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Author Archives: Stephanie Lord

Speaking ill of the living to spare the dead

Peter Mathews was a former Fine Gael TD who was known for waving rosary beads around their parliamentary party meetings and for famously declaring in response to being asked a question regarding whether women should be forced to carry life-threatening pregnancies to term with the phrase Sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway.”

 

He also once declared that the decision to allow a 14 year old rape victim an early stage abortion as in the X Case as being “repugnant” and on occasion said it would be better lock women up, if that was what it took, to stop them having an abortion.

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When news of his death emerged yesterday, many people wryly commented that at least Peter was right about one thing, we would all end up dead anyway. In response of course, men on the internet, defenders of the hurt feelings of a dead man, came out in their droves to tell women who used his literal own words that they were “scum” for doing so. Indeed, the fact that I had pointed out the irony of being reminded that the feelings of a dead man are important than the actual lives of the women who Peter Mathews would have preferred dead or in jail for want of an abortion, I attracted tweets from men to tell me I was “thick” for doing so.

Others were more measured in their replies to women remarking on Mathews’ death saying that their emotional responses to his death would result in less support for the pro-choice argument despite it being highly unlikely that a person who doesn’t think a woman deserves basic bodily autonomy is going to change their mind based on whether they think a woman’s reply is polite enough.

The mantra “do not speak ill of the dead” was taken to heart by many yesterday. Ordinarily most people would probably agree, but Peter Mathews was not an ordinary person. He was a former public representative who was elected to the Dáil, who on multiple occasions had an audience to which he could pontificate on the value of my life as a woman. He spoke at length throughout the debates on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill debates during 2013 in which he advocated a position that, despite his protestations otherwise, would result in women dying for want of legal abortions. The only reason that Bill ever saw the light of day in a Dáil chamber was because a woman died. Peter Mathews had a hand in formulating the State’s legislative response to the right of bodily autonomy of every woman in Ireland. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that no woman of childbearing age has had a vote on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. My own mother was not old enough to vote when that referendum was passed.

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Although politically marginalised by the end of his electoral career, he had a platform and influence and power over the lives of those who are actually marginalised; the women who he would round up and jail for having abortions; the women who he believed would be better off dead than having an abortion because “sure we all end up dead anyway.” There is no value in tone-policing the reactions of those women who Peter Mathews did not recognise the basic humanity of. The only value in it is for those who need very little excuse to have a pop at them anyway.

Of course, no one is arguing that pointing out Mathews’ comments that women should be forcibly prevented from having abortions should be the thing shouted at his grieving family, but we are not his grieving family. That said, unlike the majority of men rushing to berate me and others for even the mildest of comments on Mathews’ death, I actually did know him – at least in passing. He was a remarkably affable man who wouldn’t pass you without saying hello. I remembered on one occasion in 2014, I walked past him and said hello and he said “It’s a lovely day, isnt’ it?” It was a lovely day and it took every fibre of my being not to reply “Yeah but sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway.” In the end I said, “yes it’s lovely” and smiled and kept walking.

The thing was, no matter how gentlemanly and courteous he was, every time I passed him in real life and said hello, I was presented with a physical reminder that my life, in the eyes of this man who was an elected legislator, should not be saved if I had a medical condition that required an abortion. When I passed him and he remarked upon the rain, I thought of the women I know who he would let die rather than have abortions. When he smiled and asked “how are you?” to whoever he was passing, I would think of the women he would jail for having abortions. I would think of X, of A,B,C, of Ms. Y, Miss D, of Savita, or a woman who was clinically dead but kept on life support because people like Peter Mathews believed a foetus was equal to a born woman. Now that he has passed away, it is bizarre that there appears to be some unwritten code that says the only valid reaction is to narrate how polite he was and his work in relation to banking issues.

The criticisms of women who point out what Peter Mathews himself went to great lengths to talk about during his life is important for anti-choice activists and their supporters because it enables them to paint anyone who takes issue with what he believed in, and by extension their own beliefs, as being uncaring, heartless witches, or “thick” and “scum,” depending on the your preference. It serves to undermine the views of those who thought that Mathews was very wrong to dismiss the death of a pregnant woman with “sure we all end up dead anyway.”    

