Repealed: a cause for celebration

(The referendum happened over four weeks ago and I have spent almost that long writing this blog post. When I started writing about this, I discovered that I had a lot to say on the issue and it took some time to wrangle all those words and feelings into something interesting and coherent and not 5,000 words long, but it felt worth doing.)

There has been so much written about the results of the referendum on May 25th and the work that was done in the lead-up to it, much of it incredibly heartfelt and very moving. There was also some sniping about how the (incredibly successful) campaign was run and how “inappropriate” and “disrespectful” it was to celebrate that glorious, surprising victory on May 25. I find it incredible that something thinks they can tell people not to celebrate after years of hard work, of time and energy dedicated to removing something that has caused so much hurt to so many people. It takes a certain type of personality to dictate to anyone what an “appropriate” reaction looks like, and I believe if the photos taken in Dublin Castle on May 26th were not predominately of young women, those articles would not have been written.

I’ve written a number of posts about the Eighth Amendment, about the Citizen’s Assemblymy own feelings about abortion and reproductive rights and the Artist’s Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and so it felt important, and appropriate, to write something about the result of the referendum. I also wanted to write about why this referendum result is something to be celebrated, and how people in power would do better to listen to women instead of telling them what is and isn’t appropriate.

In her essay I Wish Ann Lovett Were Out Buying a Swimsuit for Lanzarote, Emer O’Toole writes beautifully about the Ireland that existed when the Eighth Amendment went in to the Constitution and the journey the country has taken since then. I’m not going to go back that far. For a long time the changes in Ireland they were hard fought and incremental but also slow and gradual. It feels like they started to pick up speed in 2012.

In February 2012, recently elected TD Clare Daly brought a bill to the Dail to legislate on the X case and allow for abortions in limited circumstances. There was little interest from the rest of the government and the bill went nowhere. Six months later in September 2012, the first March for Choice was organised by the newly formed Abortion Rights Campaign. It was pretty small. We lined up at the Spire, in the middle of O’Connell Street, and heard a few speeches before marching to the Dail. It was a warm, sunny day and a good-spirited march. It couldn’t have been more different to the protests held in response to the death of Savita Hallpanaver later that year.

I remember standing in my kitchen, hearing for the first time how Savita died. I remember feeling both heart-broken and furious that this had been allowed to happen to her. There was also the question of how many other women had this happened to? I walked into work that morning feeling furious. That fury didn’t go away and after work I went down to  the Dail with a couple of friends, joining the many who had gathered there already, in the cold and the dark. A hastily organised gathering; we didn’t know what to do but knew we had to do something. It was the first of many protests that winter, the numbers growing week by week as we stood in the dark, holding candles, feeling the cold damp through our shoes, chanting Never Again.

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Protest outside the Dáil in November 2012.

The death of Savita and the public outcry that followed forced the government’s hand on abortion. Twenty years later, they would finally legislate on the X Case. It was not something that would have saved Savita or any other woman in her situation,  but as we learnt over the next five years, very little could be done through legislation while the Eighth Amendment was in the constitution.

The debate around that legislation meant more protests outside the Dail the following summer and resulted in the woefully inadequate Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This made abortion possible if the woman’s life was at risk due to suicide, as a result of the pregnancy. It came with a number of restrictions, and also stuck in the fourteen year jail sentence for anyone who has an abortion in the State if their life was not at risk, and seven years for anyone who helped them.

There was also the distraction of “Lapgate“; the incident in the Dáil when a female TD as pulled into a lap of a male colleague, he described it as “horseplay”. That this happened in a work place, during a debate about female health that was being broadcast live on tv (the incident took place at 3am but a sharp-eyed viewer caught it and shared it online) gives an insight into how the Irish state and members of government viewed women at the time. The night of the debate was also one of the most profitable nights for the Dáil bar that year.

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Pro and anti-choice protesters outside the Dáil during the legislation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill in July 2013.

A few months after the bill passed, the devastatingly sad case of Ms Y showed that it was not fit for purpose. Ms Y was a refugee who came to Ireland seeking asylum. When she arrived in Ireland she discovered she was pregnant as a result of rape in her home country. She asked for an abortion and was refused. She was suicidal as a result of the pregnancy and the lack of help she had received from the place she had fled to seeking shelter and compassion. She was suicidal enough to be locked in a psychiatric ward but not enough to “qualify” for an abortion, and eventually, the State performed a C-section at 25 weeks. A caesarean section is a major surgical operation. It has a much longer recovery period than a medical or even surgical abortion, and it was a treatment she only consented to under enormous pressure because she didn’t want to be pregnant anymore. The Irish State really has an incredibly long track-record of torturing women, particularly the women in its care. Earlier this month the HSE has admitted liability and said it is willing to compensate Ms Y for failing to provide her with an abortion when she first sought one.

