Update August 2018

Update of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, the ‘abortion trail’ and the making of a London-Irish underground, 1980-2000 by Ann Rossiter. Published in hard copy 2009; converted to eBook in June 2018; available as a Kindle edition from Amazon at £2.15

INTRODUCTION

‘All changed, changed utterly’. This is a dramatic and oft-quoted line from the W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘1916’, referring to the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland which took place over a hundred years ago.  However, it is one that applies equally to the sweeping victory of the 66.4% of electors who voted to repeal the Republic’s near-total ban on abortion in the referendum of 25th May 2018. This extraordinary triumph which, when combined with the victory of the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, has transformed the country from a bastion of religious conservatism to one of Europe’s most tolerant democracies.

As a cursory googling exercise will reveal, there has been world-wide, multi-media reportage of the momentous events in the republic.* The existence in cyberspace of this coverage obviates the need for me to undertake any in-depth treatment in this update of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora.  What I concentrate on in my review below are the activities of pro-choice groups in Britain, specifically in London, who stepped into shoes left vacant by the Irish Women’s  Abortion Support Group (IWASG) and the Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign (Iasc) circa 2000. However, to provide some context and linkage, a brief summary of the current situation in Ireland, north and south of the border, is provided, together with an equally brief account of pro-choice activist organisations on the ground there. 

Current state of affairs in the Republic of Ireland.

At the time of writing (August, 2018), the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution giving equal rights to the foetus from moment of conception and to woman bearing it, remains in place.  The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, introduced following an outcry over the death of Savita Halappanavar who was refused a life-saving abortion in an Irish hospital, continues as the law of the land. The 2013 Act, replacing the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (criminalising abortion on both islands in the Victorian era), retains and enforces criminalisation.  However, the act reduces the penalty for procuring or assisting in a termination from life imprisonment to a maximum of fourteen years.

Due to strong pressure from feminist campaigning groups, as well as significant swathes of the population, the government of the Republic instituted a Citizen’s Assembly comprising randomly-selected citizens and a government-appointed chairperson in 2017 to consider the question of abortion. The Assembly recommended not only repealing the 8th Amendment, but that unrestricted access up to the twelfth week of gestation be allowed, as well as the widening of existing grounds for terminations. A government committee of both houses of the Irish parliament accepted the recommendations. In the Autumn of 2017, the prime minister proposed a referendum which was ultimately held on 25th May 2018. Responding to the referendum result, the Republic’s government is expected to introduce legislation by early 2019.

Meanwhile, abortion seekers from the Republic continue to travel to British clinics where, according to the charity providing information and financial help, the London-based Abortion Support Network (ASN), current termination fees range from £274 for abortion with pills up to 9 or 10 weeks gestation to £1,350 for a surgical abortion up to 24 weeks, the legal limit in the UK.  Added to these costs are consultation fees of between £45 and £65, travel and, if necessary, accommodation costs. In reviewing the current situation Mara Clarke of ASN writes in the summer 2018 edition of the organisation’s newsletter:

While we are heartened by news reports that Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris still expects to have abortion provision in Ireland [Republic] by January 2019, we also know that there are many logistics and details to be worked out – the who, what, where, how and how much of abortion provision.  We will read the news along with the rest of you, but for us the true test of change will be when the phone starts ringing less.

The British Department of Health and Office of National Statistics record that in 2017, 3,092 women giving addresses in the Republic sought abortions in Britain, down from 4,422 at the time of the publication of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora in 2009. The drop in numbers is attributed largely to the increased accessing of illegal abortion pills on the internet. Women unable to travel for health, finance, child or elder care, or lack of travel documents, e.g. refugees and asylum seekers, rely on abortion pills, Mifepristone and Misoprosol.

Pro-choice campaigning organisations in the Republic of Ireland

Numerous organisations sprang up to campaign for the removal of the Eighth Amendment to the constitution.  The Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) formed in 2013 is one of the largest with a base in Dublin and over twenty regional groups, including one in London and others in Scotland and Australia. Another large organisation is the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment established as an umbrella group in 2014. It has achieved over one hundred affiliates, including trade unions, health, feminist, human rights, non-governmental (NGO) and community organisations, amongst them the National Women’s Council which itself represents one hundred and seventy associated groups spread throughout the southern state. 

Also active is ROSA (for Reproductive Rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity), a constituent of the Socialist Party (Ireland), not forgetting the Safe and Legal in Ireland Campaign set up by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) in 2005, Doctors for Choice and numerous small groups, mainly local, throughout the state.  In the late stages of the campaign, Together for Yes was formed.  This was a coalition of over 70 groups co-led by the Abortion Rights Campaign, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment, the National Women’s Council and joined in the Executive Committee by the Irish Family Planning Association.