There is something grotesque about a society that expects women to listen to male political figures pretend they know better for their bodies than they do themselves and pontificate on their potential death or jailing, and then further expects them to remain silent when one of those political figures passes. Their death does not magic away the impact of their actions when they were alive.

Those who are anti-choice and berating the rest of us might like for us not to speak ill of the dead, but seeing as they agreed with Mathews views and mostly people are just stating Mathews’ own words, it is odd that it is considered speaking ill at all. They can’t have it both ways, but even if it is speaking ill, it brings to mind Hired Knaves comments following another death, “A generation ago in Ireland it was customary not to speak ill of the dead but it was deemed fair enough to bury them in unmarked graves and tell their mothers that they were in limbo. Or hell, if the dead had killed themselves.” 


The objective of criticising women for speaking out about Mathews’ comments is to silence them. It is not about politeness or his family or respect for the dead. Most of us do not have the luxury of standing up in the Dáil chamber to debate philosophical points regarding the bodily autonomy of others in a disconnected, dispassionate manner. We don’t have the platform to move seamlessly from discussing whether women should have abortions or not to how we knew Hugh O’Flaherty because we’d met him at rugby match or at tennis clubs, or make bizarre comments connecting abortion rates in France being somehow related to French women being given the vote. Most of the women affected by the Eighth Amendment aren’t shooting the breeze in the tennis club with the judges who decide what letters we’ll be known by in the High Court cases concerning our wombs.  

Instead, we live with the prospect of being denied medical care if something goes wrong in our pregnancies. We live with the Eighth Amendment being used as an excuse to keep us alive even though we are clinically dead because women in Ireland are viewed as little more than vessels.  We live with the prospect that a hospital will let us die if the risk to our life is not deemed “substantial” enough to warrant an abortion at that time. The ruaille buaille of the middle aged, middle class misogynists in Dáil and Seanad chambers is a sport to its participants as the outcome has little impact on their own lives. Meanwhile men scream at the people who are against forced pregnancies that they should have manners and then tweet at their employers and co-workers to flag up the audacity of being a woman with an opinion.

It is not the responsibility of marginalised people and those who are denied bodily autonomy to respect the opinions and words of those who made it so. We are not obliged to be kind to people who would lock us up for deciding we do not want to continue a pregnancy, whether they are living or dead. We are not obliged to be mindful of the feelings of a man who thought that the feelings of a woman who stated she would take her own life if she had to continue her pregnancy were irrelevant.

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A society that respects a dead man, more than it does a living woman, is a society that is in itself, morally bankrupt, and those who defend the customs of such a society deserve no respect at all.

We all end up dead anyway, and personally I’d rather have that respect when I am alive.

How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101

CrossKnit

I wrote this for a specific group, but I’ve been asked to share it. A lot of folks are just waking up to activism and are heading into intersectional feminist spaces with some trepidation. Hopefully this can help keep you on track. I’ve already been reminded that I missed code-switching, appropriation (which is a whole post, frankly, but TL;dr if a living group exists that can be mocked for the thing you think is cool and that you want to do, don’t), and a few other things. I’ll try to pick those up at a later date, but in the meantime this primer will help you get your feet wet without making a damn fool of yourself. Much. It’s all lessons I learned the hard way, so do better than me and remember we’re all works in progress.)

Hey, crew. If this isn’t your first exposure to intersectional feminism you…

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Star Wars: (She’s A) Rogue One: Believing Women and Creating Hope

*****CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS!!******

Please do not read any further if you haven’t seen Rogue One yet. Or read it anyway but don’t complain to me when it’s all spoilered for you.

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We are not better than Morocco, we just think we are.

I was walking over Kevin Street one night a few years ago and there were three kids, who couldn’t have been anymore than about ten, throwing stones at a black man and shouting racist abuse at him. I did what any right thinking individual would have done and roared at them “HERE, quit that yis little bastards.” One of them in turn picked up a stone and fired it at me where it pelted me full force inside of my leg and left a massive bruise roughly shaped like Belgium. Normally I wouldn’t care, but the problem for me was that I had planned to attend a wedding two days later and didn’t have time to get a longer dress that would cover the bruise. So I began a Google search to find the concealer that would cover it.