Then at the end of 2014, we learnt of Ms P, a woman being kept on life-support because she was pregnant and doctors were unsure if they could withdraw treatment under the Eighth Amendment because it would end the pregnancy. Like in Savita’s case, the pregnancy was never going to end in a successful delivery but because there was a fetal heart-beat the doctors’ hands were tied. This was always the big problem with the Eighth Amendment; it didn’t allow for a case by case assessment of the situation, for doctors to use their own judgement. Once there was a fetal heart-beat, doctors were limited in what they could do for the woman, her life and health immediately had to be balanced with that of the “unborn”.

These were the most public instances of the hurt and distress caused by the Eighth Amendment over a three years period but they were not the only ones. In 2015 other women started sharing their experiences with the Eighth Amendment. The X-lie Project began collecting and sharing stories and images of Irish women who had had abortions. Within a few weeks of each other in September of that year, Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle spoke publicly about their abortions. Maser’s mural went up on the wall of Project Arts Centre and was removed after a couple of weeks, which got a lot of people talking. The Repeal Project was launched and those stark black jumpers starting appearing all over the place, and starting conversations. Una Mullally made a radio documentary for the Irish Times Womens’ podcast called The Year The Converstaion Changed, which captures the shift in attitudes towards abortion and the need for change.

But the big moment in 2015 was the success of the Marriage Equality Referendum. Ireland was finally coming out of the long shadow of the church and it felt like change was possible in a really tangible way. It galvanised people to push for change in other areas. The government couldn’t keep pretending abortion wasn’t a political issue. They couldn’t just keep hoping it would just go away. At the same time, it was still a contentious issue that nobody wanted to make a decision on, so they gave it to the Citizen’s Assembly.

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The crowd gathered on Merrion Square at the end of the 2016 March for Choice. It was a miserable wet day, and there was a bus strike on in Dublin but it the people still turned out for it.

Though derided as a delaying tactic, the Citizen’s Assembly turned out to be pretty amazing. There was an incredible investment from the citizens themselves; when they asked for an extra weekend to be added to the schedule and when on the final day, they ran over time as they added more questions to their ballot on issues such as abortion for socioeconomic reasons. I was surprised and amazed and delighted with the final results when 64% voted for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. I love Ellen Coyne’s article about some of the citizens on referendum day, when a similar result was returned.

The result from the Assembly was very clear. They were clear that the Eighth Amendment (or article 40.3.3 which was what they actually voted on, and which contains the Eighth Amendment) was not adequate, and they were clear about what should replace it. However, the government were not convinced by it and set up the Joint Oireachtas Committee to look again at the evidence. The majority of the Committee came to the same conclusion and the date for the referendum was finally set for May 25th, thirteen months after the Citizen’s Assembly returned their findings.

Once the referendum date was announced, campaigning could officially begin and Together For Yes was launched. Abortion Rights Campaign and Repeal groups around the country quickly came under the Together for Yes banner. This meant the campaign had a country-wide reach within days. These local groups organised training sessions for canvassers where they collected names and numbers for Whatsapp groups so people could keep in touch with others in their area and create their own canvassing groups. It truly was a grass-roots campaign with local groups and people on the ground empowered to get out there and make things happen.

For me, one of the most memorable and moving days of the campaign was the launch of Together for Yes’s crowd-funding campaign. The original aim was to raise €50,000 in seven days. It was done in less than an hour. The target was raised and smashed again and that kept happening over and over again throughout the day. It was incredible to watch the money pouring in. You could press refresh and watch the total jump €100 every 30 seconds. This was tangible proof of the support for the Together for Yes campaign and it was so uplifting to see. It was particularly satisfying coming a couple of days after an article in the Irish Times saying there was “No sense of urgency” in the Yes camp. Other voices in the media described the Yes side as complacent. This outpouring of money, in small amounts and big, did not lack urgency. The car-share groups heading out of Dublin to canvass in other smaller towns did not feel complacent. The fundraising to bring people home to vote did not feel complacent. The anxious and urgent conversations being had at home and at work did not feel complacent. It felt good to watch the total rise and read the comments people left and know that it wasn’t just your family and friends who felt like this, there were lots of others out there who felt as strongly.

Many of those people did much, much than donate a few bob to a crowd-funding campaign. There were people out canvassing around the country every night of the week, others working in the Together for Yes HQ, all finding time around work and family commitments to volunteer. They did it because this was important to them. They didn’t want to live in a country that would let a woman die in pain rather than perform an abortion, or one that could commit a woman to a mental hospital for wanting an abortion, or that would torture a grieving family by insisting that their loved one had to remain on life-support because of her pregnancy. On May 26th 2018 we moved away from being that country, and what’s worth celebrating.

That Saturday, the Taoiseach described the success of the Yes campaign as a “quiet revolution”. Those involved in the campaign have loudly shouted down this assessment. It wasn’t quiet when thousands took to the streets for the massive March for Choice in 2016. It wasn’t quiet on O’Connell Bridge during Strike for Repeal in 2017. The hum of anxiety we felt during the last week before the Referendum didn’t feel quiet. And there was nothing quiet about the hundreds of women who told their stories over and over again; stories of being abandoned by the medical profession, of being forced to travel for health care, of not feeling welcome in their own country. Those wonderful women gave up their privacy because they wanted to make Ireland a better place and I am so grateful to those women. I am grateful to women in the public eye who “came out” about their abortions and heart-broken that they suffered vicious attacks as a result.  I am grateful to women who shared their stories online in the last few weeks of the campaign in the hope of changing a few minds. Their willingness to share their private, painful memories are what won the referendum. 66% of people who voted Yes said that it was because of the personal stories they heard.

