Liberation Day

How Ireland united to repeal the Eighth Amendment

As the crowd waited for Leo Varadkar to arrive at Dublin Castle on Saturday afternoon, their attention was drawn elsewhere.

Photographers had gathered to watch the taoiseach enter through a narrow gate, made even narrower by construction works, that leads out onto Castle Street. But then another figure who might pass unnoticed in many parts of Ireland walked up the hill into the courtyard and all attention moved to this woman.

“Ailbhe, Ailbhe”, the crowd began to chant which may not be how you expect a large crowd to react when they encounter an Irish feminist academic. But this was not a day where expectations were simply being met, this was a day when they were surpassed.

They knew how much Ailbhe Smyth, joint head of Together for Yes, had done and there was something profoundly symbolic in this moment as the taoiseach would have to wait while the crowd hailed the real leader of this movement.

Leo Varadkar would later talk about a “quiet revolution” but as it unfolded across Ireland, it became clear that the vote was a mighty, benevolent roar, a vote which said Ireland understood, it had listened to the painful, deeply personal stories, and it would make life easier for its citizens who had to endure these crises.

The stories that had been told had been brave and made a profound impact. 

On Friday morning, the Together for Yes pop-up shop in Temple Bar had run out of merchandise.

“We’ve a few tote bags and some jumpers left,” one volunteer said. “Now all we do is wait.”

All across the city, people seemed to be wearing those jumpers, those badges, those indicators which showed they understood this issue. They were on the side of those who had made the case that life was complicated and the blunt instrument that was the Eighth Amendment was a force of oppression which destroyed lives.

In the waiting, it was expected by many that some division would manifest itself, but it turned out that trusting women wasn’t such a divisive issue after all.

There was, some said, an Ireland outside the bubble, but they were wrong. There was no bubble, there was simply a country listening to the stories of women, the stories of those who loved them and understanding it didn’t have to be this way.

Some whispered this idea on Friday. One volunteer thought Yes would be above 55 per cent. “The Don’t Knows all broke our way,” another said on Saturday. Many voters told the exit poll they had made their minds up before the campaign, but one politician in Dublin Castle wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know about that, if there had been no Yes campaign they might have changed their minds”.

And those volunteers highlighted the great strength of this campaign. In every sense, in triumph and in darkest tragedy, this was an issue led by the people, by the women of Ireland. From the X case to Savita, the Eighth Amendment's cruelty had been tragically exposed by the women of Ireland and the women of Ireland led the movement to remove it.  

By 10pm on Friday, the movement had done all it could. Immediately the Irish Times exit poll suggested something extraordinary. This was confirmed at 11.30 by the RTE poll with similar numbers. Some leading activists improbably wondered if they should open champagne on Friday night.

If Friday was a day of waiting, Saturday was a day for relief and joy.

At the RDS on Saturday morning, the count began with the heavy sound of ballot papers hitting the table. The Yes side and the No side distinguishable by their different colour high-vis vests and facial expressions. The politicians and the heads of the campaign were yet to arrive, and so all attention was focused on the actual act of counting, the separating of the electorate into high Yes stacks and little piles of No. 

In tears on the sidelines, women and men from Together For Yes greeted each other. A gold-framed photo of Savita hung high above their central station in the hall. Savita was remembered and honoured each moment of the day. The count though essential, felt like a formality. 

The exit polls had been astonishing even for the most optimistic of pro-choice campaigners, this level of support, of compassion throughout the country was completely unexpected.  

“This is like the best day ever.” Three men hugged each other near the exit of the count centre, they wore Repeal jumpers and one had YES written in purple chalk on the side of his head. 

Leo Varadkar had already asked that it would not be a day for celebration, but once more it was the people that determined how they would live, how they would celebrate and make the most of their lives and their day. It did not matter that a political leader had recommended against celebrations, the thousands of women and men who have been fighting for fundamental human rights for years or months or weeks were ready to shout and roar and scream and cheer and cry and drink beer.  

It may have been understandable to ask that there be no celebrating, because abortion is not a happy story, but this was a story of freedom. The insertion of the Eighth Amendment into the constitution was a victory for Catholic fundamentalism, and the removal of this brutal and cruel instrument was always going to be a cause for rejoicing.

This was a day for release. The tears that had been pent up and held in, so as not to appear too emotional, the anger held in so as not to seem shrill, the songs held in, so as not to appear callous.  

This has been a fight against the control of women’s bodies, but also against the control of women’s autonomy and freedom and that fight was won by repealing the Eighth Amendment.

In the courtyard of Dublin Castle, friends huddled together explaining to each other the reasons they voted Yes. “It’s just about choice,” said Evelyn Conlon to Simon Harris while showing a photograph of herself marching for Women’s Right to Choose in 1979. 

After nearly 40 years of campaigning, Conlon was still explaining her pro-choice stance to the minister who unreservedly supported the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and who has become a feminist hero for many. The need to explain the rationale for a Yes vote won’t leave many quickly.  