There were literally thousands of results on how to cover bruising. Recommendations from forums about what types of concealer; how to do it with lipstick; the best brushes to use; the way to apply without causing any further stressed to bruised skin. There seems to be an awful lot of women with an awful lot of bruises to cover. Facelifts are popular but they couldn’t be *that* popular. Even the Daily Mail once had advice from make-up artists who outlined in detail how to cover up bruising after a woman wrote in having fallen down in the street. I know a woman who falls down in the street regularly, but it’s usually after her boyfriend has seen her chatting to another man or after he’s been drinking.

There was mass outrage this week when a Moroccan public broadcaster aired a daytime show including a segment on how to cover up bruising after a beating from your husband. It’s makes for pretty grim watching as the make-up artist chit chats while she’s masking the bruising. Much of the uproar on twitter after it was due to the fact that Morocco is a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population. The logic to the outrage was “Look at these barbarians in this Islamic nation! See how they beat their wives! See how normal it is for them.”

We got one of those smart tellys a while back at home and sometimes I watch YouTube make-up tutorials on it in the evenings. I rarely actually use any of their tips because I’m lazy and refuse to buy more foundation until the one I’m using runs out, but there’s something weirdly soothing about watching someone layer on the primers and highlighters and  use eyeshadow to make what is essentially art on their faces. Sharon Farrell is a make-up artist from the West of Ireland who lives in Australia now and is definitely my all time favourite, mainly because she’ll tell you which eyeshadow palette from Catrice is the closest dupe to a Mac set, but also because I am convinced she is more of a wizard than a make-up artist.

Anyway, I watched one of her videos one day and she had a bit of bruising because she’d had her lips done, so this tutorial was about how to cover it up. Just after three minutes into the tutorial my beloved Sharon turns to the camera and says, “If you need to cover up bruises because someone is hitting you, that’s not cool, and it’s not ok, and there are people that you can talk to and there’s help available to you and I’ll put the numbers below the video……and if someone is beating you that’s not cool and you shouldn’t have to accept that in your life.” This was a great thing to do because make-up artists like her are going to reach a wide audience.

Obviously, and rightly, there was no public outrage over this. I spoke to my sister (also a Sharon fan) and concluded that what she had done was a good idea; a simple acknowledgment that some women seek help in covering bruises because men beat them. The video has had almost 179,000 views to date. That’s 176,000 more than this Women’s Aid awareness video.  

The Moroccan tv segment is jarring because, if the translation is correct, there is an aspect of normalisation to this. The women speak of bruises from their husbands as being a very standard thing that you just have to get on with. But this is on a spectrum; Farrell’s video to an extent is acknowledging the normalisation of domestic violence too. That is not a defence of how the Moroccan broadcasters handled the issue or a criticism of Farrell, but to point out that so many women are experiencing domestic violence, that for them this is the norm. As a make-up artist, Sharon Farrell would be well aware of the thousands of forums that I came across on my google searches researching the best foundation that will give enough coverage to make a black eye and bruised jaw disappear. Farrell and the hundreds of other make-up artists with similar videos aren’t condemned for this subtle acknowledgment because they’re white and western. Would we be less appalled by the Moroccan tv segment if they’d included a phone number for a domestic violence hotline? Would that have made the men criticising it less concerned about Islam in Morocco and more concerned for women’s well-being?

The sad thing about the Moroccan tv outrage is that it was mainly directed at the women who participated in this – rather than the men who beat their wives so regularly to the extent that it appears to these women to be a perfectly reasonable to have a daytime feature on hiding the fact you’ve taken a beating from a person who is meant to love you.  Do we think we are better in Ireland because Irish men mostly beat women where the bruises don’t show? Because we aren’t.

Domestic violence is an enormous problem. Just because a make-up artist here adds the phone number for women’s aid at the bottom of her video does not make us better than Morocco. You’re not likely to see a segment on The Afternoon Show about how to cover your black eye, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Irish women who would look for similar information online. 6,000 women and children were turned away from refuges in Ireland during 2015 because there wasn’t the space to take them in. A lot of the 16 women turned away every day will inevitably return to their partners, weighing up the risk of a beating against the risk of living on the streets. Domestic violence is exacerbated by the State and the community when it will not give a woman an exit route.

Organisations like Women’s Aid do fantastic work in Ireland, but the men on twitter saying domestic violence is a result of Islam are insulting. Wasn’t Clodagh Hawe’s husband at mass the Sunday before he murdered her and her children and then shot himself in an act of cowardice?

