Inspirational history, practical handbook

Ireland's Hidden Diaspora by Ann Rossiter (Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign), reviewed by Laurie Penny

August 23, 2009
8 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


  share     tweet  

The story of women’s struggle for reproductive freedom is intimately entangled with the struggles of minority groups against marginalisation. For the Irish, the well-worn national legend of the immigrant worker travelling far across the sea to make his fortune is paralleled by another journey, made by women in silence, in secrecy and, too often, in shame. Laurie Penny reviews Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, Ann Rossiter’s new book about the struggle of these women

Every year, around 7,000 women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland travel to England to have abortions. Despite the efforts of feminist campaigners, abortion remains effectively illegal in both states, and women with unwanted pregnancies are still obliged to find the money to travel overseas or risk their safety buying illegal abortion pills on the black market. Over the course of 40 years, 180,000 women have arrived in London, often alone and at late stages of pregnancy by the time they have gathered the necessary funds and information, usually vulnerable and frightened and desperately in need of the support that their governments refuse to provide. In the 1980s, a brave group of Irish women came together in sisterhood to offer that support – whatever it took.

The story of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) – and its sister organisation, the Spanish Women’s Abortion Support Group (SWASG) – is movingly retold in Ann Rossiter’s recently-released book Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora. For more than 20 years, this London-Irish underground provided accommodation, information, money and transport to women arriving in the capital for abortions.

Rossiter, a founding member of IWASG, has drawn the book together from hundreds of hours of painstaking research and interviews with the women involved. They stretch from the group’s inception in 1980 through to the pro-choice revival of 2008, when women from all over the world came together to fight for Northern Irish women to be granted the same basic rights to control over their own bodies that have been enjoyed by their sisters in the rest of the UK since 1967.

Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora launched in London and Dublin in April, and the timing could not have been better. Feminists across the country are now carrying copies of Rossiter’s book, which functions for today’s campaigners as part inspirational history lesson, part handbook for practical feminist action wherever need is most pressing. And with scores of women still travelling from Ireland for abortions every week, need is certainly pressing. Nearly 30 years after the formation of IWASG, feminist groups are mobilising once more to offer sanctuary to ‘abortion tourists’ – and taking the story of the IWASG collective as a starting point.

Collective action

For Ann Rossiter, it is important for today’s activists to remember that ‘IWASG and SWASG were collectives, and members took their responsibility towards abortion seekers very seriously. The group may have been entirely voluntary and run on no money at all, but members had a lot of commitment – and you can’t buy that, although today a more professional organisation will work just as well. The times are different now. We were dealing with an underground, illegal situation at the Irish end. Anyone involved with abortion was being picketed and doorstepped by a very vocal opposition. Now that the war seems to be over in the North, things should begin to look up. But the Family Planning Association is still picketed all day, every day, in Belfast and Derry.’

Blanca Fernandez, who was involved in abortion support work in London from 1987, agrees that ‘both IWASG and SWASG women were grassroots activists in the real sense of the word. They would turn their hand to anything, taking women to the clinic, producing stickers, banners and posters, addressing meetings and conferences highlighting the plight of abortion seekers and raising money for them. This was real sisterhood and they didn’t get – or expect – any glory or medals for it.’

With laws in place in the 1980s to outlaw even the dissemination of information about abortion in Ireland, much of the function of the abortion underground was to fill that gap, signposting desperate women to clinics and providing basic medical information. ‘Something I do remember vividly while answering the phone is women whispering,’ says Isabel Ros Lopez. ‘You’d have to ask them to speak up, but of course they wouldn’t; they were afraid of being overheard.’

Fed up of being afraid

Across Britain and Ireland, women are fed up of being afraid to be overheard, although a tenacious taboo against seeking or fighting for access to abortion remains firmly in place. Over the past 12 months, threats to abortion rights in the UK have energised a new generation of British women to stand up in defence of their reproductive freedoms. Many of these recruits are women who might not have called themselves feminists in the past. Attacks by pro-life lobbyists and anti-choice MPs such as Nadine Dorries and Conservative leader David Cameron, along with the real threat of restrictive amendments to the human fertilisation and embryology (HFE) bill in 2008, provided a flashpoint.

