Anarchist reflection on the Repeal campaign


For the future of all our movements and struggles, the experience of a confident, well-organised and winning campaign is hugely important. Who knows where we might go with a victory in the Repeal referendum?


If we want to live in a free society, ordinary people need to start determining what happens in their own lives, communities, and workplaces. We anarchists of the WSM think that the Repeal the 8th campaign is a good example of this empowerment in practice. All of us were involved in the ‘Together for Yes’ campaign, carrying out different tasks and roles alongside hundreds of other volunteers. Door-knocking, meeting, phone calls, room-booking, sandwich-making, jumper packing, emailing, driving: much of this work is unglamorous. All of it is vital. As anarchists, we think it’s important to draw attention to these ordinary, everyday tasks of community organising and movement building. So we want to share our campaign experiences.

Why I got involved…

I joined the campaign for choice about ten years ago when I joined the WSM. I grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland - quiet, conservative and largely Catholic. Being part of the WSM meant I was soon working alongside activists in different campaigns, reading anarchist publications, and being introduced to new ideas. I became friends with committed people who had been involved in choice organising since the mid-1980s. I found out about the work of groups like Need Abortion Ireland helping women secure abortion pills online or providing supports for women who travelled for abortions to England. A friend in a crisis pregnancy procured abortion pills online. She spoke bravely and admirably about her experience to a pro-choice rally. Over time, the abstract moral debate around the ‘right to life’ or the ‘right to choose’ became grounded in real life, in stories of women incarcerated, killed or forced to travel. Real life, not theology or opinion polls. I decided I wanted to live in a world where people’s bodily autonomy is respected, where the social norm is solidarity and mutual aid not judgment and stigma. That means a world where abortion is free, safe, and legal.

Growing numbers of people in Ireland now agree. In 2012, the crowds of people outraged after the death of Savita collectively said ‘never again’. The (always hard-working) Abortion Rights Campaign’s annual marches for choice swelled from hundreds to thousands in the space of a few short years. I was made more aware of how abortion and the right to choose intersects with many complex realities for different women and pregnant people – whether you have money to travel, or can secure childcare or time off work, or have the visa status to be allowed back into Ireland. Meanwhile, choice organising grew and grew. By 2017, a well-organised Strike4Repeal brought Dublin city centre to a standstill as thousands of (mostly) young people occupied O’Connell Bridge to demand a referendum to remove the 8th amendment. It was a fantastic day. That autumn, the WSM journeyed north to Belfast to support our comrades at the Rally for Choice. All of us together, in countless actions over those years, have made it clear to successive governments that Repeal is unavoidable. So when the referendum was announced, I looked forward to getting stuck in.

Canvassing and community organising

I joined my local Dublin Central for Repeal campaign in early March. As I rocked up to Stoneybatter, I immediately saw that the pre-existing group of Repeal activists had loads prepared in advance. My first night - more than two months out from the referendum - saw twenty five volunteers turn up. We were all given pens, clipboards, and maps of the area. I also picked up a stylish Dublin Central for Repeal high-vis vest. We divided into two big groups, with experienced canvassers leading out. Ours went east down Kirwan Street and continued up Grangegorman Lower. An Irish Times reporter accompanied the larger group going west to cover Arbour Hill. My first evening, I had a lovely conversation with a former mid-wife who said she had pro-life views ("I have four kids") but was going to vote for repeal. She thought it wrong that women had to travel to the UK for abortions and couldn't receive the care they needed here in Ireland.

Over the following weeks, canvassing became routine. We were all advised to work in pairs, and to make a note of the response on doorsteps, especially to note undecideds for future canvasses. If the response was ‘yes’, we should say that the vote will be close and encourage people to turnout on 25th May. If the response was ‘no’ or ‘undecided’, I always asked ‘why?’ In a handful of cases, the door was just shut in my face. But more often than not, ‘why?’ was enough to start a conversation and, sometimes, to change someone’s opinion.

Are You Experienced?