A third of women in Ireland have experienced extreme psychological violence from men. A quarter of women have experienced violence by partners in Ireland.  

We are not better than Morocco, we just think we are.

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The Women’s Aid Helpline is 1800 341 900.

Follow me on twitter @stephie08

 

It Could Happen Where You Live: Stopping the Rise of 21st Century Fascism

Last week someone told me that he believed the reaction to Trump’s victory was an “overreaction.” Subsequently, another man I know called my terming of Trump and the galvanising of the US right as fascism to be “hysterical.” Media commentators state that anti-Trump activist are whipping up fear unnecessarily but I defy any right thinking individual to watch this video and not be horrified by it.

It is an open white power rally complete with Nazi salutes and declarations that maybe their opponents “aren’t people at all.” This in combination with the regular demonisation of all Muslims is shocking. To compare this to 1930s Europe is not a disproportionate exaggeration.

Years ago I travelled in the former Yugoslavia shortly after the war. A war that was synonymous with ethnic cleansing and where extreme promotion of nationalistic patriotism assisted the xenophobia that led to the genocide in Srebenica where 8,373 Bosniak civilians were murdered. A lot of Belgrade was still rubble and there were signs around Sarajevo saying not to walk on the grass because there were still landmines. I remember talking to someone who had also been there who said to me that a local Serb woman had told her to “never think that this couldn’t happen where you live.”

White power rallies are happening right now in the US – a place where black people are routinely shot by cops and an unapologetic racist and misogynist has been elected president. Marine Le Pen is trying to make the fascist National Front more palatable in France. The far right Alternative for Germany are gaining support. Geert Wilders anti-EU and anti-Islam “Party for Freedom” is gaining support in advance of the Dutch elections next year. Neo-Nazis Golden Dawn won 18 seats in the Greek parliamentary elections in September. Anti-immigration party Jobbik are the third largest party in Hungary and won 20% of the vote on a platform of wanting to stop “Zionist Israel’s efforts to dominate Hungary and the world,” and criminalising gay people advocating prison terms of up to 8 years for what they term “sexual deviancy.” The Sweden Democrats won 49 out of 349 seats in the Swedish parliament promoting an extreme anti-migrant agenda and a policy of returning refugees to their home countries. The anti-immigrant Austrian Freedom Party have huge support and almost won the most recent presidential election. Founded by a former SS officer, they have 20% of the seats in the Austrian parliament and links to a range of fascist and far-right organisations throughout Europe. The anti-Roma People’s Party our Slovakia hold 14 out of 150 seats in parliament and whose leader has said “Even one immigrant is one to many” and spoken openly in favour of politicians during WWII who sent thousands of Jews to concentration camps. While the BNP, the EDL and National Front are on the fringes of the right in the UK, UKIP hold little support on a national level but have 163 council seats. The Tories could easily sail further to the right as the US Republicans have in the wake of Brexit. Rallies are being held in Spain where people hold up photos of Franco and give Nazi salutes.

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Aside from some Loyalist organisations in the Six Counties, the fascist right in Ireland are largely confined to the boxrooms of their mother’s houses. Former Youth Defence activist and gormless fascist, Justin Barrett attempted to hold a press conference for his National Party in Dublin last week but he event didn’t go ahead after the hotel it was to be held in cancelled due to public outcry. While Justin Barrett and fellow cretin Peter O’Loughlin of Identity Ireland/Pegida Ireland might have the charisma of a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition, their threat should not be underestimated.

In 2004 I was a student in UCD and was in the room when AFA prevented Barrett from speaking. They were right to do so. Later I recall someone saying that if the far right remained in the hands of anti-immigrant xenophobe Aine Ni Chonaill and the Immigration Control Platform then we would be ok. There was an element of truth to this, the public being largely hostile to the ICP views but this was the same year that an anti-deportation activist I knew had her home address published online by fascist sympathisers in Ireland and received letters telling her they knew what bus she took to college in the mornings.

