Campaigning for social rights and equality seem to have been the theme of the last few months. Every week a new issue gathers steam and people erupt with passion for the topic. The issues being campaigned for have varied widely and in recent months we have seen the March for Marriage fighting for equality in marriage law, the Blood Ban campaign in UCD asking to donate blood on behalf of their gay allies who are banned from doing so, and the March for Choice saw thousands of people marching through Dublin city to call for the legalisation of abortion. While many have supported these issues previously, they have always been minority positions in Ireland. When given the opportunity to legalise abortion in 1992, 65% of the country’s voting population rejected it and in 2002 a referendum to make it even more difficult to get an abortion by removing the threat of suicide as grounds for a legal abortion failed to pass by less than 1% of the vote.
Now however, for the first time it feels like things are changing. Among the younger generation at least, support for gay and reproductive rights is a majority opinion. Students tend to be more progressive than the majority of society anyway, but the country is following suit. At the start of September, Dublin City Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of full marriage rights for same sex couples, with only four out of the 43 members voting against. Cork City Council voted unanimously in favour of it, as did Waterford City Council and almost every week more Town, City and County Councils vote to support marriage equality.
The taboo of declaring personal support for the right to an abortion is also eroding. Even the most ardent supporters have always said they were not “pro-abortion” but “pro-choice”, suggesting that abortion was an evil but a necessary one. While people would support abortion theoretically, they would never suggest that they themselves would ever consider it. While thousands and thousands of women around the world get abortions every year, including roughly 5,000 Irish women who travel to Britain for an abortion each year, very few women admit publicly to having one.
In some places there is good reason for this, despite abortion being legal for nearly 40 years in America, nearly 20% of clinics come under attack each year and anti-abortion activists have even killed doctors who perform abortions. On this side of the pond however, admitting to having had an abortion is now becoming possible without fear of ostracisation. UK columnists Caitlin Moran and Lucy Cavendish have written positively about their experiences, trashing the notion that the procedure is universally one of trauma and regret for those who opt for them. Legalising abortion in Ireland is an important issue, but creating a society where women can feel safe in talking about their experiences, whether positive or negative, is even more vital.
This culture of silence pervades another area covered in this issue, that of mental health. Last week was Mental Health Week here in UCD, and both the news story and our Op-Ed, Outreach Officer at See Change Scott Ahearn outlines that the biggest aim of the campaigns have been to get people to talk to someone, whether friends, family or a professional about their problems. The goal is to reduce the stigma, real or perceived, that surrounds mental health issues. As with abortion, people are getting comfortable talking about mental health in the abstract, but don’t admit to experiencing it first hand. Ending our culture of silence needs to be the first priority for those fighting for rights. We have taken the first few steps but there is a long way to go.
In contrast to the liberalisation in social issues like gay rights, reproductive rights and mental health, when it comes to economic issues, Ireland is getting progressively more conservative. Welfare, benefits, grants and education are all being cut to muted protest. While someone reading complaints in message boards or the comments after a news article may be surprised given the ire and insults directed at those in charge, when it comes to direct action such as protests, the turnout is underwhelming.
Despite the many marches and complaints against University fees and the rising cost of registration, when called to a referendum, UCD students came out in favour of student contribution. And that’s just those interested enough to vote; turnout in UCD rarely goes above 10%. National voting turnout is better, the 2011 general election getting the highest number since 1987 at 70%, yet the choice between the right wing Fianna Fáil and the righter-wing Fine Gael go unchallenged.
People do seem to want change at their hearts, but the feeling of resignation and inevitability seems to prevent action. People have confidence in their moral beliefs. Despite the huge debate surrounding each issue, people regard it as more simple to have a conviction about it. There is less conviction surrounding financial issues, and most don’t have the confidence that they are intelligent enough to understand the economy.
If the people running the country can’t understand it, what chance have we? Yet, if we can fight for openness for an issue as complex as mental health and the right to an abortion, why shouldn’t we fight with equal vigour for our economic belief? I believe no issue is too complex to research and understand, and it’s time we treated the running of the economy with the same passion we treat equal rights.