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.