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Una Mullally: Why the abortion strike will succeed

Strike 4 Repeal’s planned action will inspire movement against the Eighth Amendment

Last year, I went to see a production of The Mandela Trilogy in Cardiff with Catherine O'Reilly, one of the Dunnes Stores strikers.

She spent two years and seven months on the picket line in the 1980s protesting South Africa’s apartheid regime.

“People told us when the strike started, ‘oh there are only 12 of youse, you’re not going to make a difference’. But 12 people can make a difference,” she said.

“Before the strike I’d probably have said, ‘we can’t make a difference, there’s only a handful of us’, but I’d never be of that view now. You know what? If it’s only two people trying to do something, it’s two people more than there was yesterday.”


The lesson is simple, and inevitably returns to Margaret Mead’s oft-repeated quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Laying the groundwork

Strike 4 Repeal is a group of "academics, activists, artists and trade unionists" planning a national strike on March 8th (International Women's Day) if the Irish Government does not call a referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the constitution regarding abortion.

The likelihood of a referendum being called by March 8th is negligible but, either way, Strike 4 Repeal will win.

A strike on the day, no matter how small the participation, will be reported nationally and internationally. It will lay the groundwork for future strikes.

It will motivate people who have never been involved in a strike before. It will inspire further activism and direct action.

Finding creative ways to draw attention to an issue, to articulate its urgency, to get others involved, to organise, to share ideas, and to be an active citizen is at the heart of social change. The baseline for changing the world is imagination.

Direct action

Journalists and commentators telling women how they should campaign for their rights has almost become a genre in itself, so expect to read and hear plenty of tired, repetitive, unimaginative patronisation from those who think they know better, all the while exposing their own ignorance and lack of experience.

Within the movement for reproductive rights there is room for a plurality of activisms.

There is as much room for direct action and civil disobedience as there is for political lobbying and polling, there is as much room for protests and strikes as there is for letters to editors and university debates.

All the while, a movement is being built nationally, and all of this will feed into it.

It’s always a positive sign that there are impatient, disruptive strands within a movement, because it shows how much energy and diversity of action and thought resides within it.

Just because the Citizens’ Assembly is in progress, does not mean such activism should “wait and see”.

In fact, concessions from officialdom often desire that very stagnancy. The more pressure and protest – and the more variety to that protest – the better.

Growing number of strikes

Strike 4 Repeal comes in the context of a growing number of women’s strikes.

Last October, thousands of women in Poland went on strike and marched in cities across the country in protest at the proposed ban on abortion there.

In November, women in France went on strike, leaving their offices at 4.34pm, the time, due to the gender pay gap of 15 per cent, it is calculated that they work for no pay in comparison to their male colleagues.

Every year for over a decade, women in Iceland have held a similar strike, walking out of work at 2.38pm on October 24th.

Many of these strikes take a cue from Iceland 40 years earlier in 1975, where, during the Women’s Day Off strike, women refused to work inside and outside the home for the day, closing shops, factories, schools and businesses.

Patronise and whine

Some people will probably deem the strike on March 8th a failure before it even begins due to how others measure success. Many will patronise and whine about it. How tedious.

People who haven’t fought for their rights, or rarely try to effect change in society, often get hung up on the practicalities of protest action, searching for immediate, empirical results, ignoring longer term and more abstract outcomes.

In 2009, after a series of poorly attended but vibrant demonstrations, the first big March For Marriage was held in Dublin, which thousands went on.

I remember clearly marching with that group of people – a vibrant, exhilarating march. As the protest swelled around College Green, the feeling of those chanting, being seen, and standing up for what they believed in was exhilarating. What was the point? Civil Partnership was already on its way.

For me personally and for many people I know, a direct line from that feeling at those marches can be traced to the canvassing and activism that took place before and during the subsequent marriage referendum.

Protest isn’t just about immediate results. It keeps the fires burning.

Does protest work? Well, how are you getting on with your water charges bill? Do highfalutin strikes work? Ask Catherine O’Reilly.

Activism is a sport for optimists. In the face of opposition and constant setbacks, people keep on keeping on, believing that one day things will get better.

We need to take all the opportunities to inspire and change that we can, which is why on March 8th, I, like many women, will be on Strike 4 Repeal.