Interview with Rita Harrold from ROSA

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In Ireland, ROSA and other feminist organisations fight hard for the right of abortion, since it’s still illegal there. Many years of struggle have now led to Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s announcement that a referendum will be held in summer 2018 – finally. “For many young people in Ireland the abortion issue is their gateway to get more involved in politics again, as a wake-up to all other kinds of issues”, says Rita Harrold of ROSA. For her the Pro Choice campaign for bodily autonomy is part of a much broader anti-austerity movement. We meet Rita by the end of the summer in a small park in Dublin, two hours before a fundraising quiz that ROSA organises to gain some extra financial means for their actions, because it can’t rely on public funding. Originally, ROSA was founded as part of the small Socialist Party, but now it’s an independent socialist-feminist activist group.


“I was involved in the Socialist Party when we organised the big protests after the outrageous death of Savita Halappanavar in November 2012, because she was denied an abortion in a hospital in Galway, although it was clear she had a miscarriage. As socialist-feminist activists we realised that we needed an organisation that was clearly pro choice, but also dealing with other questions like the blooming housing crisis. So we decided to found ROSA. And it has been a real success. Now it has its own committee that makes the decisions and we’re trying to build it around the country, which is difficult, but we’re trying our best. Dublin is obviously the strongest: it’s where the most people are. But we also have great activists in Limerick and Cork in particular.


“The former government set up the Citizen’s Assembly: a meeting of 100 ordinary Irish citizens from all over the country, randomly picked by a private polling company. The idea was that they would discuss and debate important political issues.”


Even though we would prefer to have it more quickly, the announcement of the new Prime Minister that there will be a referendum on the abortion question next summer brings hope. There wasn’t any need for a delay. Especially since the former government set up the Citizen’s Assembly: a meeting of 100 ordinary Irish citizens from all over the country, randomly picked by a private polling company. The idea was that they would discuss and debate important political issues, like the question whether the 8th Amendment of 1983 should be changed or not. (This Amendment recognizes the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child and makes it impossible for any government to introduce legislation allowing for terminations in the womb except in exceptional circumstances.) After six months the Citizen’s Assembly came up with the recommendation that the 8th Amendment would be repealed, that a referendum should be held and that a law should be brought in to allow for abortion up to twelve weeks without women to justify their reason, and up to 22 weeks with a socio-economic or health reason. And these citizens voted also that there shouldn’t be a distinction made between mental and physical health, as a reason for a demand for abortion. So that was a really clear progressive message from these neutral people.


The Citizen’s Assembly had no legal status. The former government just set it up to delay the whole question, so they didn’t have to deal with it themselves during six months. The only thing they didn’t expect was that the recommendations would be so progressive: that you’re allowed to have an abortion in early pregnancy and that, if you have complications and specific difficulties in your pregnancy, you’re allowed to have an abortion later into pregnancy. Unfortunately, the government just got terrified. So now they’re pulling their hands off again. But for us the report and the votes they made are the basis of our campaign now: we want this recommendation implemented. Of course we want a total pro choice law, but this is a good start: it’s written, it’s clear, it’s a good instrument. We think we can win a spring 2018 referendum. It’s further away than we would like, but we’ll gather our forces for that.


The referendum is not a merit of the new Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. This government is very conservative. Obviously, Varadkar individually is seen to be someone different because of his homosexuality and because his father is an immigrant. But in fact, he’s one of the most conservative politicians in Ireland today, especially on economic issues. So it’s a bit of a contradictory thing. We don’t have any progressive politicians in the government, or maybe one or two, who are semi-progressive on social issues. But their first commitment is to austerity, to continue the economic agenda of the conservative parties. That’s more important to them.


“It’s a fact that Ireland is changing, there’s a general push forward to be more progressive.”


