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Shoes Over Cement
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  • Writer's pictureuncoolamy

What the Referendum Taught Me

I remember the first meeting I went to about it. It was a stormy, cold day and I almost didn’t go, but something was telling me it was really important that I went. We pushed tables together in this small café, and it snowballed from there. I also remember looking around at the people around the table, and thinking I was severely underqualified to be there. They had all brought their laptops and their agendas and their ideas; I hadn’t even brought a notepad and pen. I think they all humoured me at first, which I appreciate so much looking back. They should have said ‘thanks, but you literally know nothing about anything we are talking about’, and they would have been completely right. Going into this referendum I didn’t even know who Simon Harris was, and that’s the god honest truth. I came in with the best of intentions and the worst credentials and got the best education I could have ever gotten about what it is truly like to be a woman in Ireland today, and what women today in Ireland are truly like. And I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

When all this started, I had just started my first year in college. I had the repeal jumper, and helped out (very very mildly) at the Strike for Choice the March previous. I thought going to that initial meeting would entail the same amount of work as the strike for repeal entailed. Oh how very wrong I was. Suddenly I was introduced to real activism. The real nitty gritty parts of change: the bank accounts, the social media coordinators, the hours spent canvassing, and the sleepless nights thinking about how you could be doing so much more. I was also introduced to the people who make change; the politicians, lobbyists, feminists, marchers and voters who all either helped or hindered this change in their own way. I think it will be the people I remember more than anything. I have learned more through these people than I thought it was possible to learn in only one year.

The main thing I have learned is that silence is deadly. Someone’s decision to speak up or choose to keep quiet means life or death in some cases. People’s unwillingness to pick a side and fight for it halts change before it gets off the ground. This goes for politicians, businesses, friends, neighbours, and lecturers – anyone who has a voice had an opportunity to do good with it. It doesn’t matter to me anymore whether you were Pro or Anti Choice in the end, I care whether people really made it known where they stood. I have more respect for people who were openly Anti Choice than those who told me on doors that ‘they’ll be making their own decision, thanks’. But is this not the Irish way? This indifference and acceptance of these things that we have the ability to change, because it would cause too much of a fuss to fight for ourselves? This is the mentality that kept women in laundries, kept the church scandals a secret, and that is keeping conditions in Direct Provision from being talked about. No more being ‘impartial’, some things are simply either right or wrong. I no longer can tolerate silence; either shout at me or shout with me.

Another harrowing truth I have seen is that even those who seem to have the best of intentions will often be doing things for their own personal gain. Before this, I knew only one type of feminist, the type I was, the type who wanted equality and social and political justice for every oppressed minority. Apparently, I was wrong. There are white feminists, TERFS, ‘feminists’ who do not support rights for sex workers, and ‘feminists’ who don’t want us to be allowed to have true ownership over our bodies, and my least favourite type, performative feminists. These could be politicians, businesses, or individuals who put their face and name to the campaign because they thought it would make them look good, but did not actually care about the people affected by the 8th or in some cases did not put in one ounce of work towards winning. It angers me so much that by the end of the campaign we had politicians showing up at our events claiming that they were part of everything from the beginning, picking up brownie points with the young voters and making themselves seem oh so compassionate, when two years before that I had gotten spat on while wearing my repeal shirt and continued to wear it anyway. These self-indulgent sponges threw themselves into this at the final stretch when those of us doing the marathon were too exhausted to stop them. And in the end, they won the race. They got all the glory and the praise and the canvassers, event organisers, speakers, marchers and online activists are left with the burnout and mental exhaustion of it all. Do not trust the history books, this referendum was won by groups of amazing people in small cafés on stormy nights, and the people who knocked on your door asking you to vote yes.

The last thing I will talk about is the main thing I hope I will take out of this. People can be so caring, selfless, kind, considerate and supportive. Human beings are genuinely amazing creatures and I am so thankful to have encountered so many beautiful ones throughout the campaign. The three weeks coming up to the vote, I basically lived in Ormston House between the hours of 10am to 6pm. I’m not even sure what I did there; I sold badges and jumpers sometimes, and directed people to Karen and Margaret who were our on hand therapists when needed. It was all kind of a blur if I’m honest. But a few different faces stick out in my head, the people who brought us cake and flowers and sweets and came in every day on their lunch break to get away from all the awfulness hanging on the lampposts outside. They came in to pet the resident dog Nelly and to sit on the couches somewhere they could feel safe and accepted and not be asked questions. I guess that’s why I was there too. They came in to ask the people behind the table, who usually included me, how we felt it was going to go, and to be comforted by our positive response. They came in to be offered cake and to say thank you for all the work we’ve done. And however great these people were, the canvassers and the team who worked there with me were ten times more incredible. It will be these people who made the most sleepless three weeks of my life seem like the most joyful time I’ve ever been through. I will never get to thank them all in person, but maybe one of them might read this and know I’m talking about them. Thank you for helping me to not lose my mind while getting my body back.

This referendum has taught me more than I will ever realize, as well as forcing me to unlearn things I knew as true. I know this seems to be all I can write about these days but it has become the defining event of my adolescence, and that doesn’t leave your mind quickly. Thanks if you’ve read this far down and please let me know if any of this rings true to you, for the nights I feel I’m going insane. We repealed the eighth, now it’s time to put ourselves back together, and we will do it, together.

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