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Strike 4 Repeal taking over O’Connell Bridge on March 8 2017. It was a Wednesday lunchtime and it closed all the roads leading on to the bridge.

Describing all that as “quiet” just means Leo Varadkar wasn’t listening. Let’s hope that when they are drafting the abortion legislation, he will listen a little more attentively to the people it’s going to affect. The fight for free, safe legal abortion is far from over and that’s another reason why it was necessary to celebrate on May 26th. The referendum was one major hurdle that had to be passed but there is still so much to do. May 26th was a brief breathing space before we got on to the next thing.

The next thing is getting good, working legislation that makes abortion accessible to all, particularly in terms of cost and location. There are many things that still need to be decided on, things like exclusion zones, waiting periods and conscientious objectors. We need to keep the pressure on to ensure that abortion services are available by the end of the year. That is still the government’s aim, but we now know that the legislation will not be introduced to the Dáil before the summer break.

The next March for Choice is on September 29th and the Abortion Rights Campaign will be holding open meetings about the organisation of the March over the coming months. Dates and venues are usually listed on their Facebook events page. Of course, until the legislation is in place, women will still be forced to travel and the Abortion Support Network is still taking calls from women who need their help to do that. You can support their work by donating here.

March for Choiec - 29th Sept 2018 - Save the Date.

Repealing the Eighth Amendment was a glorious thing. It was a wonderful thing to be part of and definitely worth celebrating. It is also a great reminder that change is possible. In 2012, the majority of TDs in the Dáil had no interest in making abortion accessible to Irish women. It was hard-working and persistent campaign groups and ordinary people who made them take an interest, made them call a referendum and made sure that we got the right result!

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Reduce the plastic mountain

The Theatre Forum-TheatreNI conference starts today in the beautiful Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The title of the conference is Intersections and there will be discussions on borders, gender equality and arts policy. There’s also a Fun Palaces workshop with Stella Duffy for community groups, after the conference ends on Thursday. I’m a big fan of Fun Palaces – I wrote about it here – and would love to see one in Dublin. You can find the full Conference Programme here.

There’s also a session on climate change, another topic close to my heart. In order to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk the organisers are working to reduce the waste produced by the conference. This means less conference materials, proper dishes used for the catering and instead of a conference bag and printed material, each delegate will get a reusable take-away glass Keep Cup. I love this idea. Waste reduction is so important, particularly plastic which does not decompose for thousands of years. The way we use plastic now – bags, take-away cups, straws, fruit in plastic trays – is learned behaviour, which means that we can unlearn it and start doing things differently. There has been a shift in attitude towards plastic waste this year with things like the Shop & Drop event in April when shoppers were encouraged to leave all their waste behind at the supermarket and the recent EU’s proposal to ban single-use plastic.

It’s not going to be easy – once you start looking, you realise plastic is everywhere – but it’s not impossible. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing to use less plastic this year.

1. I don’t have a Keep Cup because I don’t drink much takeaway coffee, but I do have a fancy glass water bottle. It’s a bit heavier than plastic but I don’t have to worry that chemicals are leaching out of the plastic and into my water! Emboldened by the Refill Project, I’ve often asked staff in bars and restaurants to refill it for me and they’ve always obliged. (These weren’t places on the Refill map, the project just made me feel more comfortable about asking for free water.)

The only place I don’t take it is the airport because I don’t think they’d let me bring glass on the plane. However I have learnt that you are allowed bring empty bottle through security and fill them up at the water fountains on the other side.

2. I switched from hand-wash to solid soap. It instantly cuts down on the amount of plastic coming into the house and ending up in the sea. Bí Urban on Manor Street in Stonybatter do a nice soap which they make using oils discarded in local food production, which is just a little bit Fight Club. It’s a real feel good soap because it’s zero waste and it’s locally made.

3. I started using a bamboo toothbrush. This will make you feel like a bit of a hippy but it’s also a very easy way to reduce plastic and you stop noticing the difference after a few days. (It does feel a bit weird at first!) I got mine in Bí Urban but they are available online as well.

4. I’ve been using more Lush products in their reuseable plastic pots. Some people are very anti-Lush. The strong smell, the bright colours and the overly enthusiastic staff are all too much for them. I have never bought a bath-bomb in my life but I love Lush for their reusable pots. For that it’s worth letting them bombard my senses for a few minutes. They take the pots back off you and reuse them again and again. If you bring back five, you can swap them for a free face mask.