We live in an environment where the likes of Katie Hopkins is given a platform on RTE, who once suggested that migrants should be let drown and that feminist journalist Laurie Penny should be gangraped by ISIS members, because the national broadcaster views ratings and manufactured controversy as being more important than not allowing a bigot espouse racist views on television. Ultra-Catholic fanatics have columns in national media outlets and take legal action against anyone where there’s the slightest whiff of opposition to their chauvinist anti-woman or anti-LGBT views, despite the fact that their level of actual public support is minuscule. The minority government in this state is a party of the right that has its roots in an organisation of fascists, many of whom went to fight for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. And despite having marginally softened their line on gay rights in recent years, they are still cheerleaders of austerity policy whose leaders routinely present cuts to funding public services as something that just has to be done, and keeps those who arrive in Ireland seeking asylum in camps and institutions where they share dormitories and are prevented from working. Racist incidents and anti-Muslim discrimination are on the rise. Travellers face disgraceful levels of discrimination that involve children being prevented from entering schools because of their ethnicity, Traveller babies are placed on the Garda PULSE system, a facility normally only used for monitoring criminals, and the councils and public are mostly happy for Traveller communities to live in death traps such as the site where the Carrickmines fire claimed ten lives. This is the environment where right wing ideology festers.

The idea that you should put right wing activists on the radio and media in order to allow them to show themselves up for the clueless dolts they are is nonsense. People of colour in Ireland should not have to listen to racists being allowed free rein to spout their bigotry. Allowing this normalises their opinions when journalists refuse to interrogate them in the name of “balance.” There is an onus on the left in Ireland to meet this challenge head on; to organise and to support; to show solidarity; and to prevent the fascist right from organising. Where Trump’s victory has galvanised the right, it should also galvanise the left, both in America and Ireland. Defeating Trump and rising fascistic tendencies across America and Europe, and within Ireland, may seem like a daunting task, but as Bookchin has said, “If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.”

@stephie08

All your wombs belong to us – The State, Ms. B and Forced C Sections

The High Court decision in HSE v B has been made public today (I’ll edit to add a link once it’s available). A month ago, a woman who wished to undergo a vaginal birth after three c-sections found herself in the High Court as the HSE attempted to have her compelled to undergo a fourth c-section against her consent. The HSE case was based on the notion that the Eighth Amendment rendered them more appropriate to decide what was best for her pregnancy than she was. This is a landmark decision, because for once, it’s a maternity rights case where the resulting decision hasn’t been completely terrible.

The judgment is long and make no mistake, there is no judicial feminism in here; the Court is at pains to point out throughout the judgment that they have no idea why this woman would possibly want a vaginal birth. But ultimately it goes on to state (at Paragraph 21):

“The court concludes that it is a step too far to order the forced caesarean section of a woman against her will even though not making that order increases the risk of injury and death to both Ms. B and her unborn child.”

Essentially this means that the Court recognises the right of the HSE to pursue a case against a heavily pregnant woman on the basis of the Eighth Amendment, but the idea of legally compelling a woman to undergo a caesarean including the sedation, anaesthetic, the surgery, the pain, the recovery….and all that goes with it, was a little bit too much even by an Irish High Court’s standards.

Maternity rights activists in AIMS have been pointing out for years that the Eighth Amendment is not just a tool of coercion for women who want to access abortion services, but that it is used just as regularly against women who are continuing their pregnancies. They report that women are regularly told the guards will come to get them if they don’t turn up for their scheduled inductions. Being threatened with the guards coming to your door when you’re in the full of your health and not in a vulnerable pregnant state is one thing, but threatening a woman on the brink of her due date is quite another – it is beyond bullying, it is obstetric violence. And as AIMS have pointed out, it usually ensures that women will go along with whatever is being forced upon them by the HSE. The prospect of being brought to court, like Ms. B was, is too much for most.

The ruling is not completely terrible in that it finds that the risk to the “unborn” is not so great that it warrants overriding Ms. B’s rights to have a c-section forcibly performed on her, however as is the practice with Irish judgments there is no sense of what might constitute a *risk* to the unborn that is sufficient that a woman may have some other form of medical intervention performed on her against her will. We are not out of the woods yet. As long as the Eighth Amendment remains in the Constitution, this will not be the last Court case on the matter.

