive rights he has shown courage and leadership that all his predecessors’ lacked.

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But while many politicians played their part, this landslide victory isn’t theirs. As Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald put it, in this campaign the people led and the politicians followed.

Thousands upon thousands of women told their stories, in a country that had for so long told them they should be ashamed of their bodies. And men listened, recognising that this campaign wasn’t about them and demonstrating, in vast numbers, what it means to be an ally.

Older people had the strength of mind to question years of religious dogma. And our youngest citizens, the ones we’re supposed to believe are apathetic and disengaged, voted Yes by a margin of well over 80 per cent – a statement of intent about the kind of Ireland they’re planning to build. An Ireland that, even if I never live there again, I’ll be proud to call home.

So I’ve cried lots of joyful tears in the last few days. But I’ve also experienced wave after wave of sadness and grief.

Grief for the women we lost on the way, women like Savita. For all those abandoned by their country, still dealing with the effects of completely unnecessary trauma. For the women who will continue to travel to Britain for abortions in the months ahead, as the new legislation moves through parliament. And for the women in Northern Ireland, still waiting for justice, let down by every level of their government.

On Saturday, Savita’s father Andanappa Yalagi, thanked the people of Ireland. “We’ve got justice for Savita,” he said. “What happened to her will not happen to any other family now. I have no words to express my gratitude.”

His words show extraordinary generosity and grace. But the debt of gratitude goes the other way. By speaking out, by sharing their love for their daughter and their devastation and anger at her loss, this Indian family helped to transform a country they had every reason to hate. We’ve done what we can to get justice. But it doesn’t undo their pain. It doesn’t bring Savita back.

So while this campaign was inspiring and uplifting, we mustn’t forget that it should never have happened. Fundamental rights shouldn’t be the subject of popular votes. Women should have had control over their bodies all along. And no way should the eighth have survived this long.

So if there’s a message I’d like this referendum to send, it’s that where people lead, politicians should be ready to follow.

In the UK before the vote for Brexit, and the US before the vote for Trump, politicians stoked people’s fears, fed their worst instincts, campaigned without regard for the evidence and without compassion. And progressive campaigners couldn’t come up with messages or tactics to counter them.

In Ireland, a Citizen’s Assembly discussed the status of abortion in Ireland, and made recommendations to parliament. Then a parliamentary committee considered its recommendations, with input from experts from medicine, law and civil society. Based on their recommendations the referendum question was decided and the draft legislation produced. Then the question was put to the people.

And right through, a thoughtful, compassionate grassroots campaign created a space for ordinary people to talk about difficult questions.

Internationally, the rise of the far-right, the rollback of reproductive rights, the surge in all sorts of prejudice is frightening. But what’s happened in Ireland proves that with the right campaign, the right process and at the right time, we can fight back.

It’s nearly a century since Ireland won its earliest form of independence. But as we say in Irish, “ní saoirse go saoirse na mban” – it’s not freedom until women are free.

This campaign was a fight for freedom. I’m proud that we won. And for all those waging their own fights for freedom, right around the world, I’d like to think it offers a glimmer of hope in the dark.