5. I originally started buying stuff from Lush because you can take their solid face-wash and shampoo bars in your hand-luggage when you fly. They also have zero packaging. I love their Angels on Bare Skin face wash and I’ve used Godiva shampoo as well; the jasmine smell is really lovely. I also restarted started using a solid deodorant, I’m not sure how effective it is but it does involve zero plastic!

6. Away from the personal hygiene plastics, there’s the food plastic. I think supermarkets are slowly coming around to the idea that everything doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic and you can get loose fruit and veg in most shops now. Just because they little plastic bags there, doesn’t mean you have to use them. You can just put six oranges and four apples and a couple of potatoes into your basket! There are also some places like Small Changes in Drumcondra and the Dublin Co-op in The Liberties that are cutting out the plastic used for things like raisins and lentils and pasta. They ask you to bring your own containers and just fill ’em up.

7. Most of these alternatives do cost a bit more than the plastic-wrapped version. I think costs will come down as it becomes more common to ditch plastic, but if you don’t have the extra cash there are still ways to cut down on your plastic just by being generally more aware of what you’re buy. Bring a bag with you, avoid straws and plastic cutlery if you can, avoid things with an excess of plastic like ready meals or salads in giant plastic bowls.

Art and censorship

On April 23 2018, Maser’s Repeal mural was removed from outside Project Arts Centre for the second time. You know the one I mean. It was commissioned by the Andrea Horan of the HunReal Issues in 2016 and since then it has appeared in hundreds of profile pictures, on t-shirts, in windows, on badges and stuck to lamp posts around Dublin and beyond. I’ve often seen it above articles about the referendum in Irish and international press. It was only on the wall in Temple Bar for a couple of weeks but it has spread across the world.

In 2016, Project were told to remove it because they didn’t have planning permission. When the date for the referendum was announced, planning permission was no longer necessary and it went back on the wall. Less than a week later, they were told to remove it again. This time it was the Charities Regulator who had taken issue, and in a very murky reading of the Charities Act deemed the mural not in line with Project’s charitable purpose, and told them their charitable status was at risk if they did not cease “political activity”. Project is an arts centre. Their purpose is to present and develop contemporary art. They presented a mural by Maser, an award-winning artist that has displayed work around the world.

RepealBook

A week after Project received the order from the Charities Regulator, author Una Mullally was told by Dublin City Council that they were canceling her event in the International Literature Festival Dublin. The event was a panel discussion with contributors to Una’s Repeal the 8th Anthology. The anthology is a beautiful collection of stories, poems, essays and photos about the repeal movement and the effect of the 8th amendment. (Available in all good bookshops now!) The reason given by Dublin City Council was that they could not give a platform to one side of a referendum debate. That makes some sense, but the festival programme was announced on April 11th, two weeks after the date for the referendum was set. If Dublin City Council had a problem with the event, why was it programmed? To pull it after tickets were sold feels reactionary and I wonder if the disciplinary action that Project were threatened with affected the decision making process.

But censoring art doesn’t make it disappear. Maser’s mural is everywhere. Since Project painted over (most) of their mural last month (an act that Artistic Director Cian O’Brien described as “defiant compliance”), the image has already popped up on the Amnesty building and currently adorns the windows of Panti Bar. That gorgeous Repeal heart is not going anyway.

AmnestyRepealHeart

The cancelled Repeal event took place last Monday, though not as part of the Literature Festival. Smock Alley Theatre, where is was scheduled to take place, offered to host it as a separate event. I am very glad they did because it was a great discussion. Censorship and gate-keepers came up, as well as stories about people being bullied or shamed into silence by those in power. There were also readings and performances from pieces in the book and it didn’t feel at all like a political meeting.

I’ve been to a few events in the Literature Festival and the referendum has come up more than once. I’ve seen lots of Yes badges and Repeal jumpers on and off stage, perhaps in a show defiance against the cancellation and perceived censorship. Pushing back against censorship is so important. The alternative is a climate of fear that becomes more fearful with each act of censorship and before long, people start to police themselves.

This week, Not At Home, a touring art installation about women who travelled for an abortion, had venues cancel on them days before they were due to exhibit. This is particularly egregious because one of the aims of the piece was to share the stories of women who had been silenced by shame and stigma. Now their voices are being silenced again. The venues quoted the same Charities Act that was used against Project Arts Centre as their reason for cancelling the event. The venues didn’t wait to be told if they were in breach of the law, they pulled out in case it became an issue. In Galway a publicly-funded organisation and two private venues pulled out of plans to present the exhibit. It was supposed to take place at Crawford College of Art and Design’s gallery (in partnership with UCC and Cork Opera House) but the invitation was withdrawn at a late point. The Gallery cited Charities Regulator guidelines and a wish not to “jeopardise” its charitable status or “become a focus for such controversy”.

NotAtHome

Does this mean that artists now have to  wonder if the art they want to make will be acceptable to venues, or if they might decide it’s not worth jeopardising their charitable status for? What happens if artists don’t feel able to take that risk and instead avoid political issues or “controversial” opinions. It’s not that long ago that talking about abortion or calling for repeal of the 8th amendment was considered a controversial opinion. It’s because people spoke up and refused to be silenced that we get to vote on that issue this week.

