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The Irish expats flying home to vote in the abortion referendum

London, Lyon, Las Vegas: thousands of Irish people are expected to descend on their home country in hopes of repealing the eighth amendment

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.

For the uninitiated, the Republic of Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Introduced in 1983, the Eighth Amendment makes abortion illegal in nearly all circumstances, including if the mother has serious health issues, in cases of rape or incest, and in cases of FFA (fatal foetal abnormalities). A person who has an abortion can face a prison sentence of up to 14 years. On May 25, with the vital referendum, all could change.

As with nearly everywhere that’s outlawed abortion, it’s not that abortion doesn’t exist in Ireland: it just doesn’t happen in Ireland. Ireland exports its abortions, or they’re carried out illegally. Since 1983 an estimated 170,000 Irish women have travelled to the UK for an abortion; the rate is currently around 9 people each day. Abortion is a privilege: Irish people are not entitled to access NHS services so the procedure must be paid for privately. An abortion (which can cost up to £1,300 after 19 weeks), travel (flights if you can afford them, a ferry if you can’t) and accommodation can easily come to over £1,000. Up to 2,000 people each year also end pregnancies with the abortion pill, which they obtain illegally online.

The Irish voting system allows postal votes in very few circumstances (e.g if you’re a diplomat), so most citizens living abroad who are eligible to vote in the referendum (that is, those who left Ireland during or after December 2016) must return to Ireland in order to do so. There is, of course, some strange irony in both abortion, and voting to change abortion law, being journey contingent. “I'm desperate to see a ‘Yes’ vote,” says Penny, 32, who is currently based between Nottingham and Cork, and will be travelling back to Ireland to vote. “I made the journey (to have an abortion) years ago when I lived in Cork – frightened and confused about what was happening. I need to see that stopped.”

When Ireland held a marriage equality referendum in 2015, the same rule against postal votes applied. #HomeToVote began as a movement to encourage people to travel back to vote. This year, it’s been rebooted by the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, who launched a rousing video last week featuring voters travelling from Las Vegas, London, and Lyon. #HomeToVote is aiming to raise awareness because, as spokesperson Claire McGowan puts it, “every trip home matters”. She’s right: of the 750,000 Irish people living abroad, roughly 40,000 are eligible to vote. People travelling home could swing this monumental vote.

One of the important things to understand about the Eighth Amendment is that it is not just about abortion. Órfhlaith, who campaigned against the amendment in 1983, but was too young to vote against it, describes her reproductive life as “lived under the shadow of the Eighth”. A ‘Yes’ vote is a vote as much for the rights of pregnant people, and indeed ovulating people, as it is for abortion. As Ciara, 23, put it: “I’m voting ‘yes’ as someone with a disability (T2 Paraplegic), who if pregnant, would be prone to serious health risks”.

Bláithín, 21, is currently on a study abroad programme at UCL. For her, returning to Ireland to vote ‘yes’ “means freedom and justice for Irish women of the past, present and future”. A good percentage of those eligible to return to vote will be students like Bláithín, and last Friday April 25th NUS launched their own Home to V8te campaign, with a travel bursary of up to £110 for anyone travelling to vote.

The tactics of anti-choice campaigners can be crude, but that’s not to say they won’t be effective. There is already evidence that anti-choice groups in the US have funded micro targeted Facebook ads. And, as both Open Democracy and Buzzfeed have reported, Save the Eighth (Ireland’s biggest anti-choice group) has enlisted Kanto (a UK-based ‘digital media consultancy which ran Vote Leave's Brexit campaign and has links to Cambridge Analytica) to assist with its digital strategy.

Ause, 23, will travel back from Kenya, where he has been volunteering with the UN for the past three months. For Ause the fact that the referendum is being influenced by external factors “reinforces the responsibility of every ‘Yes’ voter to get home and contribute to the fight”.

Ause is one of several people I spoke with coming from as far afield as New York, Toronto, and Southeast Asia. For some, though, a journey home is not an option, either because they themselves are no longer eligible to vote, or because they can’t afford their travel back. Caroline, 38, lives in California. Having worked out that her own travel back to Ireland would cost upwards of $1,500, she decided to “fund a few cheap tickets instead of just my own one”, donating about £100 to three different ‘Yes’ voters.

Steve, 35, used the same ‘Abroad for Yes’ network as Caroline, to donate towards two people’s flight costs. Having lived in London for 12 years he is not eligible to vote. For him, “The Abroad for Yes movement is a phenomenal thing, because it’s given the opportunity for people like me whose votes can’t be counted, the chance to help others ensure their votes can be”.