While this was a case concerning a woman who fully intended to carry her pregnancy to term, it has important implications for the tiny number of women who may find themselves before panels of doctors in an attempt to access abortions under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. In the Ms. Y case a young asylum seeker, pregnant as a result of rape was deemed by a number of doctors to be suicidal. However, the HSE also felt that the way in which to avert the risk of suicide would be to perform a cesarean section on her at 24 weeks gestation instead of the abortion she requested as soon as she found out she was pregnant at 8 weeks. When Ms. Y went on hunger and thirst strike, the HSE sought and received a court order to forcibly hydrate her. The threats of court were uttered in relation to the c-section, and Ms. Y gave birth against her wishes by c-section as a result. We now wonder whether the Ms. B judgment had been delivered earlier and Ms. Y’s counsel fought the HSE at the outset of a c-section being mentioned, would the outcome have been different? Ms. B is yet another judgment to add to the mounting stacks of obstetric violence entering the courts that don’t really give us clarity one way or the other.

What is clear though is how the Eighth Amendment does not just impact those seeking abortions, but on the broader spectrum of reproductive justice. The Eighth Amendment along with a warped mentality of maternity care that infantilises women leads medical practitioners to coerce women into interventions out of a fear that they will be found to have not protected the “right to life of the unborn.” Criminalising those accessing abortions, threatening women who want natural births with garda interventions or dragging women like Ms. Y and Ms. B into the courts is obstetric violence. It demonstrates that regardless of the circumstance or your wishes in pregnancy, the State via the HSE will treat you as a vessel with no competence to make your own choice. There is no autonomy within maternity “care” and doulas are viewed with at best suspicion and at worst, contempt. There is a separate system of medical consent for pregnant women that mean effectively forced c-sections happen every day. They don’t enter the courts, but when the decision to agree to a c-section you don’t really want is made because you can’t take the bullying from medical practitioners or because you believe they will take you to court, is it really not forced?

Any kind of surgery against your will would be unpleasant to say the least. I can’t imagine getting a tooth out without having given full consent. But a forced c-section is a whole other level of violence. It is misogynist and it is degrading, and it is the State sponsored infliction of terror on pregnant women. There is no way you can undergo surgery you have been coerced into and not feel a profound blow to your sense of bodily autonomy and integrity, and those conditions are ripe for birth trauma and postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder. Women are gaslit and told their ideas about what should happen during birth are simply “baby brain” and the parallels with domestic violence are striking; indeed many women first experience violence in a relationship when they become pregnant. This is gender based violence, and if anyone objects to that analysis, then please, show me the judgment where the HSE attempted to compel a non-pregnant person undergo major invasive surgery, then colluded with the courts to make sure it happened.

What exactly will it take to ensure women are afforded autonomy over their pregnancies? Obstetric violence and coercion of pregnant women is abuse, and it is a major public healthcare problem in Ireland. Having an unwanted vaginal exam performed on you without consent is a form of violence against women that is no less real than violence against women in the home. We need to start addressing it as such so that the structural and systemic aspect of it can be picked apart and broken and so that no more Ms. Y’s or Ms. B’s find themselves before the Courts. We need to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

@stephie08

Bring Down The Final Curtain: The Citizens Assembly and the Macabre Theatre of the Abortion Question

I stood outside the Dáil on Tuesday evening during the Repeal demo organised by AAA-PBP and it began to rain. An activist I know from another organisation happened to be standing beside me asked how I was. Tired says I, as I had just come from work and I was up before 6 that morning to walk the dogs. It’s a long day when you’re standing at a demo regardless of precipitation levels. That’s not to try and garner sympathies or kudos – the point is that you’d want more hours in the day for all the protests. You’d be sick protesting. I’m especially sick protesting to repeal the Eighth Amendment. There are literally hundreds of things I could think of that I’d prefer to do. These demonstrations are kind of samey after a while and there are only so many different ways you can point out the sheer horror of having no say in what happens your body before you start to feel like you’re going to lose your mind with frustration.