Art has to be allowed to be political. It has to be able to explore controversial territory and rail against the status quo. Good art helps spread ideas. It opens minds and helps us see things in new ways. It makes change possible because it shows us new ways of doing and thinking and being. Artists need to be supported and encouraged to do that. We have brave venues that are willing to support risky work but we need more of them, especially outside Dublin.

We should all do what we can to support anyone who speaks up against injustice, whether they are artists or journalists or whistle-blowers. We need to listen to them and do what we can to amplify those voices.

A Yes Vote on May 25th is one way to change the status quo a little bit, and a way to thank those who have spoken out.

VoteYes

Tackling climate change

Climate change is a hard topic to get your head around. It’s depressing thing so we avoid thinking about it. It can make you feel powerless. I don’t know much about climate change but I know it’s happening and that we are causing it. And because it’s caused by us, we also have the power to fix it.

We are already seeing the effects of a changing climate in Ireland. Last month we had a major weather event that put the country under lock-down for two days. The Beast from the East was compared to the heavy snowfall of 1982 but just because this has happened before doesn’t mean climate change isn’t to blame. Climate change causes these once in a generation events to happen much more frequently. We’d already had a status red-warning in October 2017 for Storm Ophelia, which started off as a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean. We don’t generally get a lot of hurricane warnings in Ireland. These aren’t the first extreme weather effects in Ireland but they do seem to be becoming more frequent.

Lahinch

A week before Storm Ophelia the Citizen’s Assembly gathered in Malahide to discuss climate change. The topic they had to consider was “How the State Can Make Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change.” This was an extremely ambitious proposition. According to the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, a report of countries taking action against climate change, Ireland ranked 49 out of 59. It was the worst performing county in Europe, dropping 28 places from the previous year. We have a long way to go before we can hope to be considered a leader in tackling climate change.

All the presentations from the Citizens’ Assembly are available here and here. (Links to the agendas for the two weekends, the recommendations and the presentations slides are here.) It is a wonderful information resource if you want to learn more about climate change and it’s effects. If you are not sure if it’s real or that human activity is to blame, this presentation should convince you otherwise. It’s also demonstrates what the rising temperatures mean for the future.

I like the Citizens’ Assembly. I believe putting a group of non-politicians in a room, educating them on the topic at hand and asking them to consider it from all angles before making their recommendations is a good thing. I admire those who take the time to ask questions and interrogate the issues. I love that it’s all streamed online and available to watch in any part of the world. (Except in areas of rural Ireland where the internet probably wouldn’t cope with streaming video.) But it is a process set up with restrictions, so while I was very optimistic about the kind of ideas that might come out of a Assembly with such an ambitious title, I was disappointed that the recommendations the citizens were asked to vote on were all pretty small, sometimes vague measures.

The Assembly focused on three areas – Energy, Transport and Agriculture. Members voted to accept all the recommendations by a high margin. The lowest vote was the 80% of Members who said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities. One hundred percent of the Members recommended that the State should take a leadership role in addressing climate change. The full list of recommendations can be found here. They included things like increasing investment in public transport, reducing food waste and taxing greenhouse gas emissions. They are all small changes but they would be better than nothing. Of course, the government does not have to take on any of the recommendations just because the Citizens’ Assembly says they should.

The two most dangerous myths around climate change are that it’s something that’s going to happen years and years from now and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We have seen that it is already happening; we know that it’s a threat now. There are also a lot of things can we can do to stop it. All we need to do is reduce the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere and we can start doing that right now.

There were optimistic presentations at the Citizens’ Assembly about the changes to be made to tackle climate change. Brian Motherway’s presentation describes the low carbon home – a warm, well-insulated house with solar panels to heat the water and where the electricity bill is about €200 a year.

He describes how newly built homes, ones that adhere to building regulations, produce 30% less carbon on average than older homes. It doesn’t cost that much more to achieve this standard when building a home from scratch. However it costs more to add them later, so it’s really important that those regulations are not ignored as we struggle to keep up with the demand for new homes. The government needs to make sure that the regulations are met. The bad habit our politicians have of trying to keep the builders and property developers sweet could adversely affect the amount of carbon we produce in the future. There are lots of examples where playing politics could have a significant effect on our future climate.

We’re told that tackling climate change will mean giving up thing for the intangible, distant benefit of the not making the planet inhabitable. But having a warm, well-insulated house is a good thing. Creating renewable energy jobs in Ireland instead of getting all our carbon heavy fuel from overseas in a good thing. Better public transport is a good thing. Tackling climate change will have positive effects but it will mean making changes. Change is hard, we tend to resist it. However life of earth is going to change whether we like it or not and it’s better to make the change than have the change happen to you.

We can all do our bit to reduce our carbon emissions, but the big changes have to come from government policies and changes to transport and infrastructure. We need to tell the government that this is what we want and we are going to have to be willing to pay for it with our taxes. It has to be done. I want to believe in a kind, empathetic society that is capable of doing things for the greater good, even though it may be difficult and uncomfortable.