Women of all ages and backgrounds came together in October 2008 to protect their rights to safe, legal pregnancy termination up to 24 weeks and to demand pro-choice amendments to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland. In Parliament Square, hundreds of women and men gathered to protest against anti-choice amendments and to support the Irish abortion amendments put forward by Diane Abbott MP.

Gwyneth Lonegran, of the young socialist-feminist network Feminist Fightback, explains: ‘There is much greater concern over abortion rights recently, because of the HFE bill and the attempts to ban abortion or severely restrict it. It’s clear that we live in a society where women’s autonomy is still not valued.’ With rumours circulating in Westminster that prospective Conservative cabinet ministers are already in talks about how to launch their next attack on abortion rights, it seems that this new energy for pro-choice activism may be all too prescient.

From New York to London

In 2001, in New York City, a service operating along much the same lines as IWASG was formed when Cat Megill, a hotline director for the National Abortion Federation, was asked to host a young woman in desperate need of abortion, with nowhere else to stay. ‘After that,’ says Megill, ‘I was hooked.’

Megill founded the Haven Coalition, a service hosting and supporting the hundreds of women who travel to New York every year in search of the reasonable abortion access denied to them in many parts of the United States. (Some 86 per cent of US counties lack even a single abortion provider, and many existing providers will not end late-term pregnancies.) In 2008, Mara Clarke, a former director of the Haven Coalition, moved to London with the express intention of setting up a similar service to help Irish women travelling to London – and found a broad base of feminist support waiting to be tapped.

At a meeting on 29 April, activist groups including Feminist Fightback pledged their support and that of other feminist organisations to Clarke’s as-yet-unnamed group, which is to begin operating in the summer of 2009, with help and advice from former IWASG members. ‘We wanted to call it Haven UK, but in Britain that’s a domestic violence shelter,’ explains Clarke. It is, perhaps, telling that nearly every English synonym for ‘place of safety’ is already in use by an organisation providing women with support in addition to the scant government services available.

Dilemmas of practical feminism

This type of practical feminism, which Ann Rossiter calls ‘welfare feminism’, is not without its contradictions. Ann Hayes, a former IWASG member, says that: ‘At the back of your head you have the impression that you are bolstering a service that should be funded by the taxpayer … We are engaged in a version of philanthropy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, something that really belongs to the 19th century and earlier. This is all wrong, you think to yourself.’

Today’s feminist activists struggle with this dilemma. Mara Clarke puts it most succinctly: ‘Ask any abortion rights activist what she wishes most, and she’ll probably tell you, “I wish I didn’t have a job.”‘

But in a world where women’s bodies are still battlegrounds for the moral, conservative and sectarian claims of the states in which they live, welfare feminism has a vital part to play. Practical feminist organisation helps to fill the gap in services and raises awareness of the continuing struggles that women face in accessing basic self-determination. Although these struggles can often seem dauntless and unending, although the brave and committed activists of the 1980s are now in their fifties and sixties and, as Ann Rossiter says, ‘tired’ of fighting for rights that remain denied to Irish women and countless others, there is, at least, a new generation of feminists to whom the women of IWASG can ‘pass the torch’.

The new London abortion support network is looking for volunteers. If you might be able to offer a sofa and supper to an Irish woman seeking abortion, or you can donate your time, money or expertise to the group (or you think of a catchy name!) please get in touch. You can contact Mara Clarke by phone on 07913 353530, email mara@maraclarke.com, www.abortionsupport.org.uk

Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora is published by the Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign. Email iascpub@yahoo.com

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


Contagion: How the Crisis Spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How Empire Struck Back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en Vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally


5