Growing up in Manchester in the 1970s I had been subject to my Catholic (largely Irish) secondary school promoting an anti-abortion agenda and encouraging students to get on buses to attend Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child demos. I avoided this. I was quite anti the school anyway, and when I went to Hull University, I joined the National Abortion Campaign and took part in their meetings, demonstrations, and lobbies.
Returning home in my holidays and proudly wearing my NAC badge I was stunned by my Irish Catholic parents announcing that they supported abortion rights. They had seen too many women being treated harshly for becoming pregnant.
In the 1980s I was proud to be a member of the Irish in Britain Representation Group– an organisation which supported abortion rights for women on the island of Ireland.
Ann Rossiter’s book is an important historical account of how for twenty years members of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) and the Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign (lasc) supported Irish women in their journey across the sea to London to have an abortion and also campaigned to change the law in Ireland on abortion.
During this time every year around 5,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and 1,500 from the North of Ireland travelled to Britain to get an abortion. They were met by Irish women who had settled in London in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Some of the women were second and third generation.
Ann comments “We were our bit of the Irish community.” They were part of the alternative Irish community in London. In the 80s the Irish community in Britain numbered five millions while 40,000 Irish were coming into the country every year. Women made up a sizeable part of that influx.
The political environment was not easy for the Irish. The early 1980s were critical times during the conflict in the North of Ireland, it was a time of the hunger strikes when 10 young men died for their right to political status. And the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act against the Irish community in Britain turned the Irish into “suspects” but it also led to the creation of grassroots groups which were prepared to challenge this racism and discrimination. Irish people took this anger into creating groups such as IBRG, solidarity groups including the Troops Out Movement and Labour Party groups such as the Labour Committee on Ireland.
Irish women were a significant part of the growing Irish community and their presence and alternative view on what it meant to be Irish could be seen in the creation of organisations such as the London Irish Women’s Centre in 1983. A Centre that had “a feminist ethos concerned with both welfare issues and women’s self-empowerment.”
Abortion law in Ireland on both sides of the border was one of the most restrictive in Europe. One thing that all male (and some women) politicians on both sides of the border have agreed on is their opposition to any changes to this draconian policy. Ann says that Anti-Choice lobbyists “brought disproportionate influence to bear on fearful politicians.”
According to Ann the creation of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group in the 1980s “was based on a longstanding tradition of Irish women, and sometimes men, whether living in Ireland or Britain, helping out in difficult circumstances”.
Facing hostility from the majority of London-Irish organisations, and to protect the privacy of the abortion seekers and its members the IWASG became an underground movement. Activists spoke of their work in the Feminist Review “It is a subversive activity – enabling women to have terminations undermines the dominant values of both the Church and the State in Ireland.”
The IWASG worked alongside the Spanish Women’s Abortion Group in London. They were two separate groups but worked jointly to ensure that all women got the best deals from the clinics. They also did surveys to check women’s experiences of the termination once they had left the clinic.
Working with other organisations was an important aspect of IWASG, a factor that is only recently being recognised. These organisations which included health and reproductive rights organisations, abortion providers, women’s centres, and women’s voluntary groups.
The IWASG was an Irishwomen- only collective from its early days. Anti-Irish racism and a hostile environment in Britain during this period drove women into the IWASG and other Irish community organisations.
It was an informal support group, which provided information on obtaining a legal abortion, helped with the travel arrangements, met women from stations and airports, provided overnight accommodation and financial support. But it also provided a non-judgemental and supportive environment.
Travelling over from Ireland was stressful for the women and made more so by the impact of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the constant sense of surveillance and the fear of being stopped under the legislation. During the 1980s over 80,000 people were stopped every year on their way into this country, the overwhelming majority of whom were never charged with any offence.
The Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign , took up the campaign to support a woman’s “Right to Choose” onto the streets. IASC was set up in 1990 following a picket of the London Irish Embassy over restrictions imposed by the Republic’s Supreme Court on the provision of the names, addresses and telephone numbers of abortion clinics abroad to women in the South.
Fast forward to 2021 and a report from the Abortion Support Network shows how little things have changed
Statistics released today1 (21 June) show that hundreds of Irish women are still forced to travel to England for abortion services, despite provision of services in 2019. The Department of Health reported that 206 women from the Republic of Ireland and 161 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England for an abortion, representing 60% of all people who gave an address from outside of England and Wales.
The data indicates that at least 30% of Irish people who have an abortion overseas cannot afford to travel without financial support. In 2021 ASN funded 59 clients from the Republic of Ireland to travel for their abortion, and helped many more with information on accessing an abortion in-country. The average grant ASN makes to Irish clients is €800.
This book is an important oral history of how London Irish women supported abortion seekers over twenty years and campaigned to change the law on both sides of the Irish border. They were politically and financially independent.
It also breaks the silence around abortion seekers in Ireland and amongst Irish organisations in Brittain and is an important contribution to the history of the Irish in tishis country. Ann’s work gives a voice to the women who supported some of the most vulnerable and exploited women as they made that lonely journey from Ireland to Britain. It is a testament to the courage and determination of the women activists. It is a template to other generations of women on how organise and support women at a time in their lives when they were most in need of sisterhood.
A copy of Ann’s book is now part of the Irish Archive at the Working Class Movement Library . The IBRG archive is also at the WCML.