On the second episode of How The Yes Was Won, we spoke with the activists and organisers who mobilised as part of the Anti-Amendment Campaign. This campaign fought to try to prevent the introduction of the 8th Amendment. Their bravery and perseverance is astounding. Additional research notes can be found below if you'd like to do some further reading.
We spoke with Mary Gordon, Mary Ryder, Dr Ursula Barry, Eddie Conlon and Sean O’Brien for this episode.
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How The Yes Was Won written and edited by Deirdre Kelly and Aisling Dolan. Narrated by Aisling Dolan. Produced by Deirdre Kelly, Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Tara Lonij, Davy Quinlivan
Music: A Dream
Written By Jessie Marie Villa, Matthew Wigton
Performed By Jessie Villa
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Eddie: I'm sure you'll be interviewing members of the other side.[laughs]
Deirdre: We want a balanced account
Narrator Aisling [00:00:07] Welcome back to How the Yes Was Won, a podcast about the Eighth Amendment. In the previous episode, we discussed the growing women's rights movement in the late 70s, kickstarted a backlash from the religious right who began their campaign to permanently restrict abortion in Ireland.
This episode, we're going to tell the story of the 1983 referendum, talking to those who canvassed against the introduction of the Eighth Amendment. But before we get onto that, we need to understand how the referendum came to be called. The religious right was on the rise. On the previous episode, we discussed the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, or SPUC, who protested outside of health centers. A group then formed with the specific intention of introducing an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign or PLAC for short. The government was particularly open to being influenced by groups like these.
Here's Eddie Conlon, one of the national coordinators for the Anti-Amendment Campaign, to tell us more
Eddie: The proposal to have an amendment to the Constitution was sort of floating around. It was a time of huge political instability. I think we had three general elections over a very short period of time: in 81 to maybe to 83, mainly in 81 and 82. So all the political parties, particularly Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were vulnerable to pressure. So clearly this prospect of a referendum was in the air for a while, and then Haughey’s government agreed to have it.
Narrator Aisling [00:01:32] Haughey is Charlie Haughey, who was leader of Fianna Fáil at the time. Fianna Fáil were the opposition party when the referendum was called, and they pushed for it in order to gain political ground.
A quick explainer for listeners outside of Ireland. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are the two main political parties in Ireland. Every Irish government in the last century has been led by one of these two. They are both conservative centre-right parties formed in the wake of the Irish Civil War. They are often placed in opposition to each other, but really it's often very hard to tell them apart. So don't worry if you get confused. Now, back to the story.
So with the groundwork laid by the religious right in conjunction with the leading political parties of the day, the referendum became inevitable. It was time for those who opposed the amendment to assemble into what was named the Anti-Amendment Campaign or AAC. That might sound like a weirdly specific name, but in actual fact, they were a strange group. Not all were left-wing. Not all were even pro-choice. Some of them were very religious.
Here's Mary Gordon, who you’ll remember from episode 1 talking about the group.
Mary Gordon: The government agreed to have a referendum, then the right to choose group felt we needed to get a broader base of opposition to that amendment. And it was really behind the setting up of the Anti-Amendment Campaign.
So the Anti-Amendment Campaign came out of the Right To Choose group. So most of the people who were involved in the Right To Choose group were behind the scenes to some extent in the Anti-Amendment Campaign. Anne Connolly, for example, provided the premises for the Anti-Amendment Campaign to meet and where people who were employed to work on the campaign were based, so people like Eddie Conlon.
I was on the National Steering Committee as representing the more radical feminist grouping, if you like, and also the people who are doing the canvassing on the ground, because I was involved in the Dublin 4 Action Group, whereas most of the people from memory, but I don't remember all of them. It was a large group. The steering group included a lot of, say, lawyers, people like Adrian Hardiman and Frank Clarke, who's now the Chief Justice, which is really hilarious.
And Mary Holland was on it and Ursula Barry was on it. But that group was a very uncomfortable group, in the sense that my mates were the people canvassing on the ground. They were the people who were knocking on doors and using arguments. And in the.. in the Anti-Amendment steering group, there was a very strong determination on the part of the Adrian Hardiman types, to limit the arguments that would be used to argue against the amendment. And the arguments that they favored were things like "it's life that needs amending, not the Constitution." There were five grounds on which the amendment was being opposed.
