As activists celebrate the landslide victory from last week’s referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment; Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana talks to TLR about the result and what lies ahead for rights and equality advocates.
The Referendum on the 8th Amendment has come to an end, and the Irish people have conveyed a very clear message to the political class and the Catholic Church, It is a message that reinforces the people’s verdict from the equal marriage rights referendum in 2015. The political class of Ireland, despite all odds, is one that has been capable of appointing the first non-heteronormative Taoiseach, who is also the first ever Taoiseach from an ethnic minority background. In 2015, the Houses of the Oireachtas ratified the Gender Recognition Act, a groundbreaking law which can be described as one of the most advanced legislative provisions in terms of gender self-determination in the world.
This is the Ireland of today, in recent years racial hatred, misogyny, discrimination against marginalised communities (including the indigenous Traveller community), and casual racism are increasingly resisted. As a political analyst and gender justice activist living in this island, this writer certainly shares the sense of pride that pervades activist circles in the aftermath of the referendum on the 8th Amendment.
However, by no means does this suggest that this Ireland is one in which these ills are absent. On the contrary, these issues are alive and well in today’s Ireland. This is what we witnessed in the ‘No’ campaign throughout the referendum. These reactionary ideas also command considerable financial support, especially from across the Atlantic. People from ethno-racial minorities continue to face casual racism, at employment interviews, in public transport, and in housing. Traveller people and children continue to be subjected to tremendous levels of discrimination. Direct Provision continues to exist. Migrant people, especially migrant women, continue to face extreme difficulties when trying to access to basic rights and services.
The image of the cosmopolitan Ireland of the Varadkar dispensation is one that liberals within and beyond Ireland hail as a beacon. This has been evident, for example, in the close proximity of the Varadkar premiership to the Trudeau government in Ottawa. In 2017, An Taoiseach Dr Varadkar was the Chief Guest at Canada Pride, becoming the first foreign head of government to walk in a pride parade in Canada. Despite this highly marketable air of cosmopolitanism, the ‘Varadkar Ireland’ we live in is replete with its fair share of problems, omissions, duplicities and challenges. As gender and social justice advocates, this is the reality that we must never lose sight of in the wake of the victory of the Yes campaign at last Friday’s referendum.
Women have won.
How well that victory will trickle down to cis women from migrant backgrounds, to cis and non-cis traveller women, to cis women from socioeconomically less-privileged backgrounds, is yet to be seen. In fact, these ‘intersectional’ issues form the foremost challenge ahead for gender and social justice movements in Ireland.
These challenges hint at the importance of a vital next step – that of implementing modern and advanced reproductive justice legislation, which respects a birth giver’s erstwhile right to bodily autonomy, and makes bodily autonomy and a birth giver’s decision-making power the only factors that weigh in when it comes to accessing terminations. That new legislation should also make it a criminal offence to practice any form of reproductive justice-related discrimination against Traveller women, and migrant women. It also needs to recognise and protect the reproductive rights of trans women and all non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative peoples, whose reproductive rights have a long history of being systematically denied across Western Europe.
The tasks ahead in the Irish Republic are also indicative of the major battles that are left to be fought in the North, where fundamental rights, be it reproductive rights or the right to marry, are grossly denied by what has turned out to be a two-party system of elite co-operation which has stalled.
At Sibéal, Ireland’s largest network of researchers, students and activists in Gender and Feminist Studies, this writer has the absolute privilege of working with a group of extremely committed scholar-activists. The current Sibéal Board has made it a key priority to ensure that our work takes a scholar-activist dimension, grounding our academic contributions in an activist and advocacy ethos. Nowhere in the world can academic work in the areas of social and gender justice be sustained in the absence of active engagement with the sociopolitical, legislative and rights-related campaigns of the day. This is a reality that many scholars and those well-intentioned citizens who routinely express a reluctance to actively engage with gender and social justice struggles ought to take stock of.
In other words, Women of Ireland have won. Ireland has won. How consistently and effectively that victory will be deployed to advance the rights of the people of Ireland is the collective challenge and responsibility that now lies on our shoulders.
Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is an affiliate researcher at the Centre for Gender, Feminisms and Sexualities at University College Dublin, and the Network Chair of Sibéal: The Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network. She was previously an Executive Committee member and the LGBT+ Officer of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland.