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26 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:21pm

Repeal the Eighth: What can Britain learn from Ireland’s abortion referendum?

Together For Yes ran an inspirational, effective campaign: feminists and progressives everywhere can learn from it.

By Helen Lewis

“The last three months have lifted the lid on abortion in Ireland,” Orla O’Connor, co-director of Together For Yes, told me yesterday. “So the idea that abortion doesn’t happen in Ireland, we don’t have to think about it. . . It’s the conversation that for so long, people have tried to avoid.”

When we spoke, the Together For Yes office, on a Dublin side-street, was eerily quiet. Everyone was out doing last-minute canvassing, or getting out the vote.

And, wow, did they get out the vote. Polling returns bore out the projection from last night’s exit polls, which showed a thumping majority for Yes, with sizeable leads even in areas of the country which have traditionally been socially conservative.

The No campaign – which wanted to keep the Eighth Amendment to the Irish consitution, which prevented abortion being decriminalised – conceded in the early afternoon. 

To give you an idea of the scale of social change in Ireland in the last 35 years, here is the map from the 1983 referendum which introduced the Eighth Amendment, showing big majorities everywhere and only south Dublin voting against – next to an early map of this year’s vote:

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It’s traditional to describe referendum campaigns as “divisive”, but one of the most interesting pieces of feedback I got yesterday from canvassers was that the rural/urban split was not as pronounced as many had expected. The exit poll also suggested that men voted 65-35 in favour, with women at 70-30; there was a majority for Yes among every age group under 65. Such an emphatic result makes the next stage –  legislation to allow abortions up to 12 weeks, with a longer limit on health grounds – easier.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the vote – along with the referendum to remove the constitutional bar on gay marriage in 2015 – has the capacity to redefine how Ireland feels about itself. Soon, Ireland will have a more liberal position on abortion than the majority of the UK, where many of the restrictions introduced in the 1967 Act still remain, such as the requirement for two doctors’ signatures.

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, abortion is still illegal apart from in the most exceptional circumstances. In the last few years, there have been several arrests of women who have bought abortion pills illegally on the internet – something that their sisters in the Republic will no longer have to do. Around 700 women a year travel from Northern Ireland to England for terminations.

Being British, I have been unable to stop making comparisons with the EU referendum of 2016, and with feminist campaigns more generally. What can we learn from the astounding success of the Repeal movement? Here are six ideas.

1. Go for the heart

From the start, Repeal campaigners knew that the pro-life movement would use highly emotional posters, slogans and pictures. Here in Dublin, you can’t go 500 yards without seeing a picture of a foetus. “I am 9 weeks old, I can yawn and kick. Don’t repeal me,” reads a poster from the Love Both campaign. 

The Yes campaign countered that with a message that focused strongly on women: their safety, dignity and right to healthcare. Graham and Helen Linehan were among those who spoke about how the Eighth Amendment affected women whose foetuses had no chance of survival – and yet were not allowed to terminate their pregnancies.

The case of Savita Halappanavar – who died from sepsis after doctors refused to accelerate her miscarriage – was widely discussed, with the respected doctor who led the inquiry into her death coming out for Yes. At the Savita memorial in Dublin yesterday, campaigners left flowers and notes, promising that she would be remembered, and they would not let her death be in vain.

2. Build support

David Cameron called the EU referendum in June 2016 after winning an unexpected majority less than a year earlier – thinking, presumably, that it would be nice to get the vote over and done with so he could concentrate on the remaining four years of his premiership. That looks like a historic mistake.

Ireland’s feminists have been campaigning for a referendum for years – “all my working life”, Orla O’Connor told me. One thing that many campaigners have stressed to me is that there is a high level of both engagement and knowledge about the issue as a result of this process. Which leads me to . . .

3. Ask a proper question

The question on the ballot paper was a narrow one – should Ireland repeal the Eighth Amendment to its constitution, which gives “equal weight” to the life of the mother and the foetus. It did not by itself contain any prescription for a new legal regime. So the Irish government was open about the legislation it planned to bring before parliament: a time limit of 12 weeks, except for health grounds.