Narrator Aisling [00:04:17] This is an authentic Irish podcast and we have interviewed several Marys. That was Mary Gordon. Next up is Mary Ryder, and she's not the last Mary we'll be bringing you. Mary Ryder is an activist for reproductive rights for over 30 years, originally from Crumlin in Dublin. Here are her thoughts on the Anti-Amendment Campaign
Mary R:The Anti-Amendment Campaign when it was set up. I think it was the first time I ever sat in a room with a lot of Fine Gaelers, ever. I wouldn't have known any Fine Gaelers I don't think, you know, I had seen them as being this strange people who lived in Rathgar or somewhere, you know, and because of where I came from. So it was quite interesting in that, many Fine Gaelers would have been very liberal on social issues. And to them, this was something that they needed to be involved in. But, they also constrained the campaign quite substantially because we would have been active before on abortion issues and handing out numbers and helping people and so on and so forth. They were very clear. There was big fights. We couldn't use the word 'abortion'. You couldn't say "Right to choose" or... that was the right to choose was one we all wanted. But they would not have that on printed material for the Anti-Amendment Campaign.
That was the beginning of the battles that took place because the right to choose was seen as illegal because it was encouraging people to have an abortion. This was just about the amendment, only the amendment keeping the amendment out, it wasn't bringing abortion to Ireland, it was just not allowing them put it into the Constitution.
So you had Adrian Hardiman, who was fabulous.. he was really, really good during the campaign, but he was a lawyer or barrister, even maybe at that stage. And he was very clear. He talked all the time about the legality and what it would do to the Constitution. It wasn't about women's rights. It wasn't about us having a choice. It was about the legality of the amendment. So I think there was a lot of differences within the campaign as well. You know,
Interviewer Aisling [00:06:16] I just can't imagine how you run that campaign without saying abortion. [laughs]
Mary R: Well, do you know what it's a bit like one of those where you meet.. You meet in a room and you discuss what we can do together and what we can produce. And then what you do is you go off and do your own stuff.
Their idea was... I always remember very clearly Adrian Hardiman saying this. "Do you want to win it or do you not? The only way we're going to win this is we do it legally, we go on this agenda, you bring up the subject of abortion, you're going to lose it." And we're all thinking for what's it about? It's about abortion! That's what it's about! It's like the Repeal. Some people didn't want to say abortion, you know, so I think that was already there.
So they were couching it in very acceptable terms for the people who would have been liberal on social issues within Fine Gael. So it was trying to it was it was a battle within the campaign for the right to choose.
Narrator Aisling [00:07:12] So, there were people united in their belief that the Eighth Amendment was wrong, but they weren't necessarily united in their reason for it being wrong. As we heard from Anne Connolly in the last episode. Abortion was non-discussable at the time. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that it wasn't the main talking point. But it's still pretty baffling.
Eddie here talks us through the five points the Anti-Amendment Campaign did run on.
Eddie: The Anti-Amendment Campaign was an attempt to create a sort of broad alliance. So.. it had sort of five bases or five points around which people were to agree.
The first one was essentially that abortion and unwanted pregnancies were a reality. Putting a proposal under the Constitution wouldn't change it, so it wouldn't do anything to address the issue of unwanted pregnancies. I'm not sure we use that language anymore. But, you know, the idea of being a single parent then, was quite a serious issue. So, you know, there was a concern about the number of unwanted pregnancies and single parenthood and so on and so forth, the narrative around that was quite different than it is now.
The second reason we were against it was it was allowed for no exceptions. So as I said, even in cases where a woman's health was at risk, you know, the amendment would exclude the possibility of abortion. And also the campaign had the position that if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, it also wouldn't allow for an exception to that.
Thirdly then it was sectarian, that there was going to enshrine the position of one church in the Constitution. And a number of leaders of Protestant churches did come out against this. And I think the Jewish community, religious community was against it as well.
The fourth reason was that it would put a bar, it would block on any discussion on abortion into the future. So it was going to bring down the shutters, so to speak, in any sort of democratic debate within society about a possible abortion legislation in the future. Although the prospects of that were very far away.
And fifthly which was a sort of weak grounds, was it was a waste of money. That's the context of the early 80s. As you know, maybe you don’t - was one of mass unemployment, you know, extreme levels of poverty and so on, and cuts across the board. So people.. one of the points of the campaign was this was a waste of money.
Narrator Aisling [00:09:35] Goretti Horgan and Mary Diskin were two others involved in the Anti Amendment campaign, and are involved in campaigning for reproductive rights on the island of Ireland today. We’ll link to a video from Joe.ie in the show notes, that features interviews with them, as unfortunately we weren't able to include them here.
