Something special is happening in the fight for abortion rights, for a woman’s right to choose – it is a sort-of international strike wave. A sort-of strike wave that is so far made up of just two strikes. But the first – in Poland – has already won a victory.
Now we await the second win. Ireland, the world is watching you.
Today, on International Women’s Day, many thousands of women (and a number of men) stayed off work to join the “Strike for Repeal”, aimed at overturning the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution that effectively bans abortion.
Huge demonstrations of the strikers and their supporters – most wearing black – blocked the centre of Dublin. “Meet me on the bridge,” was the campaign call – and today the famous O’Connell bridge was locked solid.
More demonstrations are set for this evening.
This enormous groundswell of active, militant support for abortion rights in the country so often dubbed “Catholic Ireland” should not be a surprise. The tactics and imagery of the campaign to repeal the 8th are borrowed directly from the country so often dubbed “Catholic Poland”. Strangely enough, people’s religious background does not tell you everything about them…
Poland has not been the most fun place to live in recent years. It is one of those countries that the bosses’ paper, the Financial Times, liked to praise until very recently for eight years of “economic growth that is the envy of Europe”.
For ordinary people, this translates to an economy of bitterly low wages and very insecure employment, due to local variants on zero-hour contracts and similar employers’ scams.
The far right PiS party won the 2015 general election and has moved in an increasingly authoritarian direction ever since. Hardcore fascist organisations are also on the rise in Poland – our report of their huge march on Independence Day, shortly after the election gives an idea of their scale.
In common with much of Eastern Europe, the legacy of Stalinism means the organised left is small and beleaguered.
Against this background, the PiS government launched a move to completely ban abortion – although access to abortion was already severely limited by some of the world’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.
But a quite unheralded spark of defiance set off a protest movement that has brought a new spirit of resistance into public life in Poland – and inspired others well beyond the country’s borders.
Maybe the unlikeliest of all walkouts was this walkout – by worshippers in St Mary’s Basilica, Gdansk. On 3 April 2016, priests read out a statement from the Polish Catholic Church authorities in support of the government’s proposed abortion ban. As this very moving video shows, a number of worshippers got up quietly, in a dignified fashion, and left.
That day, the leftwing Razem (Together) party called public protests – they were huge, with thousands turning out in Warsaw. Many brandished coathangers – the grim but internationally recognised symbol of the horribly dangerous ways that women seek to terminate pregnancies when they cannot get a safe, legal abortion.
The Czarny Protests (Black Protests) – with abortion rights demonstrators dressed in black – escalated over the next few months, feeding into a wider pro-democracy protest movement against the ever more authoritarian PiS government.
On 1 October last year, a black protest of thousands assembled outside the Polish parliament. Two days later, on 3 October came “Black Monday” – the day set for a women’s strike against the abortion ban.
It is hard to tell just how many people stayed away from work that day. It is clear from the reports of officials that town halls lost staff to the strike, while some restaurant chains, shops and other businesses shut down. Students walked out, and many women and men who did not actually leave work came in dressed in black to support the strike, or refused to do parts of their jobs.
Police estimated that 100,000 people took to the streets on the strike day. The day’s events sent a shockwave through Poland.
Three days later, the PiS government backed down on its support for the legislative move – as did the Bishops’ Council. The rebirth of protest in Poland was marked with a victory.
Now it is Ireland’s turn. It is 34 years since the introduction of the 8th Amendment, which equates the life of a pregnant women with that of a foetus and effectively bans abortion.
The consequences have been brutal. While many women are forced each year to travel to Britain for an abortion – just as Polish women go to Ukraine – this is an option that is hardest for poor, working class women.
And for the most vulnerable, the worst brutality. In 1992, the Irish state detained a 14 year old rape victim to prevent her travelling to Britain for an abortion.
Many women and men in Ireland have had enough. Now they have adopted the black clothes and strike tactics of Poland’s abortion rights campaigners in a bid to force the government to hold a referendum on repealing the 8th.
Such a referendum could see a repeat of the glorious campaign of May 2015, when a huge 62% of voters said yes to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. There is a mood for social change in Ireland – and now a new militancy to go with it.
It may be clearer tomorrow how far the stayaway from work has spread. But there are many, many thousands of women and men – and especially young people – on the streets of towns and cities across Ireland. There are demonstrations everywhere.
The organisers describe it as a “social strike”, rather than “industrial action” based on workplace organisation. But perhaps there is the potential for this to change.
Several of Ireland’s trade unions have formally backed the call to repeal the 8th. And the august Irish Times reported today on marchers leaving the Department of Health in Dublin for O’Connell bridge.
Their chants included: “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Women’s rights are workers’ rights; same struggle, same fight.”
Poland’s Black Protests beat back an attack on already desperately limited abortion rights and set off a new mood of confidence to challenge the government on wider issues.
Ireland’s Repeal the 8th protestors are now going on the offensive, for positive change. And that change is coming: it is in the air.