The situation in Northern Ireland

At the time of writing, abortion remains outlawed in most cases under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in Northern Ireland (NI). In late 2017, at the instigation of British Labour MP Stella Creasy, the British government introduced free abortion services in England for NI abortion seekers. Financial support for travel and accommodation is also being made available to those earning less than £17K, or who are in receipt of state benefits. The scheme is administered by the Department of Health in London and costs are being met largely by the Government Equalities Office.

Various studies attest that almost three-quarters of NI respondents agree that abortion should be a matter for medical regulation, and not criminal law.  The second largest political party, Sinn Fein, supports progressive legislation.  However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party, does not. And therein lies the rub.  The regional government at Stormont has ceased functioning since January 2017, so no parliamentary business is being conducted there.  The DUP is, however, sitting in the Westminster ‘mother’ parliament (all NI, Scottish and Welsh parliamentarians are entitled to seats in both their regional and Westminster parliaments) and supporting a weak Westminster government in the run-up to Brexit.  The DUP insists that abortion is a ‘devolved’ matter and can only be legislated for or against at Stormont. Opponents insist that abortion is a human right under section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and, as such, qualifies for regulation at Westminster.  In early June, 2018, the Supreme Court decided that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have standing to bring a legal challenge to overturn the current law on abortion. However, it formed a majority view that the law as it stands is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Recent moves at Westminster to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act to decriminalise abortion entirely in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have progressed as far as an emergency debate in parliament. However, the British prime minister, Theresa May, is unlikely to upset the applecart at Westminster and venture into the quagmire of NI abortion politics before exiting the EU in Spring 2019. Meanwhile NI women continue to travel to Britain for abortions. Official figures show that terminations were 919 in 2017, down from 1,125 in 2009.  As in the Republic, those unable to travel may access abortion pills on the internet, albeit illegally, thus leaving them open to prosecution.  Medically safe and reliable sources on the internet are Women on Web and Women Help Women; the latter offers a self-administration service under ‘telemedicine’ (online medical practitioner) supervision. 

Pro-choice activists in Northern Ireland

Alliance for Choice (AfC), founded in 1996, continues to be the largest grassroots pro-choice activist group in NI with branches in Belfast and Derry.  As Goretti Horgan outlines in her Forward in Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, AfC fulfils numerous roles from campaigning for safe and legal abortion, to raising awareness through writing, filming, recording, performing, running information stalls, addressing meetings and public events throughout NI, as well as liaising with activists in Britain and elsewhere. Other groups active on the issue include Amnesty International, ROSA, and the NI Family Planning Association.

BRITAIN: NEW GIRLS ON THE BLOCK

When Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora was published in 2009 it was only just becoming apparent that the global financial meltdown, resulting in the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger would spell crisis time for abortion seekers.  With its halcyon days as part of the global free-market economy beginning in the late 1990s well and truly over, the government of the Republic introduced a host of draconian ‘austerity’ measures hitting hard at the most vulnerable; in particular, mothers either on low incomes or unemployed.  Very quickly this situation was mirrored in NI. Almost overnight, spare cash and credit cards became a thing of the past, except, of course, for the well-heeled. Following many calls for help in accessing an abortion, it soon became apparent in Irish pro-choice circles in Britain that financial support was desperately needed once again.   

 

ABORTION SUPPORT NETWORK (ASN), 2009 –

Into the breach stepped Mara Clark, the American founder and director of the London-based and mainly volunteer charity, the Abortion Support Network (ASN).  Speaking of ASN’s arrival, Mara says:

In 2009, we thought we would try and pick up where IWASG left off and help women with all the necessary information to access an abortion in Britain and raise the £300 to £2,000 required to pay for it. While for most women an unplanned pregnancy is difficult, it is even more devastating for those forced by poverty to call a group of strangers in England and involve them in what should be a personal and private decision. Ireland’s abortion law makes it so that, when faced with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, women with money have options and women without money have babies. In 2017, for instance, ASN heard from 1,009 people seeking a mix of information, financial support and accommodation. We funded 243 clients with grants totalling £73,000.

While some of ASN’s work covers the same ground as that of IWASG, it differs in that ASN developed from a group of volunteers to a registered UK charity, and after several years of operating on an all-volunteer basis, began to pay two members of staff.  ASN’s ninety or so volunteers fulfil a range of roles that one would expect to find in a charity – fundraising, communications, social media, IT, web development, graphic design and more.  There are also volunteers who serve on ASN’s Board of trustees.  However, most importantly, there are the volunteers who manage the helpline, and are tasked with the work of providing an incredibly diverse range of information on how to access an abortion.  Sometimes this is as simple as giving information on the easiest clinic to reach and sometimes it requires helping a client overcome numerous obstacles, including how to cover her tracks from an abusive partner.  These volunteers are central to the work of ASN, as was the case with IWASG.  What IWASG did not have to tackle are more recent obstacles to abortion seekers travelling to Britain.  These are primarily finding an airline willing to allow someone to fly with a social welfare card rather than a passport (waiting for a passport to be issued can take six months or more), or to how to apply for a visa if one is undocumented.