The referendum is a result of a few different things. First, there was the case of Savita’s death five years ago. In fact, women had died before because of the abortion ban. They were denied cancer treatment because they were pregnant, and other outrageous cases. Savita’s death was a catalyst for everything that has happened since. People were very angry, that moment was explosive. But that wouldn’t have been enough on its own. It’s a fact that Ireland is changing, there’s a general push forward to be more progressive. People from the outside often think Ireland’s very conservative, as they think about many other countries where the Catholic Church had a strong influence, but that’s not the situation anymore. We are not so limited as in the past. People have access to Internet, you know. A third factor is this big movement. It’s not that well organised as we would like, but you had several big mobilisations of young people at the streets. When Savita died, 20.000 people were in a march to the parliament some days later. Since then, the pro choice movement has started flourishing with different attempts of left politicians to have the issue discussed in the parliament or even voted on. It was always voted down. When Varadkar was still Minister of Health, he said there was no demand for a referendum: “People don’t want it.” If he now announces the referendum, that’s because of struggle. Particularly the Strike for Repeal on the 8th of March 2017 was really impressive and terrifying for politicians. That day women took the day off from work, there was a huge social media campaign. In Dublin 15.000 people were protesting, but the real step was outside Dublin. Different cities had their biggest pro choice protest that day. Local Irish politicians couldn’t say any more: “It’s a liberal Dublin thing”. It was necessary to do something progressive.


“A couple of hours on the bus to Northern Ireland is much more easy to organise than taking a plane to England.”


Up till today, Irish women that want to have an abortion have to travel to Britain and there has been a change in the situation for women from Northern Ireland. Northern Irish women have to travel to England just as Southern Irish women, because the British 1967 Abortion Act is not extended to Northern Ireland. But now the new ruling says that Northern Irish women don’t have to pay for their abortion privately any more. That’s a step forward, but obviously it’s not enough. Nobody should have to travel. If Jeremy Corbyn’s program would be implemented, that means legal abortion in the North of Ireland. That would transform things for Southern Irish women too. A couple of hours on the bus to Northern Ireland is much more easy to organize than taking a plane to England.


“The level of sexual education of most Irish people is really low, because the relationship between the Irish state and the Catholic Church is so deep and engrained that the Catholic Church runs most of our public schools.”


ROSA provides all kinds of information about contraception, the abortion pill, all possibilities in reproductive matters. The level of sexual education of most Irish people is really low, because the relationship between the Irish state and the Catholic Church is so deep and engrained that the Catholic Church runs most of our public schools. After imperialism from Britain, the young Irish state was very weak and didn’t really have a lot of places to turn, so it used the Catholic Church to build itself up. Maybe today younger people got it a bit better in schools when it comes to sexual education, but people’s first information is from their own research, from talking to their friends, from searching on the Internet. So we think it’s important to provide information, particularly about the abortion pills. You know, it’s not the 1970s or the 1950s any more, with individual backstreet abortion providers. This is a new era, we have technological advances, which means that having an early abortion is much simpler.


We work together with the Dutch organisation Women on Web to provide ‘abortion pills’. They provide these pills to women in countries where abortion is still illegal: from Latin America, a few shameful places in Europe including Ireland, throughout Africa, even as far as Asia. We provide these pills for two reasons. One is obviously because we want people to be able to have a safe abortion. We want people not to be forced to put themselves into debts in order to travel to the UK. If you have a credit card and a passport, you can make the journey, even if it’s very expensive and difficult. But if you don’t have those things, than it can be very empowering to have save abortion pills posted to you for 90 euros. The other reason is to make it clear to the government that a conservative law or banning abortion doesn’t work. We’re having abortions anyway. And we are going to help other women to have abortions anyways. We won’t be stopped; we’ll continue to insist. Because it’s our choice, rather than priests’ or politicians’ opinions, what to do with our bodies.


“The media’s current obsession is that we’ll lose the referendum because we are too radical and ‘shrill’, which is a sexist word about women being loud, like hysterical.”


