“Women Making History” National Women Council of Ireland AGM Speech by Minister for Health, Simon Harris TD Thursday 21 June 2018
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased and honoured to be here this morning at the National Women’s Council of Ireland AGM and I would like to thank Orla O’Connor for her kind invitation to make the opening address at this prestigious event.
The theme of today’s AGM is more than apt – “Women Making History”.
In 1918 the women of Ireland won the right to vote. This year, 100 years later, we have another significant date to mark; on Friday 25 May 2018 the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill which will expand the rights of Irish women.
While women have fought and achieved many rights over the past 100 years including the right to contraception, divorce, and equal pay – we know we have much unfinished business. We still live in an unequal society and so the journey must continue. Whether it is the gender pay gap, violence against women, or the need to see more women in politics, on state boards, or in leadership positions in all fields, we have a way to go but the referendum has shown us we can find that way. We have the momentum for a continuum of change that has been too long coming.
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, passed in 1983, impacted the lives of a whole generation of women in Ireland and they campaigned for decades to delete it.
It is important that we acknowledge the unwavering work of many women over many years, some since 1983 and before, in campaigning for the rights of women.
Most particularly, in the recent past, I want to acknowledge the Together for Yes campaign which built a coalition of compassion right across our country and fought so hard to deliver the result we got.
I think we can all agree that the result was a historic step for our country. For me it was the country telling women that they are trusted, that they are valued and that they are equal.
For some, that moment, that resounding message, was marked by what they considered an overly celebratory response. That was certainly not how I saw it.
When a call for compassion is met in kind, it is no small feeling. I felt that in the courtyard of Dublin Castle – not celebration, but relief from the fear of rejection. That sadly well-founded and real fear borne of many years of experience. Over the course of the week before the vote, I met many women and shared their apprehension about how it would go. I met no complacency, nor even confidence. The result when it came not only exceeded expectation, it surpassed our highest hopes.
Sometimes when history is made, it can feel like an end, but this most certainly did not. From the women who have been campaigning for many, long years and from the women more recently engaged by the campaign just gone, I could hear the question: what next? I want to play my part in answering and to outline to you this morning the next steps I will take and the work I hope will build upon the impetus for equality, and particularly for women’s health care, which must come from the referendum result.
I am determined to now implement the will of the people without delay. I went straight back to Government at the end of May for approval to draft a Bill to Regulate Termination of Pregnancy based on the General Scheme published in March this year, the provisions of which were debated during the referendum campaign.
It is my clear intention to have the legislation finalised in July and commenced by January 2019.
However, as I am sure you are aware; three applications for permission to challenge the result of the referendum have been made to the High Court under section 42 of the Referendum Act 1994.
The court process may mean a delay in progressing the legislation through the Houses but I can assure you that while the Court process is ongoing, Officials in my Department and the Office of the Attorney General are meeting regularly to progress the drafting of the Bill. I will deliver every bit of progress I can while we wait for the courts to conclude their work.
And as you know this is not just about the legislation. We are also developing and planning the services necessary to support the implementation of the legislation.
We will develop woman-centred services to effectively operate the expanded grounds for termination of pregnancy set out in the legislation.
We will implement the ancillary recommendations made by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment including a broad programme of women’s health services available in community care settings delivered by doctors, nurses and midwives, and the network of crisis pregnancy counsellors.
We will develop services in hospital settings in line with the maternity strategy to support the legislation.
And we will devise the access and eligibility arrangements for these services. There will be equitable access regardless of ability to pay or geographic location.
We are working with relevant stakeholders including the HSE and medical colleges to develop these services and the clinical guidelines around their operation.
I want to state quite clearly that conscientious objection will of course be facilitated but it cannot be contemplated that there would not be appropriate referral in these circumstances and we will ensure that there will be.
I’m not usually in favour of exclusion but I see, all too blatantly I’m afraid, the need for exclusion zones. I want to assure you also that I have asked my Department to consider the legislative measures required to ensure that our maternity hospitals or any other providers of women’s health care will not be subject to the kind of offensive imagery we have seen continue to be displayed in recent weeks.
All of these elements are necessary so that we can start new services in this country by year end.
I am determined to get this done but I am also determined to get it right, for women and doctors.
The cross-party collaboration which we experienced during the referendum campaign is essential and something we owe to the Irish people in delivering on the resounding result they have given us. I am determined to maintain it and I believe this is true of a majority of the Oireachtas.
The next steps to deliver on the referendum result must be accompanied by the next steps it requires us to take to deliver on a new approach to women’s health.
I am pleased to announce today that work is now under way on a national women’s health action plan and that my Department and the HSE are working with the Women’s Council on this. This work will draw together actions from a range of programmes impacting the health of women and girls; including the Early Childhood Programme and the Tobacco Programme, the Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme, the Perinatal and Mental Health Programme and the Maternity and Infant Health Programme as well as significant work under the Primary Care and Social Inclusion areas.
Notwithstanding the many challenges which lie ahead, there can be no doubt, that we have come a long way. If we think back to the 1970’s when rights were very different, purchasing contraception was illegal, women were forbidden to sit on a jury and women were expected to give up their jobs in the public sector when they got married.
The Ireland we live in today is a very different country thankfully, and thanks to many years of hard work by this organisation and others, and we are now a country which, I hope, is finally beginning to value women and women’s contribution.
The Repeal of the Eighth Amendment is a transformation which did not happen overnight but came about over many years of persistent effort by committed activists, citizens and public representatives from all walks of life. Women were at the heart of the movement and, in particular, the NWCI contributed enormously to this.
But I say again – and I say so mindful of your unfinished feminism hashtag – it was not the end. I know my work is absolutely not finished and I commit to continuing to work with you to deliver for the women and girls of Ireland.
I do so as a man who shared the concerns we all had that men might not participate in the referendum, that somehow we might recuse ourselves from our part in it for one reason or another. That it didn’t happen was not only a great relief but a great opportunity. We were Together for Yes; now we must be Together for More. And I believe we will be.