The Labour of Legal Change: On the Final Days of the Irish Pro-Choice Referendum

by | 20 Jun 2018

I was on Liffey Street with the smokers when the referendum polls closed. A gang of us friends – canvassers and campaigners – had been having dinner together in an upstairs room in a restaurant on the quays. Two big raucous tables. Too much red wine. Loud, joking, beside ourselves with nerves. The day had started well enough – coffee in the sunshine, a visit to the airport to welcome back last minute “Home to Voters”, a chat in the courtyard ofA4 Soundswith Miriam, in the retreat Siobhan had built for the day. But as the afternoon drifted on, my day fell apart and I found myself pacing Dublin, Parnell Street to Camden Street and back down- forgetting to keep plans I’d made, not quite coping, not showing up to leaflet the train station, not able to stand still. The sun was blazing and there were Repeal sweatersand ‘Yes’ badges everywhere you looked. But there was this enveloping tension; not a lull, but a sense of something coiled and waiting. I was downstairs on Liffey Street with the smokers because I couldn’t sit any longer.

The exit poll results came in after voting ended at ten o’clock. A friend shouted to us to come up come up. When we got to the top of the stairs Liam was reading the Irish Times report from his phone. Was it 67% Yes? Margin of error: 1.5%. The weight of numbers. Nothing confirmed yet, but certainly not close. Enough. A clear win. We embraced, and cried. We yelled and bellowed in the fancy restaurant’s upstairs room, and nobody asked us to be quiet. Downstairs, former leaders in the Women’s Information Network– who had shared abortion information in the 80’s when student unions were threatened with jail and women’s clinics were shut down – were cheering too. And as we stepped out in a gang onto the quays, it felt to me that it was all settled for a moment; that we were safe, and loved and recognised as women in our own country.

But I had gone downstairs and out onto Liffey Street with the smokers because my courage was failing. I had hoped for 52% ‘Yes’. 53 on a good day. And for weeks, when I asked anyone how they thought it would go, the answer was the same: “It’ll be tight”. The referendum campaign felt more like a series of acts of resistance to an old establishment than like the confirmation of a new one. I delighted in small exchanges – drivers beeping their car horns as we walked back from a canvass in Kilkenny where few doors were opened to us; the man who winked at me as I waited awkwardly for a friend  near a group saying the rosary for the unborn; shop cashiers and waiters offering a smiling “I love your badge”; the goodnight waves of the old women in the Dublin working men’s club where they let us watch a television debate on abortion, as long as we kept the sound turned down. I saw young women onLawyers for Choicestreet stalls gently and confidently brush off angry warnings that they were going to Hell, at least in public. I listened to a friend calmly reel off the death threats she had received for running the canvass in her rural home town – the blade of a shovel thrust at her throat. In Temple Bar, I saw a teenage girl in a long convent school skirt heckle an American pastor preaching for a No vote to the applause of a relaxed and supportive crowd. But I didn’t know if she, if we, were the majority now.

There was a vulnerability to the last days of the campaign – a soft heavy exhaustion. People were anxious, tender, prone to tears. I carry with me so many memories of women crying; the women singing “Everyday” at a pub gathering in Tuam; my sister in the audience as I spoke at an event for the Irish Council for Civil Liberties; the canvass leader I had met only minutes before somehow in my arms at Dublin Castle as the official results were called; the girl in my friend Sinead’s story of a woman she saw coming sobbing from the polling station having just cast her vote.

Now, with our ‘win’ so clear, it is hard to explain these tears. After the result, the ‘No’ side were beaten, muted. On the morning of May 26th, we went to the RDS building in Ballsbridge, to observe the official counting of paper votes. Canvassing groups volunteer to ‘tally’ the votes – observing as each box is emptied and ballots sorted into Yes and No. Two friends of mine nearly destroyed by the Amendment in their pregnancies among them. Primary schools are the official polling centres in Ireland. The church owns the buildings and many in Dublin have holy names. These were written at the top of the tally sheets. Our Lady of Good Counsel; St Kevins; Queen of Angels; Our Lady of the Wayside. Stand and watch. Each box Yes after Yes. I walked around the hall, finding and greeting friends among those tallying and observing, relishing in shared amazement. It was a mixed crowd; campaigners, veterans of the women’s movement,  senators in the early morning, and ministers for the big entrances and victory speeches later on.

Shampa Lahiricircled the hall in a sari like a ghost. Someone tallying for the ‘Yes’ side had put  a portrait of Savita Halappanavar on a far wall. Days before, her face had appeared as a mural in Portobello, which became a sort of shrine. I saw women bring their small girls to lay flowers for her, writing notes to say how sorry we were for her death. But in the RDS when I brought a journalist over to show them her picture in the count centre, it been turned to face the wall – a complaint from the ‘No’ side perhaps; a final sting.

Tallymen for the ‘No’ side were scarce – they had clipboards and pink hi-vis waistcoats to spare. Only one of their campaign leaders came to meet them, and she seemed to come alone. The leader of Ireland’s fascist party appeared, standing in the centre of a ring of young men in black jackets, but didn’t stay long. Their side knew no guarantees anymore. Among the ‘No’ tally team I saw a man I knew from when we trained for the Bar together. He came top of our class. I was surprised that I didn’t enjoy greeting him in his lonely defeat. To watch them then, you wouldn’t have imagined how they had been in the days and weeks before. To see us, in the evening in the streets around Dublin Castle, blaring car horns and cheering, drinking cans on the steps of the Powerscourt Centre, how would you have understood the inexplicable power they held?