A safety warning - the video also features some people from PLAC. So we encourage you to fast forward through those bits.
At this point, the Anti-Amendment Campaign had, for better or for worse, set out their campaign. The next step was actually campaigning. Elections in Ireland have always been fought and won in the same way, by walking around and knocking on doors. For us in 2018, it was a bizarre experience to knock on a complete stranger's door and talk to them about abortion. In 1983, it was almost impossible.
Here's Sean O'Brien, a county councillor from Tullamore, who was a coordinator of the Anti-Amendment campaign in Offaly, telling us about his experience.
Interviewer Aisling: What was it like campaigning as a as an Anti-Amendment campaigner?
Sean: Very difficult. Very difficult.. cos finally result in Laois-Offaly was close to 80:20. And so you can imagine, there were areas where there were 90%, you know, so it was difficult.
Most people, they weren't offensive, but there were significant numbers that where people would tear up the leaflets and throw them in your face that sort of approach. Condemn you, you had to cheek to be knocking on their door with such filth and that sort of approach. And so they would be memories that you would have. Sometimes your call to a door and you'd be surprised, You know. It may not always be a younger person, some older people, and they would be, you know, quietly sort of encouraging you, and surprisingly sort of open minded, you know. So it was always that nice bit, you’re always expecting you'd be surprised, but the nice.. the happy approach you would get, I was involved in the recent Repeal the 8th campaign and the amount of discussion we had on the door was just alarming compared to 83.
People in 2018 , they were really willing to engage even if they were against you. It wasn't offensively against you. A big discussion about the issues. And some people, still sort of wondering, you know, and a doubtful category and they.. but you could convince them, whereas in 83, there was no convincing, you know, you were one or the other.
Narrator Aisling [00:11:54] The Anti-Amendment Campaign were based in the basement of the Well Women's Center on Eccles Street in Dublin. And Eddie was responsible for coordinating a nationwide campaign from that base. Ursula Barry and Eddie were both part of the national tour that visited Mullingar, Tullamore, Birr, Athlone, Roscommon Town, Carrick-On-Shannon and Ballina.
Ursula: One thing we got involved in, was, we got a hiace van, and we had 10 of us, in the hiace van and we toured around the country. And what we would do, if we had just one person that had contacted, the Anti-Amendment Campaign, we would get them to book a venue and we would arrive early morning and we set up stall in the middle of town and put posters everywhere. And in that same day, we would organise a meeting. So there wasn't advance publicity. We didn't have the groups to do that. So we would do.. we would arrive in a town and have the meeting that day.
And of course, there was a lot of anti-abortion people that would come and we'd have to fight them off and then see as much as we could get a gathering in that community because we were trying to make the campaign more national, you know, because it was urban based in lots of ways in 1983.
Narrator Aisling [00:13:05]: As national coordinator, Eddie has access to the detailed reports from that time, and he can elaborate on the success or lack thereof of these meetings to generate action for the Anti-Amendment side.
Eddie: What's interesting is, for example, in Birr, 20 people turned up to the meeting. Two people signed up for the campaign, right, and then I have a column here from this is my report on the tour, SPUC presence - there were five SPUCers at the meeting right.
In Ballina, right, which was quite a big meeting, it was 100 people there. Ten people signed up for the campaign, but there were 35 SPUCers at the meeting. It was a complete disaster. Right. They completely took the meeting over. Right. There were two women trying to chair, two local women, because we were very clear and try not to see this as the Dublin gang coming down and all that sort of stuff. So these meetings in the main were disastrous. They came in, they took them over.. The meeting, I remember the first meeting in Mullingar, and it was just awful. There were 75, 70 people out of 25 of them were SPUCers they just interrupted all the time they kept shouting at us. they wouldn't let people speak. And unfortunately, actually, we did make the mistake of, because there were local people chairing it who are very inexperienced, some of these people, they just couldn't control the meeting. So it was a disaster, frankly. Some of them. But we did get... well you have to admire people for doing it at the same time. Absolutely. You know, and being brave enough.
And so, for example, I have here “Was there an action group formed out of the meetings?” and in not every case did an action group emerge. So in Birr it says here 'No', in Roscommon ,'Forming', in Carrick-on-Shannon, 'Forming'. And this was some time afterwards. And interestingly enough, all of that for weeks of town, people on the road in a van, with our t-shirts on, cost us a thousand pounds! So the t-shirts cost twenty! [laughs]
Narrator Aisling [00:15:10] : Obviously, we had to ask Sean what he remembered about the Tullamore meeting.
