Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Nobody could have imagined how much Ireland has changed

For a country which used to lock single mothers up in laundries for the ‘crime’ of having children right up until the 1980s, Ireland has utterly changed.

A country which branded a woman who became pregnant for a second time as a “repeat offender” seems to belong to a different planet from the Republic which voted overwhelmingly in favour of abortion rights on Friday.

Gone are the days when children were taken from their mothers in Mother and Baby Homes throughout the country, in some cases to be adopted by “good” Catholic families in the United States, perhaps illegally and certainly against the wishes of the heartbroken women.

In many cases, Gardai, priests, or family members had transferred the young women to those bleak homes, because the shame of having a baby outside marriage was too much to share with neighbours or friends. Those women just “disappeared”.

For those of us who were too young to vote on the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which gave equal rights to the mother and the unborn child, the scale of the change has been unthinkable.

No woman under the age of 53 had a vote on Ireland’s strict abortion laws prior to last Friday and few could have envisaged the scale of the desire for change, with 1,429,981 people (or 66.4% of the electorate) voting in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment.

When the Eighth Amendment was passed 35 years ago, homosexuality, divorce, and even contraception were illegal, and young mothers were still incarcerated in the infamous Magdalene Laundries throughout the country.

At the end of a heated and divisive campaign, which included interference from anti-abortion groups in the United States, few could have predicted the massive desire for change across the country which emerged in Friday’s vote.

Campaigners could hardly have believed the extent of support for repeal, given how divisive and emotional the issue of abortion has been in Ireland for decades.

And yet it was evident all around us, in social media posts and in conversations with friends, if we dared to believe.

My friend Eimear, for example, flew home from Vietnam to vote.

A work colleague’s friend flew in from Canada for a short, but emotional, trip home. Her friends raised the money for her flight through a crowdfunding website.

The issue meant so much to them, and to so many other young Irish women scattered across the globe, that the arrivals area of Dublin Airport was transformed into an emotional meeting point in the days leading up to the vote.

Young women arriving on flights from cities such as London, Liverpool, Toronto, and Brussels, were greeted by a lady with a huge box of Tayto crisps, who went out to the airport just to hand them out to the exiles and give them a warm welcome home.

There were emotional hugs and tears shed at the airport, as many noted the contrast with the silent journeys which so many Irish women have made to the UK and other countries over the past 35 years.

Nine women make the journey in the opposite direction every day. A hospital in Liverpool has a special section for Irish women with fatal foetal abnormalities, whose babies were going to die but the women could not get terminations in their own land.

Another friend Jennie was in terror at the prospect of canvassing when I met her at the launch of Together for Yes in Galway at the start of the campaign.

She was weighing up whether or not she had the strength to go around to people’s houses and knock on doors.

She had moved to a new town, where the cost of housing was cheaper, just two years ago and worried about the kind of reception she and other canvassers would receive.

Instead, she discovered a fabulous reception on the doorsteps, where ordinary rural people showed genuine compassion for women with fatal foetal abnormalities who were forced to travel to the UK for terminations in recent years.

Many wanted to listen to, and share, stories of heartbreak and trauma.

Other young women I know went out and canvassed in Galway every night. It was remarkable to note how many of them were truly engaging with politics for the first time.

But none of them dared to imagine the extent of the ‘Yes’ vote as many people were too shy to reveal how they would vote on such a personal issue when they talked to them at their doorsteps.

It now seems that those who were unwilling to reveal how they intended to vote on the doorsteps had actually made up their minds to vote ‘Yes’, despite the urgings of the Catholic Church and those who described themselves as ‘pro-life’.

As news of the landslide win came through on Saturday, tears were shed at count centres throughout the country.

At the Galway West count, I met women who had canvassed tirelessly to Repeal of the Eighth amendment over the past 35 years.

One woman in her early 50s hugged her mother, now in her 80s, who had campaigned against the Eighth Amendment back in 1983. Back then, activists had warned that the legislation would pose a threat to women’s lives. In Galway, sadly, and elsewhere they were proved right.

Many women in the hall had been waiting for this moment for all of their adult lives.

It is not as though Irish people have suddenly become “baby killers”, as depicted  with such hostility by the no side, but real stories such as that of Arlette Lyons, who founded Termination for Medical Reasons (TFMR), forced us to look again at our restrictive laws.

Heartbroken, after being given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, Arlette and her husband had to travel to Liverpool Women’s Hospital for a termination. She was so traumatised by the experience that she took the boat because she could not face the flight home to Ireland.

On Saturday, as the result of the landslide vote came in, Arlette tweeted that the women of Ireland could now seek care in a safer, kinder country. The result would now allow her to let her little Skye rest in peace.

People talked again about the infamous 1992 ‘X Case’, in which the Irish authorities took out an injunction to prevent a teenage rape victim from travelling to the UK after her parents had alerted the Gardai to their plans.

The direct intervention by the Attorney General, which created headlines across the globe, was a direct result of the Eighth Amendment which said that the unborn child had a right to life which was equal to that of the traumatised girl.

My city is also the one in which an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, died in a public hospital after her plea for a termination was turned down.

People all over the world were shocked when she was told “This is a Catholic country” as she pleaded for a termination which could have saved her life.

Her death led to a huge outpouring of grief, a beautiful candelight vigil in the centre of Galway, and gave huge impetus to the campaign to change Ireland’s abortion laws.

A beautiful memorial to Savita has been constructed on a Dublin street in recent days and her parents have expressed satisfaction at the outcome of the vote.

If anything, the landslide in favour of abortion rights has shown a massive disconnect between modern Ireland and some parts of the Irish-American diaspora.

Many Americans flew in to Ireland to campaign for a ‘No’ vote and funds from the United States were poured into the losing side.

Some ‘pro-choice’ campaigners, particularly women with fatal foetal abnormalities who had undergone terminations in the UK, were shocked and dismayed by the abuse they received from social media trolls in the United States.

Modern Ireland has not suddenly become a land of “baby killers” and “murderers” as depicted by the other side, but the real stories of heartbreak and suffering expressed by Irish women for the first time showed compassion and care for women trumped the ideology of the Catholic Church in a way which would have been unthinkable in the 1980s.

The two-thirds majority comes at the end of three decades of campaigning by Irish women, who faced the wrath of Irish priests, politicians, and ‘pro-life’ campaigners throughout.

Ultimately, it was the personal tales of heartbreak and personal tragedies which prompted a significant majority of Irish voters to vote in a way which would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, travel writer, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. http://ciarantierney.com/

Find Ciaran Tierney on Facebook http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

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