As I thought about what I would rather be doing (no disrespect to the speakers because the ones I heard were really, really great but let’s be honest, we all want to be somewhere else), the cabinet came to a last minute voting arrangement on the Bill. Minister Katherine Zappone, poster deputy of Liberal Ireland, and a number of other TDs had a dilemma; having previously committed to Repeal but gone into government with Fine Gael they couldn’t vote in favour of the AAA repeal Bill, but they couldn’t vote against it either. Thus a magical typically Irish formula was arranged; the Dáil would vote on a counter motion to the Bill to state that no legislation on abortion would be dealt with while the Citizens Assembly was still sitting. This has the handy effect of getting Zappone et al out of a tight spot in this particular vote, but also buys time for the Cabinet and Independent Alliance. The Citizens Assembly is due to report in a year. Any other attempt to remove the Eighth Amendment between now and then will be ruled out of order using a convoluted mechanism of parliamentary censorship. Meanwhile Zappone and others who have built a political career on “liberal” issues will never have to make an actual decision on it. Sweatshirts and badges notwithstanding, responsibility for the matter is conveniently devolved to the Citizens Assembly.

The Citizens Assembly is a bizarre concept. It teaches us that women’s bodies are so politically destructive and terrifying that the people who are theoretically *elected* to represent the population cannot legislate for the matters that affect those bodies. The “problem” has been discussed at length by numerous Oireachtas committees and Dáil debates, all in an effort to not actually resolve the matter, but demonstrate “Look! Women! We’re TALKING about it!” They need to be seen to be doing something, but the women who need or want, or indeed have had, abortions are irrelevant to their political thinking, The comfort of their Dáil seats and knowledge of extremely healthy pensions, and the leather under their arses in Ministerial cars are worth more to them than women’s lives. Their Mercs with State funded drivers are fueled by the tears of twelve women travelling for abortions to the UK every day and god knows how many more getting medication online and off dealers.  What the criteria is by which a cabinet decides an issue is so socially toxic that they could not possibly attempt to legislate for a referendum on the matter is not clear.

The Citizens Assembly is a performance. It is political theatre. It will be fleeting plot line in the inevitable boring memoir by Leo Varadkar or Shane Ross when they have a fleeting reference to how they allegedly attempted to fight against it. It is a mechanism for kicking the can down the road.

Realistically it will be a year from now by the time the Citizens Assembly reports back. That brings us to the end of 2017. There is talk that a referendum could potentially be held in 2018. This seems unrealistic. After the Assembly reports it will, as is the practice with such reports, sit with an Oireachtas Committee for a few months. It will need to be debated to death. At the same time the ordinary business of bills and farcical Leader’s Questions will continue. They will need to pass a budget. There will also be preparations for the local and European Elections in 2019. They will need to address the looming Brexit situation. Political parties view time in election cycles. After the locals, there will be preparation for the next general election of 2021 – if the government manages to last that long. Fine Gael may have quietened any umbrage taken over abortion, but they still have the matter of annual budgets, judicial appointments, teachers striking, cops striking and whatever else is around the corner.

The Citizens Assembly gives them a get out of legislating card. Do not pass go. Do not collect your pension just yet.  The idea that 99 random punters are qualified to represent the population in this manner is farcical. It is the outsourcing of democracy. There was a small glimmer of hope among some activists recently when the 2018 repeal referendum was mooted. Hypothetically, if those great 99 return with a verdict that indeed, the women of Ireland need access to free, safe and legal abortion, will we get it? Will we fuck; Our expectations will be managed appropriately. Zappone has been co-opted and regardless of Labour’s current protestations, they were co-opted when they were in Government. Calls for people to be reasonable will abound and those who wish for something as basic as wanting to control reproductive health will be lumped in with the “looney left” who are seeking something better in life that the government tells us is unrealistic. The fiscal space will not allow the eradication of poverty or the realisation of bodily autonomy.

During the Tuesday night debate, Bríd Smith whipped out a packet of abortion pills in the Dáil chamber and rightly asked to be prosecuted. It will never happen though, in the same way the women of the Contraception Train weren’t touched. State authorities will save their efforts for the most vulnerable. Not the woman who has the platform of the Dáil chamber, but the woman who has an abortion at home in Belfast, alone, for want of access to legal healthcare. Or the women who are consistently reminded that you may go to jail for fourteen years if you are caught trying to do what is legal in almost every other jurisdiction in Europe. The criminalisation of those who have abortions at home and the prospective jail sentence must remain for the State; if women take things into their own hands (as they so often do) how else will they control women’s bodies without the threat of violence and imprisonment? Little do they care that there is already a significant level of subversion of these inhumane laws. There are networks of women who help each other and no threats of jail will prevent that.

