On Saturday 26th May, the results of Ireland’s abortion referendum were declared. 66.4% voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, allowing the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, to legislate freely on abortion.
From Galway West Count Centre
In Galway West, where the constituency’s result was announced shortly after 3pm at Leisureland, Salthill, 65.95% voted in favour of repeal. The referendum on the Thirty-Sixth Amendment of the Constitution was widely expected to pass, but the margin of victory took many by surprise. “You don’t dare be this hopeful”, says Joanne Duffy, a pro-choice ‘Together For Yes’ activist. Despite polls consistently showing a ‘Yes’ victory and canvasses returning positive responses, activists in Galway expected the margin to be much narrower, with just over 50% for ‘Yes’.
Some typically conservative areas of rural Connemara, such as Cleggan and Inisheer in the far west of County Galway, where tallies suggested 80% had voted for ‘Yes’, took campaigners by surprise, says Pauline O’Reilly of the Green Party. Niall Ó Tuathail, the Social Democrats candidate for Galway West in 2016, says that, while getting the indication the constituency would vote ‘Yes’, “There were lots of people who didn’t know, they weren’t going to say to us what way they were voting, and we didn’t know, and so you always go to the worst case scenario, but people were voting ‘Yes’.”
Galway ‘Pro-Choice’ and Galway ‘Together For Yes’ at the count centre in Galway
During the day on the 25th, there was a panic over low turnouts in areas expected to return strong ‘Yes’ votes, and campaigners rushed to get the vote out. Many had voted earlier in the day than in the marriage referendum of 2015, and there were some concerns that the nice weather was keeping people away from polling stations.
There was a subdued excitement from the ‘Yes’ campaigners as the results became clear and the previous night’s exit polls were proved accurate. Few pro-life activists were to be seen, with only a handful remaining after midday. Maria Ní Mhathúna of ‘Save the 8th’ says that ‘disappointed’ was an understatement of how she felt. “It’s a very sad day for human rights. Very few countries brought it in by popular vote. It was mostly imposed by courts and governments.” The referendum was unnecessary, Maria argues, for helping women in difficult situations. She claims that it was these hard cases, such as instances of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities, that people were thinking of when they voted ‘Yes’. There is a fear this will impede efforts to help women. “Once the government has the quick fix to fall back on the real solutions won’t happen.” In reflecting on how the campaign was run, Maria ponders whether they “could have had more conversations. . . maybe gone back to places more often in terms of canvass.”
Joe Loughnane of ‘People Before Profit’ says such a high ‘Yes’ vote wouldn’t have been possible “if it wasn’t for the grassroots movement”. Hildegarde Naughton, a Fine Gael TD for Galway West who was a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment, thinks “the marriage referendum worked very similar to this, it was really a grassroots. ‘Together For Yes’ did a fantastic job.”
Photos Taken by John Crowley: Danny Rigg interviewing Joe Loughnane of ‘People Before Profit’ (left) and Hildegarde Naughton, Fine Gael TD for Galway West (right) at Galway Count Centre.
Maria, too, says she “was thinking during the campaign that the one to one is more effective because it’s interactive. You can’t engage with the people on the television that are debating, whereas the person at the door can ask you, you know, ‘what do you think about this?’ and vice versa.”
One way or another, there seems to be a consensus that this was a referendum fought and won at a grassroots level. In the end, more political parties came on board, but for much of the last 35 years since the Eighth Amendment was put into the constitution, it was grassroots groups campaigning. For Sinead Reilly of ‘Together For Yes’, they were the reason she got involved in the first place.
Many of the pro-choice campaigners didn’t know each other a number of months ago, nor did they have access to funding or the backing of major parties, meaning the campaign had to be crowdfunded. They came from diverse socioeconomic, cultural and political backgrounds. Many are also involved in anti-racism and LGBT activism. Sharon Nolan, the co-convenor of Galway ‘Together For Yes’, describes herself as a “queer activist” and is also involved in the Social Democrats.
Hildegarde, who went into the Joint Committee from a pro-life perspective but with an open mind, argues it was important for people to hear from medical and legal experts about the constraints for doctors in trying to help women. It was these views that swayed her own opinion, and she says the words of these experts carried more weight than the opinions of politicians and lay people.
What does this vote mean?
The government’s proposals include abortion up to 12 weeks in all circumstances following a 72-hour waiting period. After 12 weeks, abortion will only be available when the life or health of the pregnant person is at risk, the foetus has not reached viability, and a termination is appropriate for averting that risk. It has also emerged that abortions will cost approximately €300.
For activists this result means something much more symbolic. Eithne, Érin and Elaine of ‘Galway Pro-Choice’ speak of Savita Halappanavar, who died of complications due to sepsis after being denied an abortion while miscarrying in October 2012, and how this resonated not just with them but with people on the doorstep. For them, this vote vindicates some of the suffering of Savita, her family and of other women who have found themselves in difficult situations under the Eighth Amendment. This is the city where Savita died, making the result all the more profound for these campaigners.
Pauline cautiously hopes this referendum signals a change in Irish society, while Hildegarde hopes the young people mobilised in the campaign will continue to remain politically active. For Joanne Duffy, this, like the marriage referendum, is a “very dramatic, very obvious call for change from the Irish people and a very strong message to old Catholic Ireland to say that no, this isn’t what we want anymore.”
Abortion legislation is expected to become law by January 2019.
Featured Image: Savita Halappanavar mural on Richard Street, Dublin.