For many Irish people, at home and abroad, this week has been a long time coming. On Friday, the country will vote in a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, which effectively serves as an abortion ban for Irish women. In practical terms this means that currently people facing crisis pregnancy or a pregnancy is threatened by grave illness or fatal foetal abnormalities must travel, usually to the UK, to access abortion. Statistics show that 11 of them do this every single day.
Ireland’s diaspora spreads far and wide, and it has been playing an important role in the Repeal campaign: with the hashtag #hometovote serving as a clarion call to bring Irish people home from around the world to cast their vote (where eligible – under Irish law, you lose your voting rights after 18 months abroad). London’s fashion community is full of Irish people who have moved away to study, to gain experience and to make a career for themselves on a larger stage. As close as Ireland is to London, living here can still feel very distant at times, as I personally know, and this is heightened by the feeling that while something incredibly important is happening at home, there’s only so much you can do while abroad.
“You can sit at home thinking [the vote is] going to go through, but it’s much more effective to go around and talk to people. You can get more traction around it when you speak face to face” – Richard Malone
Designer Richard Malone moved to London from County Wexford to study at Central Saint Martins. His made-to-order fashion business is still based in Ireland. In April he took over a window at Selfridges on Oxford Circus to stage a protest in support of the Repeal movement. He flooded the window with messages of love and support (although not the word Repeal, which was judged at the last moment to be too political), in an event curated by Gareth Pugh. Malone explained that this event was about raising awareness of an issue that not many in London are even all that conscious of. “I know a lot about it, but here there isn’t much being said about it in general,” he says. “I think a vote like this, globally, is really significant with all that’s going on in the US and other countries. It’s important to highlight it. Ireland, in the last few years, has been getting an image as a really progressive place, and the Repeal vote is still holding it back. Hopefully when we vote Yes, that will change. And hopefully we can raise as much awareness as possible.”
Later Malone wrote an open letter, published by British Vogue, explaining the anger he felt at the way Ireland treats women, as well as the silencing effects a Catholic education had on him and on the women around him.
Menswear designer Rory Parnell Mooney, who grew up in Galway and previously showed at Fashion East, is another Irish designer in London. He feels strongly that those expats who are eligible to vote this week go home to do so. “I think I became more Irish when I started living in London,” he explains. “I can still remember girls, when I was in school, friends of mine having to travel to the UK [to access abortion] and their parents putting them on planes. I think that is so archaic and evil and upsetting, to see something like that happen to anyone.” There is a generational gap of opinion on the issue, he notes, and one that is heightened by the fact that so many Irish people in their twenties and thirties live abroad for a spell. “There’s something about abortion that is so deeply ingrained in an older generation of Irish people. It’s a divisive thing and it’s so important, with our worldwide diaspora, that people who can vote actually come home and show how progressive the Irish community is now.”
Internationally, the Repeal movement has been given visual representation through the medium of fashion, too: simple garments emblazoned with the word itself. Street artist Maser’s Repeal heart symbol is widely available on t-shirts and tops, while Repeal Project’s black Fruit of the Loom sweatshirts have been photographed on everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Gloria Steinem, as well as on the countless hardworking activists at home in Ireland who have brought this issue to a precipice. Irish fashion photographer Andrew Nuding, along with art director Grace Margetson, put out an open casting call to the London Irish community in the summer of 2016 that led to a series of portraits that delved into the themes of stigma, shame and solidarity.
“It’s a divisive thing and it’s so important, with our worldwide diaspora, that people who can vote actually come home and show how progressive the Irish community is now” – Rory Parnell Mooney
This is a personal issue like none other. For many, it’s a chance to help change Ireland, to allow it to evolve in the way that the historic same sex marriage referendum in 2015 did. This debate has ignited something powerful and vital in the minds of many Irish people at home and abroad. And as some of the Yes side’s campaign posters read: “Sometimes a private matter needs public support.” In an Instagram age, fashion is often the most effective way to express an argument visually. It’s replicable, scalable and can move fast. But it needs to be backed up with concrete action. “The whole Instagram thing, I’m a bit disillusioned by,” Malone added. “You can sit at home thinking [the vote is] going to go through, but it’s much more effective to go around and talk to people. You can get more traction around it when you speak face to face.” Now is the time for Irish people who believe in choice to have those conversations, to pick up the phone, make the travel arrangements and get to the ballot box on Friday 25th May.