The 2018 referendum on repeal of the 8th Amendment was of particular interest to Irish women in Ireland and Great Britain. Young women surged to the polls resulting in a 94 percent increase in voting among young women between the ages of 18 and 24. Women emigrants in Great Britain made a particular effort to mobilize around the #HometoVote movement led by the London-Irish ARC. Many women emigrants who were unable to return home because of the current restrictive residency requirement mobilized in other ways contributing funding and time. The London-Irish ARC has already indicated that it will mobilize again to support voting rights for citizens living outside the State.
In May 2018, I was living in London, playing a small role in helping Irish people based around the world make the journey home to vote, to repeal the Eighth Amendment. In May 2020, I was living in Dublin, 39 weeks pregnant, making regular visits to The Coombe ahead of the birth of my first child. I am evidence that issues in Ireland are issues for Irish emigrants. I might not have been living in the country at the time, but I was campaigning for my fellow countrywomen, my sisters, my friends, and for my future self.
Being an Irish person abroad certainly amplifies your patriotism, whether it’s intentional or not. You suddenly find yourself more invested in the rugby... and the Eurovision. But the thing that connected me most to my national pride during the seven years I lived abroad, was standing alongside the formidable women* of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign.
I attended the group’s first open meeting on November 8th 2016 - incidentally, the night Donald Trump was elected. I was excited to get truly involved in the campaign, not to simply share links on Facebook, but to actually show up and do something practical. When I got to the meeting that evening, I found myself in a lecture hall of some 300 people, mostly women*, mostly Irish, who felt exactly the same. We had all moved away for different reasons, but our eyes were very much on home, we were still invested in the direction of our country, and many of us hoped to move back one day.
We were outraged that Irish legislation was putting women* at risk and forcing them abroad to access healthcare that should have been free, safe, and legal at home. We were frustrated that change was coming all too slowly. And we were mortified to live in a city where we had autonomy over our own bodies, having to explain to our baffled friends and colleagues in the UK that this wouldn’t be the case if we lived at home.
We dispersed from those initial first meetings energised, with bags of ideas, a clear set of goals, and a plan of action. We knew our position as emigrants was not to throw stones across the water. We didn’t need to shout over the voices of those campaigning at home. We could use geography to our advantage, secure international media attention, lobby influential Irish people abroad, raise funds among the diaspora, and harness that Irish community abroad to support and amplify the voices of campaigners at home who weren’t living in a place where abortion rights could, at the time, be discussed as liberally.
Throughout the campaign I was consistently in awe of the women* around me. Women* of different ages, occupations, and backgrounds. Artists, lawyers, nurses, students, pregnant people, mothers, people with extremely busy lives; some seasoned activists, others total newbies. I was energised by their confidence and creativity. These women* could circle a room at a swanky Irish embassy soirée, articulating the nuances of the issue one day, and be outside the same building the next, with a megaphone in-hand, leading a demonstration.
I loved that in dealing with press and politicians, we were consistently mistaken for a professional organisation. Whether we were hosting a table quiz, speaking to a room of lawyers, canvassing politicians, or marching in the London St. Patrick’s Day parade, we were informed, well-trained, and our execution was polished. There were the fundraisers, the legal minds, the poster painters, the blog writers, the tech whizzes and the lobbying pros. Everyone found their niche and ran with it.
It was seeing traits which are all-too-often downplayed among women* - being brazen, loud, and determined - in the campaigners around me, that inspired me to be unafraid. Marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a particularly surreal moment of the campaign. To be an abortion rights campaign group among the GAA clubs and the Irish dancers, we were no less passionate, patriotic and ‘authentically Irish’ than the other emigrant groups.
The group continued to grow to over 1000-strong and gather momentum as the campaign pressed on. It’s hard to go into every aspect of how these tireless, talented campaigners played their role in repealing the Eighth Amendment. On the fundraising front, there were table quizzes, comedy nights, merch stands and donor events. The lobbying campaign had extensive letters to editors, encouraging expats to write for their papers at home, this saw incredible results. They also made strong connections with politicians, both in the UK and Ireland.
The media and comms group recruited London-based Irish celebrities to get involved in the discussion, they liaised with international press ahead of the referendum, became the go-to for British media, and created resources aimed at busting myths and encouraging emigrants to start conversations with family and friends at home. The Healthcare Not Airfare luggage tags were a triple success; not only did they raise funds, they created awareness of the situation in Ireland and images of them were shared widely on social media when Irish emigrants travelled home. Each project took vast amounts of time and organisation, all from individuals who had full time jobs, busy lives and other commitments.
Our direct action efforts were always the most impactful to me. The creativity and organisation that went into them was remarkable. They were always created with strong visuals and meaningful take aways in mind. They were beautiful in person but they made for striking images too. 77 women* walking with suitcases (representing those who travelled each week from Ireland and Northern Ireland to access abortion services) or 205k etches in chalk on the path outside the Irish embassy (for each of the estimated 205,704 women who had travelled to Britain from Ireland and Northern Ireland for a safe abortion since 1983). These numbers were significant, but the pictures captured were impactful too, which meant the message often had a strong reach across the press and on social media.
And then finally came Home To Vote. In the final months before the referendum, we worked every hour we could to mobilise eligible Irish voters to travel home. We were creating social media material, we were writing articles, we were talking to press and we were reaching out to Irish emigrant groups around the world. We designed a simple-to-use website to let people check if they were eligible to vote, and give them information on getting home. We were following the lead of our friends on the Marriage Equality campaign, and knew there would be some buzz around #HomeToVote. But we could not have anticipated the scenes we had in the days leading up to the referendum.
My eternal memory of the campaign will be standing in Dublin Airport arrivals alongside a cheering crowd, holding Welcome Home banners, surrounded by TV cameras and dishing out Tayto crisps, as plane loads of voters landed in from London and Brussels. It was spine-tingling. On Twitter, people were sharing their journeys from New York, Vancouver, Buenos Aires and Hanoi. #HomeToVote was firmly trending, and Yes supporters in Ireland were getting behind it. Irish emigrants were demonstrating with their actions - and their airfares - that Irish issues were just as important to them, whether they were living down the road or across the world.
Irish women* living overseas care about their country. They care about where it’s at and where it’s going. They care about the place they call home, the place on their birth cert or their passport, the place their parents live and their children may be raised. We are an outward-looking nation with outward-looking citizens. And our emigrants are mobilised, informed, and eager to have a say in the direction of our country.
*women, non-binary people, trans men and all those who may need to access abortion services.