We were asking for repeal of a law that maimed and humiliated us. But everywhere was the insistence that those campaigning for a ‘No’ were reasonable, respectable. However we raged against it, almost everything we read or saw on the television or heard on the radio – all the common sense of six years campaigning and thirty before those – told us that the country was against us by default; that a cautious “middle ground” would need to be coaxed or dragged into voting to legalise abortion. Some academic lawyers in prestigious institutions told me it was important for them to stay “neutral”. 1000 lawyers signed a petition in favour of a Yes vote, but their main representative groups did not “take sides”, as if lawyers were only ever the arbiters of the abortion law and never its victims. Outside maternity hospitals, anti-abortion campaigners displayed enormous banners of dismembered foetuses and the police did not move them on; it was left to people in angel costumesand queers with Pride flagsto intervene. The national broadcasterran television and radio debates in which the ‘No’ side’s false claims went unchallenged, and the paper of record published their claims apparently without question. It took such labour to hold the space of public discourse open to their demands.  One morning in a hotel in Sligo I spoke for the ‘Yes’ side in aradio debate,with a studio audience. Battling back and forth for two hours. ‘No’ supporters heckling, the women of local pro-choice groups holding their fury down. At the end of my set piece a man stood up in the audience and met my gaze – holding a picture of a dismembered foetus above his head in a kind of triumph. I spoke alongside Bernie and Gerry. Gerry had driven me down from Dublin on a clogged motorway the night before.  As he told the audience about the son he had lost to a fatal foetal anomaly, I heard a man in the front row say “You killed him”. I was trembling, angry the whole time. And Gerry told me to imagine at home the grandmother in her kitchen, who just wanted to hear the truth. How many times he and others put themselves in the same position, imagining reason beyond the fray. Not everyone could take the violence. Some activist friends who had once themselves travelled for abortions disappeared; away from the edges of the campaign, unable to participate, unable to bear it.

The official platform for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum – called Together for Yes– took on the job of negotiating immovable codes of national respectability. Its volunteers worked out of a corridor of hot windowless rooms at the bottom of a Georgian house on Mount Street in Dublin. Some of the people who came and went from the building were ‘official Ireland’, but many were there in a kind of drag; the women and men of the Abortion Rights Campaign who went on strike for Repeal, and marched for choice; who were building a movement and wrangling party politics long before I thought to make so many visits home; who put their bodies on the streets between Irish women and the law. Their movement demanded free, safe and legal abortion access. It was, and is, messy, sharp, plural, disobedient, angry, irreverent and always unapologetically for women, for trans* folk, for migrants, for sex workers, for autonomy for all women no matter how they became pregnant. Together for Yes was a thing wrestling with that movement’s history. I re-learned in May that something happens to a social movement in the sped-up time of the final stages of a law reform campaign. Priorities contract. There is little time to gain new ground; rather, you defend as much as you can of what you have already achieved. What forgetfulness, or caution, might descend if your task was to speak past a ‘No’ campaign always on the attack, trying to reach an imagined ‘middle Ireland’?

More precarious critiques of the Irish politics of reproduction seemed to fall away in public. Would we attend this lawyers’ eventwith the former Minister for Justice; pro-choice except when making law for migrant women? Would we distribute ‘Get out the Vote’ cards bearing the face of an obstetrician who had given expert evidence in court against survivors of symphysiotomy? Would we bear in mind that lawyers were no use to the campaign unless we were ‘on message’? I sat at an academic conference in UCDand we talked about what a White campaign for reproductive justice meant in a country where women raped in immigration detention centres are made to share meals with their rapists. I sat in a taxi while two women who had told their everyday abortion stories publicly, wept together because they heard again and again in the public campaign talk that only exceptional abortions were legitimate. A hundred little violences. A hundred little wounds.

But when the exit poll came in and we left the restaurant on May 25, our gang walked, against our plans, across the city to Mount Street, to Together for Yes headquarters. I had only been in the building once before; to say hello, to gather free merchandise. That night in side offices, small knots of people were still working, preparing for the formal public events of the official ballot count the following day. But in the back rooms and spilling out into the dark backyard there was a house party, warm beer and wine, melting chocolate bars, exhausted delighted campaigners – veterans of years and decades of struggle – hugging and dancing; Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. In the lobby people were singing too: a version of  “Everyday”.  Impossible not to love them, to see the movement there, at the heart of the campaign. In Ireland in May we re-learned the painful old feminist lesson that official campaigns for law reform come to stand for more hope than they can ever possibly bear; that they are shaped by patriarchy even in the very moment of its overcoming. We learned again – as smaller groups departed selectively from official campaign lines, or stuck with them for one more day – that each cluster of us could make its own bargain with the status quo, or none at all. And we learned that official campaigns and the compromises they solder can be temporary, while the movements and friendships that enable them need not disappear.

In July, abortion legislation comes before the parliament, and we are organising our response and readying ourselves to bed it down. Women are gathering in the North. And in September in Dublin again, we will line out for the Abortion Rights Campaign’s March for Choice, forgetting to defend the status quo, returning again to what was built before the referendum, pushing again for what might be.


  1. It was great to “meet” you along the way.
    Thank you Máiréad for what you did and what you do.

  2. Mairead, thank you for writing this for all of us. Spot on.
    Mary Favier

    • Thanks Mary. Sorry to miss the gig in Cork. See you soon I hope.

  3. Thanks so much, Nicole!

  4. Thanks Mairead. Insightful and in the mark.
    Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th

    • Thanks Mandy.

  5. Beautifully written. Rosemary

  6. Making a whole lot of sense, as always Mairead – and with that familiar combination of powerful logic, knowledge and emotion that has marked your critical interventions and contributions

    • Thanks Ursula.

  7. Ar fheabhas. Dáiríre!
    Anois, an lead sin leis an shovel: abair liom go bhfuil na gardaí sa tóir air.

    • Tá cumhacht dochreidte aige sa cheantar. Nó bhí…


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