Although there were attempts to scare people that a vote to Repeal would mean a free-for-all, these did not work, because the roadmap after the referendum is relatively clear.

Contrast that with the EU referendum, where not only was the question broad and vague, but there was almost no discussion during the campaign of what either outcome would look like. Voters were left to assume that a Remain vote meant sticking with the status quo, which even Europhiles could summon little enthusiasm for. Meanwhile, Leave meant . . . what? Leaving the single market, customs union, Galileo project? Staying in the EEA? Going to WTO terms? Which mattered more, free trade deals or the Good Friday Agreement? None of this got the airing it deserved during a short and narrow campaign focused on immigration and the economy.

In 2016, it’s hard not to conclude that there was a spectacular failure by politicians and the media to examine properly what the consequences of the vote – in either direction – would be.

4. Be inclusive

Although Together For Yes and several other campaigns were led by women, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of men I saw helping out. One of the most cheering sights has been “Grandfathers for Yes”:

Bringing together a broad coalition of age groups allowed this to be seen as a move forwards – hence also the use of “Together” in the name of the campaign – rather than the young kicking against the old. Similarly, the Repeal campaign attracted the support of opposition parties as well as the government. Before polling day, I’d been trying to work out which side seemed like the “establishment”, in case the vote followed the trend of recent populist revolts. But in Ireland, with its strong Catholic tradition, the Repeal side seemed like the insurgents, despite their broad political support. 

“The significant thing was that it was cross-party,” said O’Connor. “If it had been just the government, then we might have been in that territory. Now, there are lots of people in the parties – particularly in one of the largest parties, Fianna Fáil – who were opposed to it, but there was cross-party support from the Oireachtas [parliament] committee.”

The campaign also used easy, concrete language: “Trust women”. And: “Your mother. Your daughter. Your sister. Her choice.” I’ve already seen grumbles from some activists on social media that the wording was not “inclusive” enough – that the campaign did not say “pregnant people”, for example – but it seems clear that it used the language necessary to reach the undecided, even if that came at the expense of the preferences of the most politically engaged.

5. Be visible

Hopefully every exhibition about the history of feminism, or protest movements generally, will get their hands on a REPEAL sweatshirt. Along with the Yes/Tá badges, these sweaters were a strong visual statement that their wearers weren’t embarrassed or ashamed to talk about the issue.

“What’s been very different from previous campaigns is the number of women coming forward and talking about their stories,” said Orla O’Connor. “It took a huge amount of courage from women to do that, because this is an issue that’s still – women are faced with a lot of stigma, it’s still surrounded in secrecy. And to come forward and talk about having an abortion is a hugely courageous thing to do. It’s been absolutely incredible, I’ve gone around the country over the last three or four weeks, at so many meetings, and at each of those meetings there was somebody there talking about having to travel for an abortion. And then we’ve heard from mothers getting their daughters abortion pills. And I think that for the first time Irish people really got to hear what the impact of the Eighth was.”

6. Work online and offline

As well as the public meetings where these stories were aired, the Yes campaign also succeeded in getting them out via social media. Groups such as In Her Irish Shoes and Everyday Stories showed the impact of travelling for an abortion in vivid and often heart-breaking detail. That boosted the visibility of the campaign both in Ireland and around the world. 

However, one thing that will be hard to replicate in the UK is the personal nature of this campaign. Ireland has fewer than five million citizens, compared with Britain’s 65 million. (Within five minutes of arriving at the Savita memorial last night I had randomly bumped into a political journalist and a woman who runs a Repeal podcast.) That difference in scale helps create what Malcolm Gladwell called “strong bonds” which are essential to successful activism.

And one more point: both Facebook and Google restricted advertising on this issue, amid fears that American pro-life organisations were pouring money into the campaign from abroad. Until that point, campaigners tell me, they were “bombarded” with adverts online. Although electoral law has still not caught up with the new media landscape, at least the tech companies are beginning to acknowledge their power.

So, in summary: be specific about what you want; know how to demand it; and bring as many people along with you as you can. Sounds simple, but it’s hard – and requires enormous hard work. 

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