Sean: Oh, yes. Yes, that was a good meeting. A good meet.., I think was actually in the Phoenix, old Phoenix Arms Hotel, which is no longer exists. It was quite a good turnout. We were surprised. Excellent turnout. And some people came to that meeting that, we hadn't really been engaging with in the sense of being part of the campaign. So we were surprised, you know, and there were some Church of Ireland people came which, which was nice because they were against the amendment at the time. And there was one particular very prominent GP in town came, which we were delighted to see him there. And, you know, because he had obviously the expertise, and if there was clarifications on medical issues or whatever, but it was nice to see him, and a nice for him to be prepared at that time to put his head above the parapet
Interviewer Aisling: Brave move.
Interviewer Aisling: The notes that we’ve seen about it, said that there was ten SPUC members in attendance. Do you recall?
Sean: Yes, yeah. Yeah. We kind of we knew there were there, you know, obviously they were looking to see you know, what sort of issues we were bringing up, were obviously looking for loopholes in our arguments or the campaign and obviously looking to see who was there, you know, so it said we're we're yeah, we're aware of them. And I suppose as the local areas are, they're not great rivalries as such. You know, there would be people very much.. very hardened on that side. But we felt more the efforts of, when people came from the outside into Tullamore and Offaly, some of the SPUC people, and their other aligned organisations there could be quite nasty. And that that wasn't a feature of the of the 2018 campaign, interestingly. But back then it was, they would be really in your face, you know, and quite offensive and kind of bullyboy tactics. Yeah.
Narrator Aisling [00:16:59] The issues being faced by Sean and the Offaly gang were also being experienced by the other rural campaigns. As part of the national campaign, Eddie asked each local group to send in reports from their canvasses. Here he is reading the report from the Tipperary group.
Eddie: If you read the report from the Tipperary campaign, which is wonderful, they had to stop canvassing because they just found the hostility just too much. You know, as he said in this report to me, he said 'we had thought of a proper canvas, but quickly abandoned this idea. Firstly, we did not have the necessary manpower. And secondly, from the few times we tried it, we found that the hostility from certain pro-Amendment elements was such that one would soon run out of the necessary will to keep going. One could count on a few abusive encounters every evening. So we concentrated on just leafleting each house.' And then he said 'by the end of the day, we felt we'd been run over by a juggernaut'. So these are brave souls. You know, the No vote in South Tipperary, where they were based was 24%. So they were representing clearly a section of the population. But it was extremely difficult, really, from from that.
So as a hardened sort of political activist, you need to be very careful, that you don't sort of ignore this sort of thing. Right. But at the same time, it was really important to stand up to them. You know, in whatever way we could, you know. I asked for groups to send me reports because we thought that would be useful. He was clearly one of the few people who took it seriously, because it was four pages of handwritten report. Right. But you could have replicated that around the country, you know. In some places people were just so fed up by the end of us and they got so hammered as well that they didn't want to write a report.
Narrator Aisling [00:18:50] It's hard to imagine just how difficult campaigning in 1983 was. Even the people on your side were afraid to say so.
Mary R: But the other thing about canvasing as well is quite often people would open the door and you'd say, 'I'm from the Anti-Amendment Campaign. We don't want this in the Constitution'. And they'd lean out the door and check if there were neighbors out, and if there was nobody else, they'd pull themselves back inside the door and say, “I'm with you. I'm with you. But please go away.”
Narrator Aisling [00:19:15] The referendum on the Eighth Amendment was passed in September 1983. The Irish Constitution now contained the following wording.
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right of life of the mother guarantees in its laws to respect and as far as practicable by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
It was an expected defeat. No one on the Anti-Amendment side thought that they would win, but they were all compelled to stand up and at least try. To do nothing, was tantamount to condoning the messaging that was being spread by the religious right, which was that the amendment would protect mothers and babies, would protect future life and would prevent abortions happening in Ireland. None of this was true. It only prevented safe abortions from happening in Ireland.
The Yes side won with 66.9% of the vote. The No side had 33.1%. But the more significant statistic was the turnout of just 53.67%. To the Anti-Amendment Campaign. This signified that a lot of people were challenged by the vote. It wasn't as clear cut as we might think
Eddie: When you began to discuss the complexities of some of these things people did, but not enough clearly - shift from an absolutist sort of position, to having a more nuanced sort of position. The problem was, that people weren't sure what the right thing to do was, and therefore half of people didn't vote
Narrator Aisling [00:20:46] On the day of the count. Eddie was in the Anti-Amendment Campaign headquarters here. He reads a draft Anti Amendment Campaign press statement he was writing that day.