Early on, I noticed that quite a few canvassers said they felt unsure of how to respond to these kinds of situations. They weren’t professionals, experts, doctors, lawyers, or politicians. Many had no experience of canvassing. A certain nervousness was understandable. The floods of forced-birther posters around Dublin deliberately prime people to consider Repeal campaigners as ‘baby-killers’ or Holocaust supporters. I received and shrugged off these labels on a few occasions only. While the majority of no voters I met were polite, my gender probably saved me a lot of hassle. My wife, for instance, came in for a lot of harassment from old men when wearing her Repeal jumper about the city centre. The lifer posters undoubtedly didn’t ease beginner nerves but it made us all more determined.

Experienced folk advised newbies to think about why you turned out and to discuss with locals why Repeal matters to you. For many, this is a chance to discuss why a woman or pregnant person they know – a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend – might one day need an abortion. For any specific medical or legal questions, there was always the leaflet or the ‘Together for Yes’ website to refer people to. I found this approach worked really well. After suggesting that maybe his daughter or friend might one day need an abortion, one initially undecided man told me that I'd "lodged Repeal in his head" and took a leaflet. For me, the most enjoyable aspect of the campaign was seeing initially hesitant (mainly young) people grow in confidence over the course of an evening’s canvass.

Possibly the hardest part of my canvassing experience was witnessing the scale of inequality in Dublin Central. One minute, I’m canvassing beautiful, leafy streets full of red-bricked cottages around Phibsboro and the Blessington Basin. An hour later, I’m knocking on doors in the Dominick Street flats – half of which are boarded up, empty, and derelict. The so-called regeneration project regenerated the bank balances of some developers. It didn’t do much for the residents left in half-empty flats. The people that I met there were a mix of yes and no voters but generally sound and welcoming. (One teenager did shout at us to say he didn’t want ‘baby-killers’ to touch his dog). As I walked back to my nice apartment that evening, I was reminded how desperately unfair our society is. A more equal, more democratic city with decent homes for all is not too much to ask for. But we’ll have to organise to get it.

A New Beginning

All told, I’m sure I was lucky to be in Dublin Central. The canvassing teams were really positive, upbeat and vibrant. Every evening saw a bigger and bigger turnout of volunteers. The majority of responses on the doorstep (70% or so in my experience) was positive. We canvassed our areas twice over with more than a week to spare. But it wasn’t just Dublin Central. It felt great to be part of a wider, networked and vocal movement. I remember the excitement in the opening weeks when the ‘Together for Yes’ online fundraising shattered its appeal for donations in record quick time. There was a great buzz walking around the city and seeing so many people wearing Repeal jumpers, especially the little smile and nod of recognition between two strangers wearing ‘Tá’ and ‘Yes’ badges. All the Repeal stories and selfies shared on social media from around the country were inspiring, especially the enthusiasm and efforts of groups in rural areas like ‘Roscommon for Yes’ or ‘Donegal for Yes’.

For the future of all our movements and struggles, the experience of a confident, well-organised and winning campaign is hugely important. One home I recall had tiny rainbow flags in the flower box by the door. Big smiles from the man who answered the door when he heard we were from Together for Yes. He, like a lot of people I met, had very happy memories of the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015 and wanted to see something similar happen again. Every new movement is always building on the shoulders of those who campaigned before us. Who knows where we might go with a victory in the Repeal referendum?

Remember then that this is only a new beginning. As anarchists, we think the bullshit in our lives – the boss who wants to cut your wages, the bishop who wants to force women to remain pregnant against their will, the landlord who wants to raise your rent, the racist who wants to deport you – can only be uprooted and eliminated by ordinary people organising together to fight the powerful. We want to end the rule of a chosen few. Instead, we want to see a world where we all decide together what happens in our workplaces and communities, a world grounded in solidarity and mutual aid.

After this referendum, the media will credit victory to prominent politicians or foreground the spectacle of televised debates. But like the great Muhammad Ali said : ‘The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights’. In other words, I hope we can remember that grassroots campaigning – from the ground up – brought this referendum about in the first place. Come 26th May, we may have achieved a vital victory for bodily autonomy; but there’s still a whole world for us to win.