Martina Devlin: We will keep on marching until our politicians do their job
Published 19/11/2012 | 17:00
'Woman up and legislate' read the handwritten sign carried by a marcher just ahead of me at the Savita rally in Dublin on Saturday. She deserved a round of applause, and some of us gave her one.
It sparked a conversation about placards among the group of five women with whom I was walking towards Leinster House, and we decided at the next mass meeting, ours should read: 'Dail: Do Your Job'.
That's exactly what politicians haven't been doing for an indefensible, incomprehensible 20 years. That's exactly what a number of them in the current Government remain reluctant to do.
But legislating for abortion, even in the strictly limited circumstances envisaged in Ireland, is an issue that sends a fault-line running through political parties – just as it divides families, just as it divides the country.
There was no discord among that ocean of humanity streaming down the entire length of O'Connell Street, however. Instead, an inspiring sensation of unity was apparent: a common resolve to force action.
That conglomeration of men and women, thousands upon thousands of them, of all ages and from all walks of life, said it better than any European directive or Supreme Court ruling. Legislate now.
It was a dignified rally. A socially diverse rally. A good-humoured rally. The guards smiled as we paraded past them – and not only because they may have been on overtime. But beneath the laughter and the friendly waves, determination underpinned the rally.
There were politicians among us, but they were not our leaders and they were not our spokespeople. This was no political movement. It was – and must remain – apolitical.
"Let's march," shouted a man, impatient at the speechifying which delayed the start at the Garden of Remembrance, and which struck some listeners as not just irrelevant but somewhat presumptuous. We were not there to be lectured: we knew why we came to march.
And march we did. We walked together, sometimes arm in arm to avoid being separated from friends – and for the body heat on this chilly afternoon. As darkness drew in, we reached Merrion Square and produced our candles, and the warmth from those pinpricks of light was welcome during that minute's silence in honour of Savita.
It's difficult to estimate the percentage of men compared to women assembled there – perhaps one-third of the crowd was male. But what I noticed, above all, was the numbers of men who were marching on their own, or in company with other men. They hadn't been dragged along by their other half.
Here were men who care about protecting the women in their lives. And men without women in their lives, but who still care. Men with backbone. Men with compassion. Men who give us all hope for the future.
It was one of those days on which many of us will look back, in years to come, and think ourselves fortunate to have been part of it. One of those days when something coalesced. The people spoke – they did it plainly and unequivocally by simply being there.
What we want is nothing drastic. Nothing that hasn't already been ratified. Nothing uncivilised or inhumane or callous – quite the reverse. Nothing that suggests abortion on tap, or abortion as an alternative to contraception.
What we want is simply something that, inexcusably, hasn't been legislated for, in the wake of a referendum and a Supreme Court decision: a pregnant woman's right to choose a termination when her life is at risk.
Protests will continue to take place across Ireland until politicians set aside the qualms which have paralysed them for an entire generation. Primarily, those misgivings are rooted in fear of alienating some constituents, or in their own moral objections to abortion under any conditions.
But their reservations are irrelevant, because the decision has already been taken. The right to a termination when a woman's life is at risk now needs to be enshrined in law – we can't carry on with the Pontius Pilate solution of exporting Irish abortions to Britain.
As a people, we are slow to take to the streets, so politicians should ignore such a focused display of the people's will at their peril. And those politicians who connect with this movement need to respect its boundaries.
Drifting homewards, protesters made plans to join future rallies. As many as it takes, until legislation happens. Make no mistake, this is one issue which is not about to dwindle away.
I'm working on my placard for the next one. 'Dail: Do Your Job'.