With over 30,000 people marching for choice in Dublin last Saturday, Sinn Féin, the third largest party in the state, was noticeably absent. Prominent figures such as Deputy Leader Mary-Lou McDonald, and finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, were at a party meeting in Letterkenny during the march, while Lynn Boylan MEP went on something of a couples retreat with husband Eoin Ó’Broin TD to observe the independence referendum in Catalonia.
Only a handful of the party’s representatives attended the sixth annual March for Choice, and in an individual capacity rather than part of a formal delegation. Since Sinn Féin’s official position supports a full repeal of the eighth amendment followed by legislation to allow abortion in certain circumstances, its apathy towards the March for Choice poses bigger questions about the party’s commitment to advocate for women’s reproductive rights.
A spokesperson for Sinn Féin outlined that the party decided against participating in the march because “it [the march] went beyond the party’s position”. Furthermore, the party did not agree with the rally organisers, the Abortion Rights Campaign, who are advocating for free, safe and legal abortion “for all who need or want it”, on what legislation should be put in place if the eighth amendment is to be repealed.
It appears that Sinn Féin is more concerned with creating humorous Simpsons’s memes to entice young voters rather than campaigning on issues that young people care passionately about.
This is a poor excuse. To suggest that everyone who attended Saturday’s march was in agreement as to what system should be implemented if the referendum is to succeed is ludicrous. People came out in large numbers not to back any particular model, but to show solidarity with the Irish women who are forced to travel abroad each day to receive a termination and to support removing the eighth amendment from the constitution prior to the upcoming referendum.
As polls have repeatedly shown, a significant majority of young people in this country support giving women greater access to abortion. This support was further cemented by the large youth turnout on Saturday. Sinn Féin’s reluctance to back the March for Choice puts the party at odds with the majority view of the Irish youth.
This is somewhat ironic given the attempts by Sinn Féin in recent years to portray itself as a party that will put the needs of young people high on its agenda. It appears that Sinn Féin is more concerned with creating humorous Simpsons’s memes to entice young voters than campaigning on issues that young people care passionately about. Such condescension will surely not be appreciated when a general election comes around.
Some may argue that Sinn Féin’s absence from the March for Choice is not particularly noteworthy. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil had an official delegation there, after all. The difference with Sinn Féin not attending, however, is that the party is trying to mould itself into an electable left alternative to the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil monopoly. Moreover, every other left wing party from the Labour Party and the Social Democrats to Solidarity attended and marched under their party banners.
The fact that McDonald and others felt obliged to show their support for the Catalans’ cause and not the cause of Irish women highlights just how out of touch Sinn Féin remains.
Not campaigning on an issue that the left has championed for decades seems to be a very successful way of alienating the type of voter Sinn Féin needs to win over if it is serious about gaining power going forward.
Sinn Féin has a history of adopting hypocritical stances – it supports water charges in Northern Ireland but lambasts the notion of implementing such a system in the Republic, for example. To take a position in support of repealing the eighth amendment yet not attend a national march to outline that support is a new low.
Furthermore, it is not as if Sinn Féin is adverse to protest marches. In the days since the March for Choice, many prominent figures in the party have attended pro-Catalan independence demonstrations. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with showing solidarity for the people of Catalonia, particularly after the dreadful scenes of last weekend, but the fact that McDonald and others felt obliged to show their support for the Catalans’ cause and not the cause of Irish women highlights just how out of touch Sinn Féin remains.
A successful outcome in next summer’s referendum is by no means a foregone conclusion. An Irish Times poll conducted earlier this year outlined that public support for abortion is only “cautious and conditional”. Therefore, the main political parties will have a significant impact on the referendum campaign in swaying undecided voters.
With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being non-committal in an attempt not to isolate their more conservative supporters, Sinn Féin are perfectly positioned to make this issue their own and further cultivate their image as a party of the progressive left, though their recent actions suggest that they lack the courage to do so. If they have a change of heart, however, by helping the cause of Irish women they may even inadvertently help themselves.