Another area where IWASG and ASN differ is on publicity and communication with media outlets.  While IWASG worked with pro-choice organisations in both Irish states and documented their activities internally, members were often hesitant about media interest, especially at moments of great import and high drama, such as the 1992 X case.  At the time, IWASG members were of the opinion – and with considerable justification – that a high media profile might deter potential abortion seekers searching for help in the belief that their anonymity might be compromised.  Times have changed and ASN, on the contrary, has a high media profile.  While ASN does not seek out the media, when the press calls, ASN is willing and able to share their knowledge of how Ireland’s abortion laws impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised people in Irish society.

THE LONDON-IRISH FEMINIST NETWORK (LIFN), 2012-

LIFN began in November, 2012 at a highly charged protest organised at the Irish Embassy in London over the circumstances leading to the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway University Hospital.  The protest had been publicized by Feminist Events, a feminist listings service and blog site, and supported by Abortion Rights UK, the national abortion campaigning organisation.  Numbers of journalists were present from British and Irish media outlets. Amongst the protesters Irish voices could be clearly discerned but all formal speeches delivered were by non-Irish spokespersons, something remarked on by the Irish press reporters present and which prompted a response from Hazel Nolan, a migrant who had arrived in London in 2012:

‘I was at the Irish Embassy [protest]…and it was so empowering to see so many people turn up – and to know that we are standing in solidarity with people all over Ireland doing the same.  However, I felt quite upset that no Irish woman was invited to speak.  The whole point of this is that our voices are not being heard back home in Ireland – so we should be speaking up ourselves at these protests.  We should be driving them.’  (Quoted in London Irish Women’s Network Newsletter, No.1, 16th November, 2012)

Bearing in mind that that there were no established forums for Irish women’s voices or perspectives in London – in particular, for feminist voices – to be heard, a situation exacerbated by the closure of the London Irish Women’s Centre in 2012, Marian Larragy and Ann Rossiter set up the London Irish Women’s (later to become ‘Feminist’) Network.  The main aims were:

·       producing a newsletter detailing events and issues of relevance to Irish feminists in London and in Britain generally;

·       promoting the film “Breaking Ground, the story of the London Irish Women’s Centre”;

·       facilitating consciousness-raising groups;

·       collaborating with other groups on projects of mutual interest; in particular Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion) set up in 2013 (see below) and My Belly is Mine, a London-based Spanish women’s group working in solidarity with pro-choice organisations in Spain.

LIFN continues to produce an occasional newsletter  and collaborates with other progressive groups across a range of subjects, from reproductive rights to issues of sexual, race, ethnic, and disability discrimination.

 

Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion), 2013-

The arrival in December 2013 of Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion), a London-based direct-action feminist performance collective, founded by Helena Walsh, the performance artist, and the film maker, Treasa O’Brien, introduced an innovative dimension to the politics of protest on the lack of Irish women’s reproductive rights.

The launching in Britain of this medium has been ground-breaking given its ability to tackle controversial subjects by moving away from 1970s-era tools of protest, such as pickets and marches, and trying innovative tactics. This has involved a new style of protest which appeals in particular to a younger generation of women and is tailor-made for social media, the collective’s primary platform.  Frequently, it uses the performer’s own body as a site of meaning, a site upon which the struggle for sexual and bodily autonomy is waged.  It approaches the grim and unfunny issue of abortion with wit and sometimes with laughter. In so doing, IMELDA offers a whole new interpretation of the old feminist maxim: ‘the personal is political’.

The acronym IMELDA is a reference to the code name ‘Imelda’, a fairly common girl’s name in Ireland, which, as discussed in Chapter 5 of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, was used by abortion seekers contacting the underground helpline run by the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG).  In reclaiming the name ‘Imelda’, Helena Walsh contends that the collective is establishing a historical link with IWASG and emphasising the important role of memorialising feminist struggles so frequently hidden from conventional history.  The wearing of red – a distinguishing feature of Speaking of IMELDA – refers to an occasional sartorial choice by IWASG members so as to be easily identified by abortion seekers when being met at transport hubs in London.

