When the fasten seatbelt light illuminates, my right to decide what happens to my body is paused

BY CARA SANQUEST

AS AN EXPAT in London, it’s fun to talk about Ireland most of the time. When my colleagues and English friends show me videos of Hozier, I shout “he’s Irish”.

This post first appeared as an article on Journal.ie on 19th March, 2017

When the marriage equality campaign was in full flow – I’d say “I’m going home to vote”.  When the O’Donovan brothers took a silver at the Olympics, I told everyone “I’m from Cork”.

But how can I respond to the negative aspects of Irish society when I’m away from home?

I was watching my friends campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment and press for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. I wanted to help, but those campaigns were 300 miles away.

As a British resident I have the right to access free, safe and legal abortion. But when the fasten seatbelt light illuminates, my right to decide what happens to my body is paused until the return journey.

There might be a referendum in Ireland to change this soon – but I, like the majority of ex-pats, won’t have a vote.

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We are the sisters, brothers, cousins and best friends to the women and girls on both side of the border.

to the women and girls on both side of the border.

I don’t think that means we can’t have a say though. I wanted to turn the frustration I felt into action. So, I found some others that felt the same way, and we decided to have an open meeting in east London, on a rainy day in November.

We got some friends of friends together to see what we could do and 300 men and women showed up. This was the first meeting of what is now the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign – a movement committed to securing free, safe and legal abortion across the island of Ireland, through discussion, debate and direct action.

We are what we hope all Irish abroad are – talented, tireless and fearless. Just because we’re “over here”, does not mean that we aren’t Irish, and it doesn’t mean that we’ll stand on the sidelines.

Over the past few months we have continued to grow – and now stand at 900. We are lawyers, waitresses, doctors, nurses, teachers, actors, students, mothers, social workers and media professionals.

We are the sisters, brothers, cousins and best friends to the women and girls on both side of the border. And we’ve been tweeting, talking, marching and fundraising as much as we can.

Most of us work full time, many have children, but in just a few months we’ve given thousands of hours to the campaign.

We want to do our bit to support the cause back home and facilitate discussion with family and friends. But we also want to start conversations about it right here in Britain, where more than 25,000 women from the North and South have accessed abortions since 2010.

So far it seems to be working. We now have involvement from English people, Europeans and Americans – and the British press has started taking note too.

Many people we’ve spoken to were unaware that Irish and Northern Irish women were entirely reliant on British abortion providers.  They were also incredulous to hear that these people face 14 years in jail if they procured abortions in the Republic and life imprisonment in the North.

The Irish community has a strong legacy in London. We excel in public and professional life, we enjoy what London has to offer and don’t love Ireland any less for that.

But, we can’t just be Irish when something fun happens. We were Irish when Savita died, we were Irish when Ms Y was force fed and we were Irish when a Northern Irish woman received a criminal sentence for taking abortion pills, because she couldn’t afford to travel.

We are also Irish when the NHS offers us – as Irish citizens living in Britain – free, safe, legal care that we couldn’t get at home.

Generations of Irish women have fought for reproductive rights and practically and compassionately helped those in need, as their governments debate the validity of their choices. In the words of Mr Justice Horner, operating “one law for the rich, and one for the poor”.

What’s different is that we’ve never been closer to repealing the Eighth Amendment, and to ending the exportation of women to Liverpool, Manchester and London. We believe this momentum can be used to push for progress in Northern Ireland too.

So, when we’re in our flats in Clapham preparing for meetings with MPs, passing motions of solidarity through our local councils in Walthamstow, running fundraisers in Camden, meeting after work at an office in Waterloo, or protesting outside the Irish Embassy on Grosvenor Place, 300 miles doesn’t seem like such a long way.