There is a back and forth where reasonable TDs plead for a reasonable response. Climate change deniers and old men respond that they care about the babies. The gombeen men TDs play to their local audiences. Government members talk a lot without saying much. It is theatre of the absurd. Enda Kenny likes to think he has the air of a gladiator about him, but transcripts of questions to the Taoiseach demonstrate that he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about and it seems more like a pantomime. Look at Micheal Martin, he’s behind you!

The standard rules of political decision making do not apply when it comes to abortion.  The Citizens Assembly was an invention to outsource the talking shop elements of modern politics, while retaining the control over whether or not to take on board what they recommend. Each meeting of the Assembly is a staged performance. We are witnessing the dramaturgy of abortion politics in Ireland. Each participant carefully selected to ensure that they have never made any public declarations on the matter one way or the other. The actors will play the role that has been written for them accordingly. The audience reads notes on the drama of each theatrical episode in which pro-choice groups and forced birthers are positioned as two sides of the same coin; an expression of good versus evil. Lazy journalists portray fully staffed organisations backed by the Church and funded by the American Christian right as political equals to organisations filled with students and working class people who work voluntarily to assist women and stand outside Leinster House with home-made placards. Those who would see women jailed portray themselves as the guardians of the nation’s unborn babies, while children sit in homeless hostels, direct provision, schools with leaky roofs, and in counselling services having been abused by others. The orchestrated debates and prepared parliamentary speeches are designed to show us that those in power are truth-tellers. There of course will be the occasional plot twist, as will any political tragicomedy. Fine Gael TD Tom Barry drunkenly pulling Aine Collins TD onto his lap during a debate on legislation that was taking place directly as a result of a woman’s death was laughed off as banter between friends.

Naming it the “Citizens Assembly” was an important narrative technique to make the audience feel like they had some sort of participatory role in the event. We are citizens; therefore we own this Assembly even if we are not directly involved with the show. Women who remain undocumented or without the ability to travel due to complex and ongoing asylum procedures are among the most affected by the Eighth Amendment, but they are not citizens, so they do not matter. However, we are continually reminded that the Citizens Assembly and the debates surrounding it are for a higher, more moral cause. Their decision will be collectivised and distilled into a representation of the will of the people and we will be told that the nation has at last transcended the difficult Irish question of abortion. They are “the Citizens” after all, and they will redeem the State and the thousands of women forced to leave to access abortions in England will preach forgiveness. That is the hope at least. The rhetoric of citizenship and deliberation and participation is a fitting next act in the midst of state pageantry and a million 1916 re-enactments commemorating those who wished to be heard. The State through its Assembly tells us it is listening and delegitimises more radical acts, such as ordering medication online because you made a decision you do not want to be pregnant.

The cabinet member playwrights will take their bows following its choreographed conclusion; the hope being that future generations will commend them for their brave move in “letting the people decide” conveniently forgetting that letting the people decide will require an actual referendum. In the absence of allowing a Bill to proceed that provides for a referendum, it is merely a spectacle of compliance functioning to hold the government together. If Citizens Assembly did not exist, there would be no excuse in delaying a referendum. It’s the tv series that should have ended three seasons back because it’s starting to feel repetitive but just as back to back episodes of Come Dine With Me replaces anything decent on tv, the sanitised Citizens Assembly will obscure the views of those who think women should be able to decide whether to be pregnant or not regardless of the circumstance of conception or their health.

There was graffiti in Paris in 1968 saying “When the national assembly becomes bourgeois theatre, the bourgeois theatres must become national assemblies.” The outworking of the Citizens Assembly decisions will be done by those who do the banal work of overseeing the work of governance and the State over golf courses and in the Dáil bar and in departmental offices. This is separate from the public performance. In the 1571 a book called “Order and Usage Howe to Keepe a Parliament” detailed how members of parliament should not discuss the internal goings on of the chamber; politics and how decisions are made are not for public consumption or discussion outside. Up to the 19th Century, visitors from parliament were not allowed take notes of parliamentary sessions. There is no live feed in the office of the Secretary General of the Department of Health where decisions are actually made and Dáil committees regularly sit in private session.

We haven’t come that far from the practice of 1571, the Dáil is still just ritual theatre, and the Citizens Assembly is the interval act.

#Repealthe8th

@stephie08