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men for repeal

Why men’s voices are vital in Ireland’s abortion referendum

Male allies in politics, the creative scene, and all walks of Irish life are stepping up alongside women to fight the system that oppresses them

Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.

The death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 had an earth-swallowing feel to it. Denied of the basic healthcare required to ensure her survival, a constitutional amendment deemed her life – 31 years of complex human love, colour, and learning – of the same value as a 17-week-old fetus. She died in Ireland’s University Hospital Galway in Ireland due to the complications of a septic miscarriage. Her husband, Praveen, was dutifully left to channel her lost voice and carry her legacy on his already burdened shoulders.

On Friday May 25, Irish citizens will go to the polls to determine if the controversial Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which equates the right to life of the mother to the unborn, should be removed and repealed. The amendment, which criminalised abortion in almost all cases, was brought about as a result of a 1983 referendum, a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland was still very much an arm of government. Divorce was still illegal. Contraception was a taboo. Homosexuality remained outlawed.

The Irish man, of course, has no such lack of bodily freedom. Yet, about 70 per cent of Irish women who receive abortion care in the U.K. are married or with a partner. That is, conservatively speaking, thousands of fathers and partners that the Eighth Amendment has, too, bound to secrecy and shame.

Actor and author Emmet Kirwan – who last year created the beautiful spoken-word short film Heartbreak – views the redressing of Ireland’s wrongs broadly and disputes any sense of moral responsibility on individual men. “It’s not just a binary issue of males versus females: It’s an institutional issue,” he tells me. “Whether they be governmental, health, Church – all various arms of the state. There has been an institutionalised gender bias.”

On Irish streets, in local bars, on shop corners, through headlines painted across newspapers and hashtags proliferating via social media posts – there is a bitter political divisiveness that this debate has wrought, a clearly-defined chasm that calls other political ruptures of late to mind. No wonder there have been questions of sinister outside interference akin to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In response, micro-campaigns have popped up all over social media – necessary conversation-sparking tools.

Ger Murphy, a 35-year-old events manager from South-Dublin, decided that Irish men needed to contribute to the dialogue around abortion rights. A conversation that, without question, needed their support. In late February, he founded the Men For Repeal Facebook page – ‘balls to the 8th’ is its light-hearted but defiant URL – after some troubling conversations about male engagement. Murphy sought to, at minimum, challenge the many outspoken men on the other side of the debate.

A large subset of the Irish male population, Murphy tells me over the phone, feel this is not their vote, that this a women’s issue that has no true bearing on their existence. Outside of the reality of crisis pregnancies which routinely affect women everyday, the idea that it’s a women-only issue is misguided, disingenuous, and, frankly, outdated. In truth, indifference largely translates as pro-choice.

“Whether they be governmental, health, Church – all various arms of the state. There has been an institutionalised gender bias” – Emmet Kirwan

“There is no problem in coming out and saying there is a male aspect to this issue. The vast amount of women would agree that the men in their lives are being affected as well,” Murphy says of the messaging. “The left trips over itself sometimes trying to be too PC about these things.”

Complacency is participating in neither debate nor democratic process, and it’s something to be concerned about. Kirwan, one of the most vocal Irish artists, explains there are no excuses for liberal-minded men eschewing their right to vote in the referendum: “The kind of passive, non-participation is essentially giving the vote over to the other side. This kind of idea that you can affect change by doing nothing; it’s a logical fallacy.”

Gordon Grehan of the Transgender Equality Network also tells me that repeal is “imperative to ensuring the rights of all people who can become pregnant, including trans men and non-binary people”. He adds: “As a trans organisation, we know the importance of ensuring self-determination, bodily integrity and physical autonomy.” As previously detailed in Brian O’Flynn’s report on the pro-choice campaign’s push for inclusivity, marginalised people like trans men who can get pregnant must be included in the conversation.

Men For Repeal, along with Lads For Choice, have thrust the conversation of male engagement directly into the national discussion with Together For Yes, the campaign in favour of repeal. Through the #menforyes hashtag, men online have told their uniquely positioned and shared stories of loss, shame, and state-sanctioned oppression. One such story, which was posted by Men For Repeal’s Facebook page earlier this month, attributed to a man named Enda, illustrates the culture of shame embedded in Irish society.

