The Choice and Feminist Societies at NUI Galway secured a significant victory in a referendum held last week. The referendum was to decide whether the Students Union should take a pro-choice stance. The exact proposition that was voted on was:
‘That NUIG Students Union adopt a pro-choice position, in support of the national campaign for full reproductive rights, which includes a woman’s right to abortion, whether elective or medically necessary. Furthermore, the SU should use every available measure to realise these rights on campus and nationally.’
This was a radical proposition that goes much further than the very limited legislation the government is expected to bring forward by the summer. And if we are to believe national polls, the referendum proposition went much further than public opinion. A poll in the Irish Times just last month found that only 37% of people fully supported a woman’s right to choose, although the poll found a large majority in favour of allowing abortion when a woman’s life/health are at risk or in cases of rape/incest or foetal abnormality.
Yet when the vote happened last Thursday, 70% of students who voted, supported the proposition. And this was with the highest voter turnout in years, possibly the highest ever in NUIG. Out of 3,596, votes, 2478 voted yes, 1118 voted no.
Obviously this reflects the fact that young people are generally more supportive of abortion rights. If the same vote was taken on a national basis the result would most likely be very different. But following on from success in referendums in Trinity College and DCU, it shows that things have changed drastically in this country.
Since the death of Savita Halappanavar, the issue of abortion has constantly been in the news. An issue that was brushed under the carpet for too long has emerged with people finally being emboldened to express their pro-choice sentiments. People were galvanised by Savita’s death in a way that could never have been imagined. This showed during the campaign for a yes vote, with students and staff showing huge support for canvassers, while the no side came under constant attack.
The no side became increasingly desperate as the campaign week went on. Their posters were being defaced and removed all over campus. Their canvassers were mocked and abused. Many students said they were swung towards a yes vote by the no campaigners. At the forefront of the no campaign were the notorious Burke family. From Castlebar, they are known for their extremist views on homosexuality, marriage, divorce and abortion and regularly protest outside the Dáil. At NUIG, they had been expelled from the Christian Union Society because of their extreme views. They used the Christian Union society name and logo for their own posters and leaflets against the referendum and spent the whole week putting up the posters. Even after it was found out that they had no permission to put the posters up, they continued to replace the ones taken down. They even resorted to following and harassing yes campaigners. I, myself had three run ins with one of them, as she followed me around campus on Monday, and then spied on me and confronted me on two other occasions.
While the Burkes did their cause more damage than help with their extremist views and confrontational tactics annoying voters, far more worrying was the campaign for a no vote to keep the union neutral. Many people said that it wasn’t appropriate for the Students Union to take a stance on such a divisive issue as it would alienate some students. And this line was trotted out by many students who claimed to be pro-choice. This is a rather ridiculous view as students unions have always taken political stances on issues such as the availability of contraception, the decriminalisation of homosexuality etc. Unions are there to take a stance for the best interests of their members, students unions seem to have lost that central tenet.
As it turned out, the vote no to keep the union neutral campaign was backed by religious groups trying not to scare voters off with the extremist tactics employed by the Burkes. But the keep the union neutral posters and leaflets were also illegal under the universities postering and leafletting policies as they had no name or organisation attached. What was obvious from the no campaign was that it was well funded, as all their posters and leaflets were glossy, colourful professional work, unlike the yes side who had to rely on black and white, amateur made literature.
So how did the yes side win? The Choice Society has only really been active since January yet we had more people campaigning. The Choice Society and Feminist Society worked together to cover the campus all week. We got talking to people and convinced them, we didn’t rely on sensationalist and scaremongering slogans. And crucially, people voted, with the high turnout helping to win the referendum.
The vote came in the middle of the Abortion Rights Campaign’s ten days of action for X case legislation, the first step towards abortion being allowed in this country. During the ten days, the campaign received huge support, with widespread participation, and this was reflected in the referendum.
And with the result of the referendum being announced on International Women’s Day, the result was also very symbolic. It was a very fine way for NUIG to celebrate the day and it will live long in the memory for all those who campaigned.
The crucial battle in NUIG will now be making the SU follow the mandate they have been given. In the elections held on the same day, Sean Kearns was elected President while Declan Higgins was elected Welfare officer. Both of them are anti-choice and so it is unlikely that they will willingly campaign for choice. The SU will have to be pushed into doing so. Students need to push motions through the SU Council proposing specific actions that the SU can take such as a march for choice from NUIG. Students should also propose ways in which the SU can get involved with the national pro-choice campaign. When motions are passed by council, students will then have to keep pressure on the SU to follow them. The students who were galvanised to vote yes, need to be galvanised into taking action. The referendum was just the first step in what will be a long battle.
Pro-choice students in NUIG now have at least a year in which they can try and achieve real results on campus before another referendum can be held. Let’s get to it!