I will carry this fire with me

Siobhán Shiels

On this #repealaversary I wish to remember the who, the why and the effect being part of the Inishowen Together Repeal campaign has had on my life. 

Repeal is an acknowledgment by the state that women’s voices are vital. That at long last we deserve to be heard and that our lives matter, in a state riddled with religious intervention. It is a cry for all those families, women, girls and pregnant people that we heard you, we care, we acted. 

Being part of the campaign in Inishowen, the tip of Co. Donegal wasn’t easy. Our huge geographical rural area made canvassing a huge task. The conservative nature of people from Donegal was against us. I asked Cathie Shiels co-founder of ARC to speak publicly at a social justice festival in Carndonagh, Carnstock 2018, at the heart of Inishowen. As soon as we advertised our program the anti-choicers rallied and bullied our festival team, online, on the phone and in the paper attempting to ruin our chances of future funding by contacting funders and smearing Carnstock’s name. They openly stated that they would protest the festival and Cathie’s speech in particular. Carnstock, a socially aware music festival with talks about; Freeconomy and zero waste, LGBTQ issues, ending direct provision, domestic violence, abortion rights, refugee rights and awareness of life in a refugee camp, Right to water campaign as well as stellar music from the North West. Our festival team were so scared by the anti’s vitriol that we ensured we had strong support for Cathie’s speech including the gardai. Luckily their threats of protest were just that and the evening passed with nothing but love and support. What the anti’s didn’t know that they had inadvertently help to create Inishowen Abortion Rights Campaign team, their tactics had repulsed us into action. 

Our campaign was full on and uncomfortable. Talking to as many people about such a sensitive issue took me an awfully long time to get used to. Luckily, I canvased with legends like Cathie Shiels, and saw her in action when someone came out with offensive words, she calmly used wit and humour to point out their inhumanity and lead them to a more compassionate way of seeing the issue. Our Inishowen team were bolstered by our Derry family and I made so many socially aware, passionate and hilarious friends. I found my home. 

Living rurally, it’s hard to find an epicentre of people who want to challenge the status quo while having compassion and love for their community. I found them all through this campaign. Weekends spent getting sun burned in our hi-vis jackets, laughing at odd encounters and beautiful ones too. Feeling so connected with each other striving for this common goal. Every week we’d receive private messages from people who wanted to stand beside us but couldn’t and thanked us for everything we were doing. We were doing it for them, for us, for every generation to come. 

At the end of the count, in a gym in Letterkenny, the anti-brigade were hollering their win in Donegal. It hurt. It still hurts. I found a spot under the bleachers and balled my heart out. It was the most cathartic cry I’ve had in years. The vote passed in the country, yet in our county it did not. I felt pride for my repeal family and all we achieved in such a conservative, aged populace, to gain as many votes as we did but the weight in my chest knew that I felt deceived. 

The momentous celebration and realisation that we changed the law! That our grassroots family played a huge part in the future of social justice of Ireland. This confidence grew and our group still survives as Inishowen Together, a group who campaigns and acts on social justice issues in our community. We work with Lifeline a local domestic violence service raising awareness and funds. We run an annual cultural festival celebrating all the cultures of Inishowen. We’ve worked with MASI when a DP centre was to set up locally. We make sure that racist, patriarchal voices are not the majority in our community. We fought side by side with our Derry family to bring about decriminalisation in NI. Right now, we’re running a shop and drop service across Inishowen with over 180 volunteers and we instigated the first Inishowen Foodbank. 

Being part of the campaign fired my belief in social change and crystallised for me that anything is possible. I am a proud member of Inishowen Abortion Rights Campaign and Inishowen Together, and I will carry this fire with me for the rest of my life.