Tips for Taking Action from  Brian Motherway’s presentation:

- Start with strong, visible actions. - Our behaviour matters, but it's not about guilt. - It is about our decisions as a society. - Doing nothing is not an option!

Artists to Repeal the Eighth

On Saturday August 26th, Artists to Repeal the Eighth are taking over Project Arts Centre and offering a smorgasbord of art in response to the Eighth Amendment. A Day of Testimonies starts at 11am and includes film, live performances, music, installations and discussions. I think it’s going to be a really special day; a galvanising day and hopefully a supportive, buoyant one for those who have had to travel for a termination. The focus is on their words and experiences, it’s their testimonies we will hear, but it’s also saying that they shouldn’t have had to make that journey.

Real people’s experiences should be at the crux of any debate around the Eighth Amendment. Then we have to ask ourselves – do we want to be part of a part nation that treats people like that? We hear often about the 12 women who have to travel every day for a termination, but it’s important to remember that each of those women is an individual with a story to tell and a reason why they have chosen to terminate the pregnancy. I’m grateful to those who choose to share their stories. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do, and I don’t think it’s something they should have to do. It is a generous thing to do. I want to be there to recognise that generosity, and to bear witness to their stories.

ArtistAgainstEighthOne way these stories will be told during the day is through a number of short films. Entry is free, donations are encouraged. The full line-up is here. I’m very interested in the older films being shown at 1pm and again at 5pm, 50,000 Secret Journeys from 1994 and Statistic from 1983. It’s always interesting to see how far we’re come, or not as the case may be.

I’m also interested in the Bus Stop event – How to Talk About the Eighth. This is happening from 11am – 4pm and it’s informal discussions and debates facilitated by Amnesty International Ireland and Union of Students in Ireland. I imagine it will offer a few tools for talking about the Eighth in the lead up to the referendum which is finally on the horizon. There will also be tea, and maybe a few biscuits!

Anu are performing a new piece called COLONY, every hour on the hour from 11am until 6pm. There’s also an impressive line-up of special guests for the evening programme which starts at 7.30pm. This is only ticketed event on the day but there are still tickets available from Project Arts Centre.

I think it’s a wonderful idea. It offers a chance to connect with others, bolster yourself as we get ready for the next March for Choice and the referendum beyond that. It’s about connecting with people in the real world. For all those people who complain about online activism, here is a real world event that will let you talk to real people in the real world and experience something in real time with other people.

The Citizen’s Assembly and Strike4Repeal

Last weekend, the Citizen’s Assembly met for the third time to listen to experts and discuss the issues around the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. I watched some of the proceedings online. The presentations are still available on the website. The whole thing looks like a staff think-in for a big organisation. Each table has a facilitator, who stood up to speak for the table. It seems to have borrowed the whole set-up from the business world. It’s an interesting entity as a part of democratic process. I like the idea of consulting experts, looking at statistics and having an open, informed discussion about the issue of abortion and reproductive rights but I wish it was happening throughout society and not just in a hotel in Malahide. It’s hard not to see it as anything other than a delaying tactic from a government that does not want to call a referendum on abortion. In the article in the Irish Examiner “Credit where it’s due… and that’s to 99 members of Citizens’ Assembly” about where things stood after the first two meetings it sound very likely that the Assembly are going to recommend a referendum be held, though the terms of that referendum are still up for debate. But I looked at the small print on the Citizen Assembly’s website and it doesn’t seem like the government have to follow the recommendations of the Assembly. The final line on this page says: “the Government will provide in the Houses of the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the Assembly and, if accepting the recommendation, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.” In short, don’t hold your breath waiting for a referendum.

The Irish government have a history of dragging their feet on around abortion. The only abortion referendum that I’ve voted on was the very confusing 2002 one when the government tried to overturn the results of the X case. You had to vote No to leave things as they were, and Yes to make things more restrictive. To confuse matters further Youth Defence came out for a No vote. They didn’t feel it went the wording went far enough because there was no mention of the protective of live for embryos before implantation. (In Irish law, life begins with implantation. That’s why the morning after pill is available though abortion is not.) The amendment was defeated by 51-49% but no legislation on the X case followed. It took 12 years and the death of Savita Halappanavar (and who knows how many other women) before the flawed Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill became law.

Savita’s family did us a great service in talking publicly about her unnecessary death, as did Amanda Mellet who took the case against the State to the UN Court of Human Rights, as did the women known as A, B and C who took the State to the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. These public cases make it difficult for the  government to ignore the concerns around reproductive rights. And the campaigners mean the public can’t ignore it either. Five years ago I knew nothing about the Eighth Amendment or how it restricted women’s bodily autonomy. Now everyone seems to have an opinion on it and that’s down to the amazing work of a whole host of campaigners, including many who campaigned against the Amendment when it was first proposed 34 years ago.