We know we have young people, women, the majority of people on our side. That came out of an opinion poll of Amnesty International in 2016. When asked ‘do you favour criminalising women for having abortion?’, the majority of people said no. It all depends on how the question is framed. If you define the question from a conservative point of view, you get a conservative answer. If you define the question in an open way, you get a much more progressive answer. So we were really pleased by this poll, because the media that put a conservative slant on things run most of the opinion polls. The media’s current obsession is that we’ll lose the referendum because we are too radical and ‘shrill’, which is a sexist word about women being loud, like hysterical. Their whole thing is that we are crazy, we go to far, and that it will turn off people in the middle. We say that no, the actual situation is that our position is a middle of the road position, which is: “you decide what’s best for you, not us.” We don’t take it as our job to directly fight the pro life organisations. Obviously in a referendum they will catch 50% of the time on the radio and in the television shows, because that’s an Irish law about referenda. But I’m confident that we can take on their arguments, because these are very moralistic, very judgmental. And they are not based in the reality of people’s lives anymore. People do not like to be told by the anti-progress and anti-equality side how a proper family should look. Obviously a lot of people aren’t sure about abortion and have questions about it, but most people aren’t completely sexist towards women. We just have to open up the reality that the alternative to choice is forced pregnancy and dictation of what women can do to their bodies.


“It’s the most vulnerable [of society] who suffer the blunt and most severe side of an abortion ban.”


If you have a very severe law like the abortion ban, it’s the most vulnerable person who suffers the most: the migrant teenage rape victim, who doesn’t speak good English, and hasn’t any money. She’s the person who suffers barbarism. That was the case of Ms. Y, an anonymous young refugee woman who arrived in Ireland in 2014 after being raped in her home country. She did travel to the UK on a ferry, and asked for an abortion there, but fortress Europe said: “No, you don’t have a visa to get into England, you have to go back home to Ireland.” It just really shows you that when our rights are taken away from us in the Constitution, all of us are vulnerable, but it’s the most vulnerable who suffer the blunt and most severe side of an abortion ban. So in our description of these issues we bring in a class analysis: an analysis of the way that capitalism functions, with racism, sexism, homophobia, all working on behalf of capital all the time. It’s not a free choice if we legalise abortion while people are still homeless, because then you don’t really have the choice to continue your pregnancy; you just are economically coerced to end it. Which we don’t want either.


The housing problem seems to be a real issue in Ireland since the banking crisis. In the past, there was a closed economy approach by Irish capitalists. And now, there’s an open economy approach: “Let’s get foreign direct investment and everything will be fine.” Since the big bailout of the banks and the even bigger bailout of property speculators, a lot of properties are being sold off to vulture funds from all over the world, which has a devastating impact in Dublin. They make people homeless. We have skyrocketing rents and the government is just completely unwilling to do something about it. They won’t challenge the landlords and big businesses interests.


“There have been some strikes recently, which is really good, because nobody went on strike for a long time. Now we have a bubbling up of struggle.”


Since the banking crisis we have had huge cuts, particularly for women, for instance in additional supports that people needed in health and child care – for instance loans for single mothers. Also the housing crisis intersects with the abortion debate very clearly: we have people contacting us saying that they don’t have the money to go to England to get an abortion, because they’re homeless or they live on their sister’s sofa, or whatever. You can really see how all these things come together and have a strong impact for working class women and poor woman. We have a myth going out: the so-called ‘recovery’ in Ireland. And of course, there’s an economic recovery for the wealthy, for the business owners, etcetera. But for ordinary people the recovery means that the quality of a few more jobs has really gone down. Thirty years ago even a job in retail would have been at a certain standard. Nowadays jobs in retail, in entertainment, in call centres or in some customers’ support work, and in a lot of other fields are very frequently on a zero hour contract, or a five hour contract, which means you are guaranteed no hours in the week. Your boss can call you in for 40 hours, or they can call you in for no hours. So if you have children, who need babysitting when you’re in work, it’s a complete disaster. It’s impossible, unless – which is very much of an Irish phenomenon – your retired mother watches your children, while you’re at work. She is just doing another job again in her old age. That’s a really difficult situation for people. Young workers can’t get started, because they can’t rely on a job being there from week to week. So we are checking legal measures trying to put a stop to these zero hours contract. These contracts are legal. We want the law to change on that. But more likely than a law changing is that trade unions struggle against it, so that employers don’t get away with it. There have been some strikes recently, which is really good, because nobody went on strike for a long time. Now we have a bubbling up of struggle. It’s obvious people are realising that the news is not telling the truth when it says there’s a recovery.


