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'No More Lonely Journeys Across The Irish Sea’ – But What's Next For The Women Of Ireland?

Ireland’s electorate has voted to remove the constitutional ban on abortion by a resounding two-thirds majority. Bríd Stenson is no longer eligible to vote in her native Ireland, but went back this weekend to witness this historic moment.

On Friday 25th May 2018 I fly back into Dublin airport from London, where I’ve been living for the last 7 years. The whole building is abuzz of nervous excitement. It’s not like anything I’ve ever felt before. The world is watching us. Today is special.

At Terminal 1, there’s a sea of Repeal jumpers as anxious parents wait for their children coming in from all over the world, home to vote. Planeloads of Irish touching down from Sydney, New York, London, Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere. Annie Fletcher who flew in from Eindhoven tells me ‘I’ve been campaigning since 1992 and I can’t believe I still have to put up with this shit.’ Angela who welcomed her son Lochlainn from Shanghai has also been campaigning since 1992 ‘I’ve just one son who is eligible to vote and so I got him home,’ she says.

Annie Fletcher © Bríd Stenson

Because as much as the Referendum has been defined in the press by the (mostly) young people who flew home to vote, we must never forget that Repeal the Eighth has been a grassroots, inter-generational, feminist and women-led campaign, that has been going on literally since I was born. These women who’ve brought sons and daughters home to vote from the other side of the world have opposed this amendment since the day it was enshrined in the Constitution.

I was born in Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital in Dublin on 11th October 1983. Four days earlier a subsection to the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution had been written into law. It favoured recognizing the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child. The amendment was made following a Referendum and despite advice to the government from then Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, that ‘Far from providing the protection and certainty which is sought by many of those who have advocated its adoption, it will have a contrary effect.’ It did and it took my entire life to date, almost 35 years to repeal it.

My first memory of the Irish abortion issue was the ‘X’ case in 1992. It seemed to last forever. At the time, a child not much older than I was raped, a child was now pregnant, and the pregnant child was forced to remain pregnant against her will.

For many of the younger generation though, the death of Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar, in 2012 was a catalyst for repealing the Eighth Amendment. The 31 year old died of sepsis in a Galway hospital after she was denied an abortion during miscarriage which could have saved her life. Her death sparked international outrage and condemnation of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

Six years later, her father Andanappa Yalagi, thanked Irish people for voting yes. There are calls for new Irish abortion legislation to be known as ‘Savita’s Law’.

After leaving the airport on Friday, I sat down with Saoirse Long, a 29-year old Irish DJ with Dublin radio station FM104. A week earlier, Saoirse uploaded to YouTube her abortion story and contributed to a Referendum debate on commercial broadcaster, TV3. During the programme, wearing a jumper dress with Freedom written across it, Saoirse explained that while her name meant ‘Freedom’ in Irish, she wasn’t free.

In 2014, unemployed and by her own admission ‘not in a good place’, Saoirse discovered she was pregnant and fearing for her own mental health, decided to have a termination. The first time she was unable to go ahead with it. The second time she travelled alone to a clinic in Birmingham: ‘Afterwards, they gave me a hot water bottle, tea and toast and I was allowed to leave but my flight wasn’t for another six hours so I walked around Birmingham in the most agonizing pain you could imagine with a hot water strapped to my stomach.’

Saoirse felt too ‘scared’ to tell family, friends or a medical professional and it became her ‘dark, horrible secret’. It took until during the Referendum TV debates to confide in her current partner, who she’s been with for two and a half years ‘I just balled crying and I told him. He was amazing but I thought he was going to judge me, I don’t know why. I was afraid he would tell his Mom. I love his Mom.’

