2016 marked a change in both global and Irish politics in both positive and negative ways. From an Irish perspective many candidates running for election last February faced more questions about the 8th amendment and the campaign to repeal it than ever before. This increase in momentum for the movement has been brought about in a number of ways but none more tangible than the Repeal Project. The project was the idea of Anna Cosgrave who at the beginning of all this, was on jobseeker’s allowance and had no idea just how popular and powerful the jumpers and the message they send would be.
We start by talking about Anna as a teenager. She had grown up with an aversion to what she feels is a patriarchal society and realised quite early on that she was uncomfortable with roles and expectations that were placed on her as a result of her gender. ‘I was always acutely aware of feminism. I didn’t understand the word but I always knew I felt this unease at how I was told to act and what was expected of me both culturally and economically’.
Anna studied sociology in Trinity, and it was there that she faced more exposure to the toxic effects of the 8th Amendment, during the much publicised death of Savita Halappanavar. She cites this, along with prominent pro-choice activists Gloria Steinhem and Colm O’Gorman as a culmination of things that led to the creation of the Repeal project in her mind.
Roots of the Repeal Project
‘I’ve never met someone or they’ve never told me that they had an abortion’ and then I said ‘am I unique in this situation?’. Then I realised ‘Oh hold on a second, we’re talking about the most deeply entrenched, religious, paternalistic, misogyny that permeates every façade of Irish life’. With 12 women a day travelling to the UK to access reproductive health, it’s increasingly likely everyone actually knows someone who has had an abortion.
It is that passion for organic, grassroots-led change that Anna Cosgrave embodies. She is a perfect example of an ordinary citizen doing something extraordinary and creating a movement that is far bigger than herself. She believes that it’s vital we move the debate offline and into the streets. ‘I want to make gender equality issues really, really accessible. I wanted people that otherwise felt nervous about the political and academic rhetoric around reproductive rights to be able to wear a jumper and be like I care without having any of the linguistics or technical terms’.
“I want to make gender equality issues really, really accessible” – Cosgrave
Giving tools to people to enable them to talk about such a controversial topic is quite important and extends further than just the repeal campaign. She acknowledges the importance of intersectionality within activism and feminism as a whole. ‘I know I would rather spend my time empowering young working class girls to be champions of feminism in their communities and equality versus me being their champion’. She emphasises the point that we need to be active in many contexts and subjects without shouting over others. The importance of bringing people to the table instead of presenting empty rhetoric and deciding what they want or need rather than asking them cannot be ignored. It applies to direct provision, racism, cultural identity and traveller’s rights to name but a few causes.
Broadening the Conversation
The importance of recognising that we need to reach everyone in this conversation cannot be overstated and to me it feels like the Repeal Project is doing that. Seeing the jumpers over and over again normalises conversations about abortion and the topics surrounding it. That can be huge for someone who may not have felt comfortable with the topic previously. Anna explains how important the organic nature of the movement was in the beginning. ‘I was just really cautious in terms of celebrity and digital influencers because I naturally had an aversion to that. I was more interested in meeting women that had travelled than talking to bloggers or any of that’.
When questioned on the future of the project, Anna admits that there isn’t a plan per se. ‘I’ve never run something like this before, I’ve absolutely no clue and there’s no marketing plan’. The fact that there isn’t a plan is quite reassuring almost as it ensures the organic nature of the whole movement. It’s obvious that this organic nature is incredibly important to Anna and sums up the whole idea of the project.
‘I feel that someone who is wearing a jumper, they’re also going to hopefully feel mobilised enough to be a canvasser and I love that maybe a jumper could have motivated someone to canvass might also ask a friend. It is fundraising and visibility but I hopefully will be able to galvanise people just to help run a proper referendum campaign’.
Anna admits that the project has grown exponentially bigger than she could have predicted. She recounts the day of shooting of Dave Tynan’s video ‘We Face This Land’ which was based on the poem written by author and columnist Sarah Maria Griffin. The video which was shot on Dollymount beach in the early hours of the morning shows women such as Roísín Ingle, Tara Flynn, Senator Lynn Ruane and others reading out the poem while wearing the jumpers. It is striking and emotional to say the least. Anna describes the emotion of what the Repeal Project had achieved so far felt like on that day. ‘I remember arriving on the beach and there was like Roisin Ingle and Ailbhe Smyth and all these people who I’ve grown up kind of reading or admiring or being a bit nervous around and all of a sudden it’s this thing that’s far bigger than you’. The video went viral and is a stark reminder of the stigma faced by those who obtain an abortion on an everyday basis.
Common opposition to campaigns such as Repeal Project is online trolling and harassment. Surprisingly, it’s not the trolling that gets to Anna but the frustrating reality we’re actually living in. ‘I think a thing that’s more deflating and frustrating is that this is 2017 and this is actually still a reality and this is going to take quite a while for change to happen’. It’s clear that both her and many, many others are disenfranchised with modern politics and the posturing and egos that get in the way of real change. I asked if she’d ever consider politics as a career and she admits it’s crossed her mind; ‘I realise that maybe, potentially there could be a place for me in more formalised politics but there was no conventional route where I would have been happy, I just had to do it myself’.
“Potentially there could be a place for me in more formalised politics”
Students and Repeal
Doing it ourselves is something students have become accustomed to in recent years. Young people in Ireland have become disenfranchised with politics as a whole and it’s not hard to see why. Policies that directly impact students within the country such as a rising registration fees and lack of access to mental health care services have caused many to question how much the government cares about us. ‘There generally is a consensus that we have been given a really short end of the straw, there isn’t equal opportunity to access education. If we look at our parents’ generation, what we’re being dealt with post-economic crisis is farcical. I think there could be a Renaissance of student protesting and activism’.
That Renaissance may have begun when thousands of students took to the streets in October 2016 to protest the lack of funding in third level education. Young people are to the forefront of many repeal the 8th movements as well. I ask her how students can mobilise themselves to incite change within our own political system. ‘I think you need to think that you can and believe that change is only ever come from the bottom, it just takes a tiny ripple’. The take home message from Anna Cosgrave is as simple as the message on her jumpers; ‘If you care enough about something you have to do it’.
So, what final pieces of advice does Anna have for us students? ‘Honestly ringing your local politician or taking up clinic time or actually sending them a letter, that kind of direct action over time collectively makes a difference. That’s one thing about universities, campuses are big enough to have an impact, [but] they’re small enough that you can actually make change. Also I think when you’re in college you haven’t had the idea that you can change the world beaten out of you’.
Rachel O’Neill | Features Editor