Enda’s mother – empowered by his coming-out as gay – confided in him that she had an abortion pre-marriage, but for fear of judgement, had told just Enda and one of her sisters. “She’d felt sure that my grandfather would disown her for having sex outside of marriage and he died never knowing,” Enda writes. “I remember her saying she felt as if she was damaged goods with my own father, and had been terrified of telling him in case he no longer wanted to marry her.”

Elsewhere, Murphy alludes to meme culture (check the Ireland Simpsons Fans page for some of the best) and the use of internet spaces as a shareable access point for men, more so for those that are tentative or unsure about their place in a large, fast-moving campaign. Murphy’s resourcefulness also helped him develop a video series where male musicians cover female artists.

Creativity in the arts has propelled much of Ireland’s political movements, and the Repeal Project is a major example. The monochromatic sweatshirt – simple, inclusive, and unisex – is boldly inscribed with ‘Repeal’, now iconic in Irish millennial culture as a statement of aesthetic defiance. Repeal founder Anna Cosgrave recently guest edited local music and culture magazine District with the ‘Men’s Issue’ of its Dublin City Guide. The issue profiles male Irish allies across sport, music, film, and politics. Dance music magazine and online community Four Four has been passionately supportive of repealing the 8th on its pages. 

Dublin’s vibrant young music scene sees lyrics that continue to reflect Ireland’s bewildering reality, from DIY punk to burgeoning R&B. Rising Dublin hip-hop act, KOJAQUE, recently rapped: “Sovereign state; they’d rather see my mother bleed out than build a clinic.” Elsewhere in the fashion world, designer Richard Malone has been an outspoken supporter for repeal, taking over Selfridges’ window display to write messages of support. In a powerful open letter for Vogue, Malone describes the “infuriating and unjust treatment of women” he has witnessed at home, the misinformed, Catholic-based education about sex and abortion he and his generation received, and the social and class structures that hinder women’s right to choose. “We have to use our vote to speak for ourselves and for the generation of young people coming directly behind us,” he writes, “who remain voiceless in the votes on their future.”

Toxic masculinity is seriously affecting Irish young men’s mental health, sexuality, and attitudes towards sex, the latter manifesting itself in one of the most widely reported and divisive public trials in Irish history: the rape case involving Ulster Rugby stars Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

The voice of brusque social sensibility in Ireland today, Blindboy Boatclub of Irish comedy duo Rubberbandits is in equal parts an absurdist and a realist. He’s become an unofficial spokesperson for these disenfranchised young men, men who accounted for 80 per cent of Irish suicides last year. With one of the highest percentages of teen suicide in Europe, a silent epidemic pulses through Irish society.

During a revealing 2016 interview on Ireland’s The Late Late Show, Blindboy asserted that feminism is, in fact, a remedy for male-centric mental health issues and toxic masculinity, something that rings through with this referendum and long afterwards. “I have nothing to offer a woman, I have nothing,” he says of young men’s attitudes in Limerick, his native city. “How am I supposed to provide for a woman? The fact of the matter, is that that is a patriarchal attitude that is no longer relevant to us in the 21st century.” Blindboy has become a pivotal voice in the movement; utilising social media and his increasingly popular podcast to speak to men directly. His recent book, The Gospel According to Blindboy, delves deeply into such issues – he’s a leader, and a cultural reckoning force behind the pro-choice movement.

In a more recent filmed conversation with Cillian Murphy, Blindboy and the actor rallied for men to excercise their right to vote. “Men and women are both custodians of this society…we need to go out and support women,” Cillian Murphy said.

For too long, Irish women have been defined by their struggle. Those single mothers, those women who claim asylum under Ireland’s dehumanizing Direct Provision system, women of disparate colours and backgrounds, those with varying sexual identities and disabilities: it’s a vote for all women, and now isn’t a time that men can be complacent or indifferent. May 25 gifts Irish citizens – men equally – the opportunity to right one of our nation’s great wrongs. Though cis men will never know what it is like to carry a pregnancy, men are inextricably linked to this upcoming referendum. Men have a duty to engage with, support, and amplify female voices and stories so that an experience like Savita and Praveen’s is never relived again.