Later still on Friday, it’s closing in on 1130pm and I’m sitting in my friend’s home with her Mum and 83-year-old grandmother ‘Monie’ as we wait for the exit poll announcement on the Late Late show. Her Mum starts talking about Sheila, who she worked with in her 20s: ‘All the girls at work loved Sheila (this wasn’t her real name), we just wanted her to get away from him.’ ‘Him’ was a married man who was having an affair with Sheila and as contraception was not available in Ireland, she’d had multiple abortions. ‘She would go away for long weekends to England and be, ya know, “down” for a few days after she came home and then maybe tell us three or four weeks later, that she’d had another one. We all loved Sheila.’ Later when I asked where Sheila was now: ‘She could be dead.’ she said.

The last opinion polls in Ireland had shown a 52% YES and 48% NO and so I’m nervous. Nana Monie says ‘No need to worry.’ I’m confused by her confidence.

And then the exit poll comes out showing almost two thirds of people in support of repealing the Eighth, a reverse mirror of the 1983 result. Commentators speak of the misrepresentation of the ‘quiet voter’ who they’d assumed would vote No and the ‘shock’ of the landslide poll.

But Nana ‘Monie’ is not shocked, she knew better. Those who’d endured pain, sadness, no contraception, inadequate care, fear, shame, death - they knew better.

She’s not the only one. Ailbhe Smyth who headed up the Together for Yes campaign has tirelessly and fearlessly dedicated her entire life to repealing the amendment and speaking to RTÉ in the aftermath of the YES poll said she wasn’t surprised: ‘We knew. We would meet women on the doorsteps or in the street and whilst they didn’t vocalise it, they touched our hands and said I’m with you.’ The silent voters had made their minds up years ago.

Jogging along the Liffey the next morning with knots in my stomach, Dublin seems calm now. I’m cautiously optimistic but I’ve worked across enough UK election campaigns since 2015 to understand that pollsters could’ve gotten it wrong. As the afternoon rolls on, it’s clear that’s not the case. The atmosphere at Dublin’s RDS count centre electrifies by the hour, each constituency result more exciting than the last. History is being made. Ireland is united on this issue – there is no gender or class divide. Just one Ireland who’d ferociously voted YES.

I’m at Dublin castle for the final, official results, and they are unequivocal. A resounding 66.4% of the electorate, 39 out of 40 constituencies in Ireland voted YES. Girls and women, young and old, cry and hug as the YES vote is finally confirmed over the loud speaker but their cheers of ‘Yes’ and ‘We’ve made history’ by group ROSA drown the announcer out. A group of first year university students from Galway sob uncontrollably as they group hug. Behind sunglasses grown women like me cry. A Canadian tourist, who’s been standing alongside me, is ecstatic that she’s been here to witness this historic day. Politicians are on the TV fighting back tears and those with opposing views are embracing each other on stage.

KD and Katy at Dublin Castle © Bríd Stenson

Dr.Rhona Mahony is the first female Master of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital. She advocated for a YES vote, and speaking to her after the result, she said: ‘This is an acknowledgement and an endorsement and an acceptance that at times, life is really difficult and women have to make really complicated decisions. Ireland has engaged really well over the last number of years…all over the country, we have really grappled with the complexity of this issue. Today, after all that consideration, Ireland has voted with compassion in order to care for women – in all the circumstances that women find themselves in.’

The morning after the celebratory YES vote, ‘Together for Yes’ hold their final press briefing calling for the speedy passage of the legislation to repeal Ireland’s Eighth Amendment.

Speaking after the result, Cora Sherlock of ‘Love both’ who advocated a NO vote said she was ‘devastated’ and when it comes to debating the legislation, she will seek to hold ‘the government to their word when they said they wanted abortion up to 12 weeks to be ‘restrictive.'

So now the hard work begins. Legislation that will work for Ireland and for Irish women must be implemented – that will involve careful consideration of opinions, education and healthcare resources, training for medical professionals and counseling for girls and women.

Our historic vote is a vote for women all over the world. We must focus our energies now on implementing change, on making the best future possible for Irish women. No more isolation, no more fear, no more shame.

A lone candle flickers in front of a mural of Savita Halappanavar on South Richmond St. in Dublin, and notes are pasted to the wall in her memory. Behind the thousands of stories you see, there are thousands of others, which remain untold. But at last, we are free.