Early on Saturday morning, Tara Flynn, who had done more than most and revealed more than anyone should have to, waited at the entrance to Dublin Castle on Dame Street. She was stunned by the result, by the emphatic and empathetic response from the country. She was about to walk up the hill to rejoice. “And now we’re in Dublin Castle and the castle is ours.”

In the courtyard in Dublin Castle some American tourists walked through. “How come every time we come to Europe something big happens?”

As the crowds grew at Dublin Castle so too did the presence of politicians. It’s unlikely any Fine Gael Minister has ever or will ever receive the kind of welcome and mass adoration that Simon Harris did on results day. “I Fancy Simon Harris” was scrawled on the back of a YES poster in lipstick red and held high to the crowd as Harris walked on to the media stage in the Castle courtyard.  

Harris is the most unlikely of feminist heroes and yet he is loved, for the compassion, the dignity and the eventual urgency he brought to the issue. 

The organisers chose not to put up a big screen or a build a stage or even have microphones and speakers so people could hear what the politicians were saying. 

No one knew what the atmosphere would be like, no one could have predicted this, said one involved in the organising.  The Yes side too had been hesitant when they were told on Friday that the courtyard would be open as normal. Would the tensions manifest themselves, would the divisions of the campaign appear on Dublin streets? But if there were two campaigns, it turned out Ireland was overwhelmingly on one side.

Without speakers, the crowd cheered for their own reasons. They weren’t responding to soundbites. They cheered the arrival of important figures but without an organising figure, this applause was led, not from the stage, but from the crowd, who moved one way for Ailbhe Smyth, another for Voices for Choice, another for the arrival of the angels who had become familiar on Dublin streets as they arrived on the scene wherever the most lurid pro-life imagery was being displayed.

As the politicians gathered on the media’s stage and filed for their turn with Miriam O’Callaghan’s microphone, songs broke out and champagne bottles were popped. One woman in the crowd handed out After Eights.  

The attention of the crowd was hyperactive, as each new arrival to the media stage brought on fresh waves of cheering and chanting. Appreciation and love was brimming over for those who fought hard and finally won.  

And while the appreciation for some individuals like Dr. Peter Boylan and Dr. Louise Kenny was brimming over there was also recognition that everyone played their own part, quiet or public, in this campaign.  

One woman came along the side of Dublin Castle, five feet tall, with a cane in her hand, she was an elderly lady with white hair and slowly she winded through hundreds of people.  

She couldn’t get in the media entrance to escape the crowds, so she navigated her way through the thousands to get to the stage. It took a long time. No one noticed her, no one recognised her. She was one amongst many who had fought hard to win. 

But when she reached the stage she became Catherine McGuinness, feminist hero, former Supreme Court judge, a woman who fought for Irish women to be equal to men, who fought for an Ireland of inclusion and compassion, a woman who is a Grandparent for Repeal.  

In the crowd a bottle smashed to the ground as a woman forgot she was holding a bottle of beer and raised both her arms to cheer.  

“She’s amazing, she’s absolutely amazing, she’s been fighting for so long,” a woman wearing angel wings said to her friend. 

Thousands of stories circulated through Dublin Castle’s courtyard, but they were private moments, shared between friends or kept - the cameras weren’t there to capture sadness, this was a day for recognising a revolution across the island.  

The referendum campaign has been a punishing schedule for those who were willing to speak of their experience under the Eighth Amendment.  

We have asked people to share their personal stories of pain and trauma so others could understand just how cruel and blunt an instrument the Eighth amendment was. So many women courageously did so, on TV debates where their experience was “balanced” by a man with an opinion, in blogs and Facebook posts, in videos that were shared around the world.  

That is now over. People’s most private stories are now theirs alone again. Pain will no longer be excavated in order to convince a voting public of the need for repeal, the need for change.

And so when the official announcement came, it was in a media room underneath Dublin Castle and it felt all wrong.  

Packed in were politicians, journalists and campaign figureheads, congratulating each other with hugs and knowing smiles, but this was not their moment, not really.  

The thousands gathered outside were inaudible. Their presence not visible when a man in a suit walked on stage to read the numbers. 

The figure of 66.4% Yes was greeted with shaking gasps from Ailbhe Smyth and hugs between politicians, but as soon as anyone could leave, everyone did, filing out back to the waiting crowd, who had listened to the announcement in the courtyard but heard nothing of it once the crowd started cheering the first figure in Irish. They missed the official announcement and, by the time they had fallen quiet again, the returning officer was announcing that ‘details of the referendum result in all constituencies will be available shortly on referendum.ie”. So they cheered that too.

The courtyard in Dublin Castle - and the venues across Ireland where the volunteers gathered - was the place to be. The day belonged to the many and not the few. This is a not a political victory, it is one marked by the long march of women, the thousands of steps taken to get here.  

“Yes, we did,” they chanted after the result, but this revolution driven by the people, led by women, had first remembered the woman who had changed everything in the most tragic way.

“Savita, Savita, Savita,” echoed around the old courtyard. The crowd honoured the woman whose death brought home the full horrors of the Eighth Amendment. It didn't have to be that way and Ireland, overwhelmingly, agreed.