Ireland 'Yes' campaigners stunned by margin of victory in abortion referendum
Ireland's 'Yes' campaigners had worked feverishly in the run-up to the country's landmark abortion referendum. But few expected such a resounding victory. Gavan Reilly reports from Dublin.
It ended not with a whisper, but with a roar, so loud it was heard the world over.
Everyone involved in the Yes campaign had hoped their work would carry their cause over the finish line. Everyone had suspected there was a solid public appetite for change; everyone feared that the votes of quieter, conservative rural Ireland might outweigh the live-and-let-live attitudes of city dwellers. Everyone hoped, hoped, hoped they had done enough to win. It didn't have to be a landslide; a bare-bones majority would suffice.
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But nobody expected it to work out like this. Nobody expected a vote so visceral, so energized, so determined, so heartfelt. Nobody expected that the margin of victory would be two-to-one. The Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution had not just been rescinded; it had been torn to shreds – and with it, any last belief that Ireland is a conservative country.
Having expected the day to be ravaged with tension, the campaigners were simply stunned into disbelieving silence. And so they moved; hundreds of volunteers in bright green jackets for Together4Yes ready to watch the votes being counted, so they could vouch for themselves. A smaller crowd of opponents, from the LoveBoth campaign, scattered nearby, tallying votes with duty but without hope.
Their votes were delivered to a team at the rear of the hall, aggregating the data. Above them on the wall, was taped a picture of Savita Halappanavar – the woman whose tragic case had brought this four-decade campaign to a head. In 2012 in Galway she was suffering a miscarriage, but refused a termination because the Irish constitution guarantees the right to foetal life. The miscarriage took two days, during which time she developed sepsis.
Savita Halappanavar died four days after her premature daughter.
Among those watching the count was Shampa Lahiri, who felt more emotional than most. Australian born to Indian parents, married to a Dubliner and now an Irish citizen, Lahiri came to watch the count dressed in her Indian finest, with full sari and Bindi, thinking of Savita.
"Every migrant comes here in search of better lives,” she tells DW. "We come here to work hard, and to have better access to opportunities than in the country of origin that we come from. We don't come here expecting to die in a public hospital, under the care of trained professionals. Regardless of which side of the debate were you on this referendum, everybody has to recognise that what happened to Savita Halappanvar should never have happened.”
Shampa Lahiri (right), an Irish citizen of Indian descent, watches votes being counted at the RDS alongside her sister-in-law, Fianna Fáil lawmaker Catherine Ardagh
31-year-old Simon Harris, the Minister for Health and the public face of the Government's Yes campaign, arrived to a hero's welcome. "Under the Eighth Amendment,” he told the gathering crowd, "the only thing we could say to women [in crisis pregnancy] was take a flight, or take a boat. Now the country is saying no: take our hand.” A journalist behind him quietly cried.
In Dublin Castle, an impromptu party had broken out. A small group, Voices for Change, were singing pop classics with the lyrics changed to reflect the referendum. Another, Angels for Repeal – a group of people literally dressed as angels, not all of them women – were dancing along with abandon.
Political leaders arrived, each welcomed with open arms. Obstetrician Peter Boylan arrived and had his name chanted by the thousands present. Micheál Martin, the leader of the opposition Fianna Fáil, was warmly welcomed: he had supported Yes when most of his party had not. Simon Harris arrived to such a raucous reception that one female fan had even made a sign: ‘I fancy Simon Harris'. Slowly making his way through the crowd, Harris kissed her on the cheek.
Just after 6pm, the final results. Of the 40 constituencies in Ireland, only one had voted No, and then only by a small margin. 2.15 million votes had been cast, more than any other referendum in Irish history. 1.43 million, 66.4 per cent, had been cast in favour of Yes. As Ireland's premier Leo Varadkar said, "We have voted to look reality in the eye and we did not blink.”
As day became evening and Dublin Castle slowly emptied, a crowd gathered in Dublin's artsy Portobello district. A few days earlier, an image of Savita's face had been painted, with the simple word: ‘Yes'. In front of it, a pile of flowers grew and grew, as wellwishers left tributes on postcards taped to the wall. One simply read: ‘My Yes was for you.'
More and more flowers were laid, and more and more people left their messages, saying sorry to a 31-year-old immigrant they had never met. Their tokens of support, sympathy, solidarity, now covered almost all of the wall and crept onto her face.
The people of Ireland had paid their best possible tribute to Savita Halappanavar: they had allowed her to rest in peace.