“There’s a lot of pressure on the government to provide better funding for mental health services.”


That’s when the mental health issue became important as well. Unemployment, homelessness and all of these other issues have definitely impacted on people’s mental help. The suicide rates have gone up. A lot of people have lost someone to suicide, or know someone who did. That has opened up the conversation about mental health. Millennials share more on social media, there’s more openness and discussion about the reality of people with mental health issues. They need support and assistance. So there’s a lot of pressure on the government to provide better funding for mental health services. Varadkar, when he was minister of Health, did that. That’s the first thing young people know about him.


Quite a few young people make the structural analysis when they talk about mental health. But the Health Service has these adverts on television, which really irritate me: “Lessen your burden by talking to your friend.” In other words: “Don’t make us pay for therapists.” Maybe a lot of people have gone through some minor difficulties and were helped by talking about it, but what if there isn’t any help? If you are very poor and you get the medical card, the health service is free (the way it should be), but there’s also a limit to only six counselling sessions. If you suffer from a deeper trauma, that’s bad luck. Young people are annoyed at the idea that weaker families and essentially women just have to deal with that problem at home. Or the idea that if you have mental health issues and you miss some days from work, your boss can fire you, if you’re on a zero contract and you’re not in the trade union. They get away with it. Some politicians talk about mental help in a tokenistic way: they try to divorce it from people’s lives.


We try and mobilise people and spread awareness about all these issues through our social media presence, but the most important is campaigning out on the streets: we put a table in the shopping area on a Saturday afternoon, with petitions and merchandising, and we talk about abortion rights in a microphone. That’s how we’ve met most of our new members and how we build for the big demonstrations, like the March for Choice in September. We have our own events as well, like our yearly festival Bread and Roses. ROSA is not just about the one issue of abortion rights. We really want to have discussions with people. How sexism is part of capitalism, for example. Obviously not everybody is a socialist, and that’s fine. We are happy to work with people that are simply pro choice as their only issue, but we found that discussing broader political issues actually makes it more interesting for people. For instance, our last meeting was about the pay gap between men and women workers, because there was a scandal about the pay gap in the BBC, with the journalists being paid differently. We have the freedom to talk about a lot of different things.


“It’s thanks to European activists, not thanks to the EU that we have some women rights in Ireland.”


Politicians constantly tell us that women wouldn’t have any rights if it weren’t to the EU. And of course we had legal changes when Ireland joined the EU, but these changes were won because French, British and Belgian women organised themselves and went on strike for very important civil rights. It’s thanks to European activists, not thanks to the EU that we have some women rights in Ireland. We absolutely want to keep building these links with other activists, for instance by inviting them from Spain or Portugal to speak about their experience in organising and campaigning for a popular vote on abortion rights. What did work, how they kept going? How did they win that campaign? Also with Belgium we have a particular link: in Ghent there was a campaign that was inspired by our organisation. So we do help other actions when it’s appropriate, because also we needed a lot of support, as there have been a number of collective protests at Irish embassies around Europe. It’s in all of our interests to work together: not just because it’s good to help each others’ campaigns, but also because young people feel really addressed when you have international links and give people some insight in movements around the world. The square movement in Spain and the Spanish fight for abortion rights in particular, the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the battle against austerity: these are definitely reference points for young Irish people who’ve been opening up for politics since the last few years.


Irish citizens show more interest in politics. People really start questioning things now. For many years Irish politics was defined by civil war politics. So we have two political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, that look very similar from the outside, but they differ historically because of their position in the civil war. In the past it would be very common to hear from people: “I always vote Fianna Fáil because my granddad was on that side in the civil war.” But now we’re moving away from that, to a more open approach where people are more open to change and discussion. That definitely gives hope.


“In terms of political activism, [volunteer work] is often seen as something for older people. That’s unfortunate.”