IMELDA’s use of performance seeks to challenge patriarchal conventions and subvert gendered cultural norms in an Irish context.  Their considerable portfolio of work has ranged from encounters with ‘socially engaged Catholics’, clergy and lay people, gathered for a conference entitled ‘Dissonant Voices’ at the London Irish Centre in March, 2014, where, despite being roundly rebuffed, IMELDA members avowed their right to bodily autonomy;  delivering in person a knickers inscribed with ‘Repeal the 8th’ on the plate of Enda Kenny, the then Irish prime minister, who was attending a fund-raising dinner for political party, Fine Gael, in north London in 2014, to chaining themselves to the pillars of the General Post Office in Dublin in April 2015. There, they read out their ‘alternative feminist proclamation’ ninety-nine years after Irish revolutionaries stood on the same spot to proclaim the establishment of the Irish Republic at the outset of the 1916 Rising against British rule.  

Speaking of IMELDA's latest assignment entitled ‘On Referendum Road’ is a film project capturing the work undertaken by grassroots movements.  Activists share their views, arguments and knowledge of local campaigns in the areas of Waterford, Cork, Ennis and Galway, Sligo and Leitrim prior to the outcome of the landslide referendum.

Here are the links for:

Waterford, Cork, Ennis and Galway, & Sligo and Leitrim

 The group's considerable portfolio of work is at the website: http://www.spealingofimelda.co.uk

LONDON-IRISH ABORTION RIGHTS CAMPAIGN (LIARC), 2016 -

Founded in September, 2016, LIARC is the London branch of the Abortion Rights Campaign in the Republic of Ireland. It is also a member of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, again based in the Republic.  As with ARC in Ireland, LIARC is volunteer led. Their stated aim is to bring people in London together to campaign for free, safe, legal abortion in both parts of Ireland through the deployment of a wide variety of methods, most importantly through ‘provision of relevant up-to-date information to support evidenced-based policy-making’). In this endeavour LIARC mirrors the activities of ARC in Ireland, builds on the work of earlier groups in Britain such as IWASG and Iasc, and in many respects complements current organisations, several of which are surveyed above (for example, ASN, LIFN and IMELDA).

Membership of LIARC covers and broad spectrum of women and a sprinkling of men, in total amounting to over one thousand.  Many of the members have origins in Northern Ireland and the Republic, and many are young and university-educated having emigrated following the death of the Celtic Tiger.  LIARC is divided into five working groups led by about sixty volunteer organisers: media and communications, direction action and protest, fundraising, lobbying and Northern Ireland.

As with ASN, the size, and to a degree, the scope of LIARC is much greater than a comparable organisation like IWASG.  IWASG depended on promotion of its raison d’etre and activities by coverage in progressive journals, left-wing newspapers, newsletters and feminist magazines, such as Spare Rib (1972-1993), the latter having reached a circulation of 20,000 per month, and with a much more extensive readership through libraries, women’s centres, and feminist gatherings.  LIARC’s establishment – and continuance – has been, according to Cara Sanquest, the group’s founder, much dependent on social media and in particular, through twitter, although as suggested in the introduction to this update, the high profile of the abortion issue in Ireland is due to the culmination of a number of factors, not least the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012.   

In 2017, LIARC, together with Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and member of LIARC, Alliance for Choice, Northern Ireland, as well as the Family Planning Association were awarded the Long Walk Award by Liberty, the British human rights organisation.

 

REFERENCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY

*A slew of books had already appeared before the abortion referendum of May 2018 and will, no doubt, be followed by another, post-referendum.  The list below includes two books on the same-sex marriage referendum of May 2015:

Holland, K. (2013) Savita, The Tragedy That Shook A Nation, London: Transworld Ireland.

Quilty, A., Kennedy, S., Conlon, C. (eds) (2015) The Abortion Papers Ireland: Volume 2, Cork: Attic Press.

Redmond, J., Tiernan, S., McAvoy, S., McAuliffe, M. (eds) (2015) Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland, Sallins: Irish Academic Press.

Orr, J. (2017) Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights, Bristol: Policy Press.

Mullally M. (ed) (2018) Repeal The 8th, London: Unbound.

D’Arcy, K. (ed) (2018) Autonomy, Cork: New Binary Press.

De Londras, F., Enright, M. (2018) Repealing the 8th: Reforming Irish Abortion Law, Bristol: Policy Press.

Healy, G., Sheehan, B., Whelan, N. (2016)  Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won,  Salins: Merrion Press.

Healy, G. (ed) (2017) Crossing the Threshold: The Story of the Marriage Equality Movement, Newbridge: Merrion Press.

Apart from websites of the various campaigning groups (details above), The Irish Times and Irish Independent newspapers and theJournal.ie is a good source for details of the day-to-day progress of the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment.

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