At the end of the summer, Una Mullally made a documentary for the Irish Times Womens’ Podcast called ‘The Year The Conversation Changed‘. It’s a really great listen and covers the massive shift in public perception around the Eighth Amendment in 2016. It covers everything from the Repeal jumpers, to Maser’s mural outside Project, to the Rose of Tralee getting political, and at least half a dozen other things that I’m forgetting because so much happened last year!

Things are changing. Attitudes towards abortion are not the same as they were in 1983 when the Eighth Amendment was voted into the Constitution or even the same as they were in 2002 when we last had a referendum on abortion. The government is slowly catching up with that fact, but not quick enough. We need a referendum and it needs to call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. There should be no replacement and no rewording that makes it impossible to vote for. To reword it would be another delaying tactic. We need to repeal the Amendment because the constitution is not the place to define medical care. And again there are wonderful activists making that position clear. This time with the Strike 4 Repeal on March 8th. There will be no referendum set before then, the strike will definitely go ahead and it feels important to tell the government that there is an appetite for a referendum and that referendum should call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Change moves slowly in Ireland, at least at government level. Don’t forget it took them six weeks just to form a government last year. It’s like change isn’t useful to them. It’s not what they want. Our politicians would prefer to be eternally debating things and flinging insults at each other than actually take a political stand or making bold changes. The lack of action on the homelessness crisis and the continued existence of Direct Provision is shameful. Enda Kenny’s strongest stance recently has been to keep things as they are – of course he’s going to the White House for St. Patricks’ Day, it’s traditional. They are meant to represent us but they need a push in the right direction.

Change is happening, whether they like it or not.

WakingTheFeminists – One Year Later

Most end of year write-ups that I’ve seen look back at 2016 and remind us of all the terrible things that happened in the last 12 months. A lot of terrible things did happen but I want to write something more positive. I want to pay tribute to WakingTheFeminists and all they achieved last year.

wtf

 

WakingTheFeminists had their final public meeting on November 14th 2016, back in the Abbey Theatre one year later. I missed all the previous meetings so I was determined to make it along to this one, and I’m so glad I did. It was less than a week after the US elections, Trump’s surprise victory was still a fresh wound and this was a comforting balm. It was hopeful and inspiring. The thing that came up again and again was “look what we can do when we work together”. There was a feeling of solidarity in the room. It was powerful.

The videos are online and they are really worth a watch it you haven’t seen them already. Just check out the list of speakers! (If you don’t have the time to sit in front of the videos, maybe convert them into mp3 and pretend it’s a podcast.) There was a great mix of speakers – young and old, men, women, and gender discombobulists. Feminism is often criticised for being a women’s issue, though the aim is always equality for all. WakingTheFeminists got lots of men talking about feminism, opening their eyes to sexism and making them want to do something about it. (Loughlin Deegan’s speech at the Abbey’s Theatre of Change last year describes this eye-opening very well. It seems to have disappeared from the WTF website but you can watch it here from 14 min 10 seconds) It seemed fitting that one year later the conversation opened up to include male voices.

ccroweArchivist Catriona Crowe spoke about the history of Irish feminism, and how there’s always two strands – the restrained and the noisy. During the campaign for suffrage in the early 1900s, there was the peaceful struggle for reform – the tedious work of lobbying and bill writing – and also the noisy struggle, which included genteel window-breaking with toffee hammers! She credited WakingTheFeminists with uniting these two aspects of feminism – the public meeting provided the noise that was then followed up by a lot of research and evidence-based findings. (The preliminary findings of the long-term research project were also presented at the meeting and are available here.) She said that it was a great example of grass-roots feminism and it has provided a template for future movements.

But there were also reminders that the struggle for equality is a long one. Karan O’Loughlin from SIPTU and Irish Equity quoted from a 1884 report published by The Royal Commission on Labour on the conditions of work for women in Ireland. The top three issues for women in work at that time were childcare, low pay and length of day. 122 years later, the top three issues for women in work are still childcare, low pay and length of day. Change happens slowly and there’s still a lot of work to be done.

WakingTheFeminists however have made some big changes happen this year. The Abbey Theatre set up a Gender Equality Committee and developed a set of guiding principles on Gender Equality, placing Ireland at the forefront of gender equality in theatre. The movement won awards and was recognised globally. It was awarded funding to carry out research and address gender discrimination. For the first time, the Gate Theatre will have a female Artistic Director. As a result of WakingTheFeminists, organisations are measuring, noticing and making changes around gender equality. There’s a different feeling in the community. People are talking and feel able to talk about their experiences. WakingTheFeminists brought people together, it gave them a voice because it showed them that they were not alone; they were not the only ones who felt like this or had experienced that. Most importantly it put those people in a room together. The strength of feeling was made clear in the room, and the support – you know people are on your side when you can hear their applause, their gasps and laughter. That connection is important and resulted in other conversations happening as people bumped into friends and started making plans. One of the off-shoots of last year’s meetings was the establishment of MAMs (Mothers, Artists, Markers).