Eddie: We were concerned about how we were going to spin this and so on. And that's the press statement I was looking for, the press time that was issued just after the count or after the vote was announced. It's not even dated! it’s so badly... Yeah, we were sort of begrudging weren’t we?! Says ;
“We feel obliged to point out that those people comprised the people who voted Yes, comprised 33% of the total electorate entitled to vote. And that's more than half the country's voters expressed a view of this amendment by staying away from the polls. We believe that a great deal of goodness was has come out of this campaign. Hundreds of thousands of people voted No, despite a campaign of overt moral intimidation, such as we have not known in Ireland since the foundation of the state. This has been apparent to us since we started to organise the Anti-Amendment campaign on a countrywide basis and have often been prevented from holding meetings, hiring halls and setting up local groups. It reached its context” doesn’t make any sense..
“It reached its context in the last couple of weeks with the statement of the hierarchy urging a massive Yes vote. A call echoed, sometimes even thundered from virtually every pulpit in Ireland” God they don’t write press statements like this anymore.
“We abhor the Catholic Church's active participation in this campaign” - every spelt wrong - “level and believe the bishops themselves will come to regret it.” so “In the context of the power play the church in many rural areas, low turnout must be seen as a process where people could not bring themselves to vote against the sermons of their priests, but disapproved of the amendment” then it goes on about the protestant minority being failed and so on . It says“the extraordinary wide support, body of support mobilised by the Anti-Amendment Campaign shows there is a substantial body of opinion in this country which cares about all those issues and will not allow them to be ignored. Those who care about the progress of social reform in Ireland in such areas as illegitimacy, provision for unmarried mothers, contraception and fertility control, marital breakdown, divorce should derive encouragement from this and so on.”
This was clearly written by those of us on the left of the campaign. I think, actually it says “thousands of people who support Anti-Amendment Campaign work for us and finally vote against the amendment. Often that took courage to do one or all of these things, for most of us this campaign has been a unique experience and a very heartening one.”
Narrator Aisling [00:23:20]: Campaigners took heart that the No vote was higher than expected - 416,136 people voted against it.
Sean: One of the good, the positive aspects of it was the good return in some areas. And Tullamore was one that we got into quite a number of boxes, we had 40%, which was very encouraging. And I suppose, in some ways it shows how campaigning does work. We would have done more work here, than than in other areas and that were, well, more prominent. And we were seen as a voice, and our message obviously was it was being heard.
Yeah, we all learn from campaigns and from our mistakes and from your successes. You start to learn, you know, more how to handle the media, how to, you know, organise groups and focus on on the campaign. So it's it's always a learning point. But I would.. I would have felt and the people, particularly I knew in the group, felt delighted that they, you know, took a stand and stood up for something they believed in. And particularly when we got some good, good boxes, good results and good boxes that it was, as you were saying, right. People do listen.
**Outro starts to play in the background*
Narrator Aisling [00:24:26] So to sum up, the Anti-Amendment Campaign had fought hard. They faced a seemingly insurmountable battle, but fought anyway. They paved the way for us, and we have such huge amounts of respect and gratitude for them. But there was now a constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland.
In the next episode, we'll discuss the impact that this had on the day to day lives of people who could get pregnant in Ireland. We'll be bringing you more interviews with those involved in the provision of information in the 80s and early 90s and who continue the campaign to bring abortion access to Ireland today.
Narrator Tara [00:25:00] Many thanks to Mary Gordon, Mary Ryder, Dr Ursula Barry, Eddie Conlon and Sean O'Brien for speaking to us for this episode.
Special thanks to the Bridge House Hotel in Tullamore for allowing us to record our interviews there with Sean.
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If you enjoy listening, please consider donating to the Abortion Support Network. Abortion Support Network provides advice and financial assistance to people residing in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Malta, Gibraltar and Poland who need to travel abroad for abortions. Covid has added extra complications and costs, to an already complicated process. They need more support now, to meet the increased demands for their services. There's the link in the show notes where you can donate to support their clients or go to ASN.org
How The Yes Was Won was researched, produced and edited by Aisling Dolan, Davy Quinlivan, Tara Lonij that’s me, Deirdre Kelly, and Emma Callaghan. Additional recording support from Fin Dwyer. See you next time.