Sam Boland: Repeal had a hidden cost for volunteers

Two years after the successful campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment, Sam Boland recalls the abuse he and others received from those who opposed the law change.
Sam Boland: Repeal had a hidden cost for volunteers
Sandra McAvoy, Kathy D’Arcy, Lorna Bogue, Trish Connolly, Sam Boland, and Donna Rose of Cork Coalition to Repeal the 8th on St Patrick’s St in 2017.

Two years after the successful campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment, Sam Boland recalls the abuse he and others received from those who opposed the law change.

On May 26, 2018, pro-choice activists, myself among them, celebrated the result of the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

From the festival atmosphere of Dublin Castle to smaller but equally enthusiastic gatherings of rural pro-choice groups, we raised our voices and our glasses in the wake of a historic change brought about by a historic campaign.

I was surprised, therefore, by how little I enjoyed the first anniversary celebrations of this momentous occasion. Compared to the outpouring of emotions, the triumphant joy and the raw relief, of May 2018, on May 25, 2019, I just felt tired and stressed-out.

In fact, I'd felt tired and stressed-out for weeks leading up to the first anniversary. Just as I have these last few weeks, just as many other Repeal campaigners have.

Facebook's Memories feature didn't help; I was reminded that, in the months leading up to the referendum, I posted increasingly exclusively about Repeal, from once every couple of days in January to several times a day by May.

I was posting about why abortion rights were important, about the negative impacts of the Eighth Amendment, about who I was voting for.

I was celebrating the likes of Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin coming out in support of Repeal, and condemning the tactics of anti-choice campaigners.

It's only now, revisiting those memories a second time round, that I realise how relentless it was (and how relentless I was — 'Eat, sleep, Repeal, repeat', as Facebook reminds me I wrote on May 7, 2018). So no wonder the fallout is complicated to deal with.

I also posted a lot about my experiences on information stalls on the streets of Cork, because that's where I was most involved. I work evenings, so door-to-door canvassing was out, and lunchtime information stalls were where I first joined Rebels for Choice in 2016, so it made sense to me to contribute in that way.

If you were handed a Together for Yes leaflet on Cork's streets in 2018, chances are I, or one of my team, gave it to you.

Canvassing and street stalls have the same aims — to engage with voters, get the leaflets into their hands, answer questions, and also to gauge the mood — but they have significant differences as well.

On a canvass, unless someone chases you down their garden path, you can get away from an encounter that's turning nasty.

Also, the doorstep acts as a barrier of sorts — the canvasser out in the public sphere, the canvassed in their private sphere. Out on the public thoroughfares of our cities and towns, there's no such protection.

Street stalls were important to Repeal for a number of reasons. They were a very public declaration of the campaign. They declared: "We're here." They declared: "We are part of the civil life of this State."

Going back to Ancient Greece and beyond, the street is public life, a public forum. Taking up public space with your table, banners, and leaflets is a political act.

Having a stall on a busy street means being seen by thousands of passers-by. You might not get to talk to them all (though there were definitely days when Cork Together For Yes gave out thousands of leaflets) but you become a talking point for those thousands of passers-by.

Outside of cities with an established pro-choice presence, information stalls were vital in finding like-minded activists and were very often the first event held by a new rural Together For Yes group.

Across Ireland, huge numbers of volunteers were recruited at stalls because people could approach a friendly face and have their questions answered.

Of course, this also meant anyone who wanted to have a go at you was free to do so.

To some people, if you're out on the street, you're fair game for their worst impulses. In Cork, we ran street stalls once a week from Jan 2018, ramping up to twice a week in April, and every day in May.

Some people came to the stall every single day just to abuse us.  We got to know their faces, but never their names.

Anyone who campaigned knows the kind of things that were said to us — 'murderer', 'baby-killer', 'burn in hell', and so on.

There was also a gendered element to the language — female activists were called bitches, sluts, and harlots so often it became a badge of honour (though I doubt any woman was told, as I was in a conspiratorial, man-to-man fashion, that if we repealed the Eighth, women would get 'even stupider').

Now, I'm an old hand at activism, and under this tough, leathery exterior, there's a tough, leathery interior, so I found it easy enough to shrug off the abuse. What got to me was that when they realised they weren't going to get any joy out of me, my abusers would shamble off and find an easier target — invariably a young woman, often someone completely new to activism who'd had maybe half an hour's training — and get their kicks there.

It was common — not daily, but far too common — to have someone come back to the stall in tears.

Others cried when they got back to Cork Together For Yes headquarters. Still more waited until they got home.

Some of these wounded rookie activists gave up or found a less public-facing role. Others came back for more. (An unreconstructed part of me indulges itself in the fantasy that, since I sent them out there, into harm's way, their pain was my fault, and therefore their pain is my pain too, but that's bollocks. They went out there for a multitude of reasons, all their own. I'm just the old duffer who carried the table.)

But where did this bile come from? Who walks up to a stranger and calls them a baby-killer or a slut? Without a doubt, the febrile language and grotesque imagery of the No campaign whipped some into a frenzy.

To give just one example, Cora Sherlock, deputy chair of the Pro Life Campaign, told TV3: "If they repeal the Eighth Amendment, we will have abortion clinics in Dublin with bin bags out on the streets with human remains."

If I truly was festooning the streets with fresh viscera, you might call me a baby-killer. But I was just trying to give you a leaflet.

So, having thought about it for two years, I've finally put my finger on why I find these anniversaries so hard. While abortion is a private matter, Repeal was a very public battle. It was part of public life.

The campaign was, in a large part, won by people sharing their abortion stories when they shouldn't have had to — a debt that has been widely acknowledged by the pro-choice movement.

What we've mentioned less is that anti-choicers tried to force us out of public life. With their hisses and swears and spit and glares, our fellow citizens told us we weren't fit to stand in our own streets and contribute to the future direction of our State.

How can that be in a modern country in the 21st century? Who decided that the way to win a public vote was to cause the other side so much pain that they would give up, or, if the vote couldn't be won, to cause the other side as much pain as possible?

Not every voter bears responsibility for this, of course, but the people who do still walk among us, and many enjoy high station in public life — far higher than a spot on St Patrick's Street with a handful of leaflets.

A No campaign leader lied and lied and was made editor of a so-called news website. A politician told a young woman who had tearfully shared her abortion story live on TV that she deserved 'love and respect regardless of what you have done'.

He was recently re-elected to the Seanad, ironically standing for something he calls the Human Dignity Alliance.

Every pro-choice activist — young and old, rookie and veteran, female and male and other — carries some sort of scar from the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and both those who inflicted the scars and those who spurred them on walk among us as if nothing happened.

We like to say that the referendum landslide (66.4%, let it never be forgotten) showed that the Irish public is caring, brave, considerate, and thoughtful. But members of that same caring, brave, considerate, thoughtful Irish public scarred every single one of us.

Of course it was worth it, of course repealing the Eighth and everything that means is worth celebrating, but I will never be able to look back with any fondness at the scourging we underwent to achieve it.

- Sam Boland is deputy production editor at the Irish Examiner. He is donating his fee for this article to the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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