Once again, the inspirational Sarah Durcan was the final speaker. She made the point that theatre is not life and death, unlike the social issues that many women in our society face. But, she said theatre shapes narratives. It is important. The US election showed us how important stories can be, how they shape the political landscape, how they can change society. We need to tell better stories. In that way, theatre can help shape a better world. To finish, the wonderful Camille O’Sullivan sang Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ and brought this inspiring meeting to a close

Change is possible. That’s the big lesson I learnt from WakingTheFeminists. Change is possible. You don’t have to accept things the way they are. In a world that seems to be getting darker and scarier, with the rise of far-right parties across Europe, the fall out of the war in Syria, the refugee crisis and the growing homelessness crisis, it’s important to have that reminder. We can do something about this, we have the power to make things better, we can do it together.

What to do when you’re feeling over-whelmed by the state of the world.

Image from a Buzzfeed article on 21 Perfect German Words We Need in English. Check it out, there are some beauties there.

There are so many things to worry about right now. So many things to care about and feel anxious about and powerless to correct.

For a start, in Ireland the number of people being made homeless is going up every week and the government don’t seem to be doing anything about it. There’s the shamefulness that is Direct Provision where the government is paying companies large amounts of money to keep people seeking refuge in intolerable conditions. Ibrahim Halawa will spending a fourth birthday in jail in Egypt as his trial was postponed for the 16th time and we are still forcing women to travel aboard for a basic medical procedure.

Further afield, there’s the uncertainty of Brexit to worry about as well as the hundreds of unaccompanied children that were recently moved out of the Jungle in Calais and sent who-knows-where. France is still under a state of emergency after two brutal terrorist attacks, refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean, bombs are raining down on civilians in Syria, millions who fled the war there are living in refugee camps and Israel cut off the water-supply to Palestine during Ramadan this year, just the latest in a long series on attacks on the Palestinians.

And that’s all before we start worrying about climate change or what will happen under the Trump presidency.

It’s hard. It’s hard to take it all in, to feel all that fury and sorrow. In the face of so much horror it’s easy to run out of feelings. Even when you feel like you want to help, how do you choose which of the heart-breaking issues to focus on? Sometimes it’s easier to throw up your hands up and do nothing, feel nothing and just try to have a good time because it’s becoming increasingly obviously that the whole world is going to shit. It’s a pretty bleak way of seeing the world and it’s hard to sustain because the horrors keep creeping in.

When the bleakness is threatening to overwhelm me, I take solace from this quote.

“Of course individuals can make a difference, but the fact is that evil has had the whip hand in this world since Cain. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to be good, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves, either. Evil is not going to be vanquished. Our job is to resist it, and to plant the seeds of further resistance so that goodness never entirely vanishes from the universe.”

Chris Cleave, author of The Other Hand/Little Bee.

I like it because it lets me off the hook a little bit. Once I accept that I can’t fix everything, it’s easier to just concentrate on what I can do. I can’t knock evil off it’s perch, but I might be able to balance the scales a bit. It’s helps me feel less useless and more hopeful because it suggests that the little acts of resistance, of goodness, of kindness do make a difference.

Doing something is always better than doing nothing. It chases away the hopeless, useless feeling; at least for a little while. So what can we do? There’s the usual things – donate money, volunteer, get on the streets and protest, write letters to governments at home and aboard. Volunteer.ie have a database of volunteer opportunities. Giving blood is good if you’re short on time and money because it’s costs nothing and you can only do it once every three months.

But if you feel completely overwhelmed and really don’t know where to begin, or feel like you want to do more but don’t know where to start, I suggest getting a few friends together and start a “change the world” group. (Your first order of business may be to give it a better, catchier name.) It can be part support group, part action group. Meet up regularly, talk about the things that are upsetting you about the world and then decide what you’re going to do about it. You also get to hang out with your friends; have coffee and cake, or go for a few drinks. Changing the world has a bang of worthiness off it, like it’s not meant to be enjoyable. It puts people off. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Make sure your group is fun as well. You might decide to organise a big fundraiser, or buddy-up to volunteer together, or everyone might want to do their own thing, but they have the support of the group, and they have to report back so there’s accountability.

This idea comes partly from Malcolm Gladwell’s essay Small Change, about the importance of strong-ties between people involved in social activism, but mostly it’s because I think communities are important. The way we live our lives now makes it difficult to be part of a community so we have to make our own. Real-life social interactions are important, sitting in a room together talking about everything and nothing is good for the soul. But it can be hard to organise time with friends and we end up relying too much on social media instead. Organising a regular meeting means you will see your friends more often. People already do this with book clubs or dining clubs, why not a change the world club? I also believe in collaboration, often the ideas that you come up with in a group are better than the ones you come up with on your own. In a group it’s easier to stay hopeful and not let yourself or others fall into despondency. Hope is important if you want to change the world.

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark (More glorious quotes here)

And because I love Charlie Brooker, here he is singing with the Blockheads. This video also lets you feel nostalgic for the things we were fearful of in 2014.