For a lot of people, there is one particular issue that hooks them into politics. Something that they care about enough to spend their weekends at rallies, and then after a while their weekday evenings at dull meetings, until they find themselves booking rooms and printing posters and agreeing to go leafleting at odd hours and then suddenly, they have become political, and a real fucking drag at parties. For me, a now inveterate hack who hasn’t been invited to a party in years, that first, formative issue was reproductive rights at home in Ireland. Irish party politics do not inspire; all of my activism before moving to the UK in 2015 and joining the Labour Party revolved around this issue. And now it is the evening of the 21st of October, 2019. Abortion and gay marriage will become legal in Northern Ireland at midnight, and I am sitting in my bedroom in London trying to get a sense of the sheer scale of what this means.
It feels a little like trying to catch a glimpse of history out of the corner of your eye. How many women have scrawled the details of safe abortion pill providers on the back of toilet doors for us to get here? How many tireless lawyers and activists and politicians, how many placards, how many marches and trips to the pub afterwards, how many Repeal jumpers, how much dubious political poetry, how many donations to the Abortion Support Network, how many packages of abortion pills crossing the Irish Sea? Or maybe, darker – how many women through airports and ferries every day, how much money scraped together from friends and relatives, how much fear, just real, abject terror like you wouldn’t believe? How many like a girl I used to know as a young teenager, getting drunk on gin and having her friends kick her in the stomach? How many smuggling the remains of their baby back through ferry terminals, denied medical care and dignity at home? For how many, like Savita Halappanavar and Anne Lovett, is it too late?
These questions do not have answers; or if they do, they do not bear thinking about.
It is a strange privilege to be able to say that the country I am from is better now than it was when I was born in 1995. Ireland, then, was a country without divorce or abortion, a country that had voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the “right to life of the unborn” in its constitution just 12 years previously. When David Norris, a complicated figure who has arguably done as much as any other individual to advance the cause of LGBT+ people in Ireland, ended his presidential campaign in 2011, I watched him quote Beckett with characteristic flair from the steps of his Dublin home. “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” Activists fought, and they tried, and they failed; they fought through the X case and the Celtic Tiger and Miss Y, through untold tragedy and incremental progress, through Father Ted and Eurovision wins and the Good Friday Agreement and the slow slackening of the Catholic church’s vice-like grip on every aspect of national life. They fought and organised for a referendum. They – we – won. I went home to vote and joined the crowds in Dublin Castle and watched the results come in and cried. I think I will spend my political life chasing the feeling of solidarity and optimism and anger and hope on the last Dublin-bound flight out of Stansted airport the night before the vote, surrounded by other young Irish people determined to see our country bettered. At midnight we might see that promise of equality extended to all 32 counties.
The changes we now see on the island of Ireland are hard won, and they will be hard kept, too. It is rare – quite possibly unprecedented – that I agree with Arlene Foster, who announced today in the Stormont Assembly that this is not over. In the Republic, we have seen medical practitioners unwilling to follow new laws; an anti-choice campaign refusing to admit defeat. The same will be true in the north, only more so. In the south, those who took their rights through force and passion on the streets and in courtrooms and on the back of nightclub toilet doors have struggled too long to be complacent. In the north, the same will be true, only more so.
The fight will go on: history will continue to happen in doctors’ surgeries and post offices and around kitchen tables. But for the moment, history happens at midnight. It feels like relief.