A pocketful of badges

Alliance for Choice members enjoy an ice cream break by the beach in the middle of the campaign

Danielle Roberts – Alliance 4 Choice, Belfast

When thinking about Repeal of course the referendum and the campaign leading up to it is one of the first things that comes to mind, however my repeal story goes back a long way before Together for Yes was even an idea.

I’m an activist with Alliance for Choice Belfast, which has been a sister organisation to ARC since it was formed. This has meant sharing knowledge, practical support, and most of all solidarity.

I found living in Northern Ireland to be a bit of a strange position during the build-up to Repeal. I don’t consider myself Irish, it wasn’t my constitution that was being changed, I didn’t even have a vote. At the same time, I was living under a similar law, in physical proximity, and many of my peers are Irish, as is their right, but denied a vote on their constitution.  We already had very strong link with ARC groups all over, from attending each other’s marches to ensuring people who needed access to safe but illegal abortion pills got them and keeping each other going through comradeship – and friendship. I became the A4C representative on the Coalition to Repeal the 8th and later the Together for Yes Platform Group, as well as the ARC steering group.

When I first became involved in pro-choice activism in around 2011 a referendum did not seem likely to happen any time soon. As the years went on numbers at the annual March for Choice in Dublin grew, high profile people like Roisin Ingle and Tara Flynn started speaking out about their abortions. And of course, tragically, Savita died after being denied abortion care for a septic miscarriage. At the same time, we had Sarah Ewart telling her heart-breaking story of being forced to travel after an FFA diagnosis, the following Judicial Review(s) taken by Sarah, Ashleigh Topley and Denise Phelan, and criminal prosecutions of people who had performed their own abortions or helped someone to. There was a pro-choice wave going over the whole island North and South – people were speaking out, lobbying, organising against restrictive abortion regimes.

My memories of the campaign to Repeal started with online meetings of ARC activists and attending those early marches. Then came the 5am busses to Dublin for monthly Repeal the 8th Coalition meetings. Then the Together for Yes meetings with increasing frequency – dialling into meetings before I had made it home on a Wednesday, and so so many emails and WhatsApp group chats.

Alliance for Choice Belfast added 2 main contribution to the Referendum campaign – canvassing and fundraising. We canvassed in Drogheda, Dundalk, Fingal, Dublin, Greystones, Cavan and Monaghan with Alliance for Choice Derry canvassing in Donegal. Sometimes there was busloads, sometimes it was a car or two. As we got closer to the referendum date it was both. On the 25th May we had people supporting the Get out The Vote efforts in Drogheda, Dundalk, Dublin and Monaghan at least, as well as leafleting people travelling South from Belfast Central and Great Victoria Street – it’s all a bit blurry! My own canvassing highlights are having an ice cream in Fingal after a pretty positive day knocking doors, the woman in a Monaghan supermarket car park in her 70s or 80s who told me her story from decades before, and running out of houses in Cavan as we helped the small team do weeks’ worth of door knocking and leafleting in a day. It wasn’t all positive, there were the young men who threw stones, the man who spat, the man who jabbed his finger at me and shouted in my face. The most common response I encountered was a polite taking of the leaflet with no engagement -turns out they were mostly silent yeses. 

Friday nights became trips to get snacks and bottles of water for canvassers – vegan and gluten free option included! I spent Saturday’s making my way up and down busses doing canvassing training with volunteers while trying to keep my balance, making sure people had sun cream on, and that everyone was back on the bus before we left. The exception being the weekend of the May Day march in Belfast, when I ran around giving our stickers and badges, and the stewards were wearing Together for Yes high-vis vests.

Badges are actually a pretty huge part of my repeal memory. Every meeting or event I went to I had at least a pocketful of badges. One was doing bit of work in the Queen’s University SU and tweeted I had badges if anyone was interested – meaning I was approached by strangers with ‘hello are you the badge lady?’. Waiting to cross the road at lights a woman said ‘nice badge’ – so I took it off and handed it over, I’d plenty more!

As for fundraising, one thing that stands out is the quiz which was so popular we had to give up the stage for space for teams. Because of SIPO regulations everyone had to bring proof of nationality or address to be checked on the way in – the strange position of Northern Ireland allowed us to fundraise above board and we strictly followed the rules.

When Strike for Repeal was happening in the South on International Women’s Day 2017 we held a Strike for Choice in Belfast before joining the evening march in Dublin. At the same time as we were gathered outside City Hall, the PSNI were raiding activists’ homes and workplaces looking for abortion pills and instruments. A year later we had a solidarity with Votes for Repeal Rally, anti-choice groups attempted to surround us, standing about 3 foot away from the speakers while accusing us of harassing and assaulting them – the PSNI stayed in their land rovers and did not intervene despite A4C having, as usual, complied with all the paperwork and notifications required to hold a rally at City Hall.

On the referendum day I was in Drogheda. It was a mixed day, from the cheerful beeps of car horns and people taking ‘I voted yes’ stickers, to the stone throwing and jabby fingered man mentioned earlier. I was totally exhausted as we headed home in one of 3 cars that went to Drogheda that day. Other A4C activists in Monaghan has a similar mixed day including some vicious verbal attacks. I was unsure if we’d got the 50% needed. Dr Fiona Bloomer and I were the last in the car, ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’ came on the radio and we deliriously sang along.

We weren’t home yet when the first exit poll came out. I didn’t believe it. When the second one came out, I was in my living room completely worn out and wired at the same time as dozens of messages lit up the group chats. I refused to let myself believe it.

The following day we took over an area of Lavery’s Bar in Belfast, the referendum results were listed alongside the sporting fixtures on the schedule next to the big TV. As county by county came in with a yes, we cried, we celebrated, and frankly – we started planning. Seeing Cavan and Monaghan come in with yes votes particularly stands out in my memory. I was standing next to Elaine who as well as an A4C activist is co-organiser of Reclaim the Night Belfast with me and originally from Cavan, we had a teary squeeze, we were invested in that one.

After Repeal the focus immediately switched to Northern Ireland, media requests poured in, our followers trebled, #thenorthisnext trended. The intensity of campaigning I felt those 3 months in 2018 has resurface a few times since, for example in July 2019 when we were lobbying at Westminster for decriminalisation, in October 2019 when the law came into place, the shaping of the subsequent regulations, and even now as we fight for access with a hostile Department of Health in the midst of a pandemic.

There were a lot of shortfalls during the 3 month repeal campaign, the targeting of messaging to ‘middle Ireland’, the reliance on ‘experts’, and compromises that have made me sure that I don’t want to get involved with formal politics! We’ll never know if Repeal could have been achieved another way. Together for Yes is gone, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th has wound up, but ARC is still going. ARC are still working to improve the imperfect law, to provide practical support to those who fall through the cracks, and supporting pro-choice campaigns the world over. They will be there for the 3 year review, and far beyond. The referendum wasn’t the start of my Repeal journey, and it isn’t the end. Alliance for Choice will be fighting alongside ARC to defend the achievements so far, and pushing for abortion that is free safe legal and local, for everyone who wants or needed it.