We have a big charity culture, part of the role of the church. If young people care about society, they’re expected to volunteer for charity, like supporting people with mental health difficulties. But in terms of political activism, it’s often seen as something for older people. That’s unfortunate. All political parties have youth organisations, but they are not very attractive. Young people feel more attracted by left wing organisations on particular issues, especially the March for Choice-campaign: trough LGTB+ organisations, but also trade unions. For many youngsters abortion would be the first issue to be involved in, as a gateway or wake-up to all other kinds of issues.


The question of how important political parties are for activism is a constant issue in the movement, but it should discussed even more. Across Europe you see an anti-party fear. Also in Ireland you see a strong anti-political party mood among people, a real cynicism and skepticism about elections. And it’s logic: people feel betrayed by the bailout of banks by socialist organisations that were meant to stand for working class people. It’s the business interests and the salary politicians making the decisions. Still, our relation to political parties is an important question. It was exactly this question we disagreed upon with some anti-austerity activists: should we position anti-austerity people in the coming local elections, who say: “We work with any progressive person to defeat austerity charges, but we won’t form a coalition in local government with parties that are in charge now, even not with Labour”? Some of us didn’t agree, they built ‘People Before Profit’ and continued with the anti-property tax campaign. We founded Solidarity: an anti-austerity alliance between the Socialist Party and activists, mostly Repeal-people and activists fighting the property tax. Because I think we need more grassroots politicians who say: people shouldn’t be homeless because of the landlords. Now Solidarity and People Before Profit work together in parliament, but outside parliament they work mostly separate, except for big campaigns. Inside Solidarity we work pretty well together, have lots of common networking all over the country. It’s also Solidarity that will set up posters for the referendum, because they have more means for such a campaign. They want our analysis and perspective as young feminists involved in what they are saying about this issue. So we complement each other, but we are not the same thing. So we are trying to deal with this question, but it’s difficult.’


Art can definitely help contribute to activism, such as the series The Handmaid’s Tale does for example. It’s useful for young women to see the series and read the book about the absolute horror of what happens if the control of our body is completely taken over by a fascist state. Actually, it links to Irish history as well, like the mother and baby-homes where Irish women were really brutally treated. We also have some good Irish films about it, like the excellent The Magdalena Sisters, about three different women’s stories who were brought into a Magdalene laundry on the same day. So yes, that’s very useful. Also bands and singer songwriters are writing specifically about abortion or bodily autonomy of women. Off course it’s mostly smaller artists. I haven’t seen any famous big artists yet, but maybe they will, if we get the referendum?


“You see, creative forms of campaigning can actually be more gripping and emotionally engaging than simply quoting the statistics.”


Involvement of artists is a conscious strategy for ROSA. We try to be really creative. For every action we have some preparation meetings where people can bring in creative ideas. For instance, we had street theatre: it humanises and gives personification to the action, more than just me chanting the politics from the megaphone. We have done murals, like ‘our body our choice’, really beautiful. On our Bread and Roses-festival, we’ve had poets and more developed theatre. When Maser painted a red heart with “Repeal the 8th in white on it at Temple Bar in Dublin, it became explosive overnight: the Pro Life movement attacked it and it was taken down. You see, creative forms of campaigning can actually be more gripping and emotionally engaging than simply quoting the statistics. Hearing women struggling can involve people that might disagree with abortion, but don’t hate women or children. We try to encourage that. Off course the quality of these artistic interventions can differ, but we do what we can.


This period in time is a prolonged and engrained crisis of capitalism, resulting in a shock doctrine of huge bailouts and massive austerity packages and neoliberal assaults on particular cities in Greece, Spain, Ireland… There are still proprietors ready to scrape up whatever they can salvage and heap misery onto people. But than you fight back, and you definitely see change. I think these times are transitional. So I suppose it comes back to the other question: do we need a political voice for the movement, and can we build it, that challenges that, when those crises for capitalism and for particular sections explode?”

Interview by Furia, Hart Boven Hard & Victoria Deluxe
Photos by Maria Little