• Jo Murphy-Lawless

Citizen Action

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

On December 4th last year the Vienna-based Innovations in Politics Institute held their third annual award ceremony in Berlin celebrating creative and original political actions which have been initiated with the help of elected politicians in countries across Europe. From over 400 entries, a list of eighty finalists, ten each in eight categories, had been voted for by an online citizen panel open to all living in EU countries.

A group of us from the Elephant Collective were at the Innovations in Politics event representing Clare Daly, now MEP but then TD (MP) in the Dáil (Irish parliament), who with her staff had worked since 2014 with extraordinary energy to help gain a new law, the Coroners (Amendment) Act 2019.

At its centre is the regulation that all maternal and late maternal deaths are now subject to mandatory inquests and thus to full public scrutiny.

This has been a hard-won law, stretching back to the death of a young Nigerian woman, an asylum seeker, Bimbo Onanuga, following her collapse in the Rotunda Hospital in 2010. We, the Elephant Collective (so named because elephants surround the elephant cow when she is giving birth to protect her and her calf) sought Clare Daly’s help, first in asking questions about Ms Onanuga and the absence of an automatic inquest following her unexpected death.

That inquest was granted in late 2012 and began on the penultimate day of the inquest for Savita Halappanavar in 2013. The verdict for both women, medical misadventure, matched the verdicts in six other inquests which families fought hard to obtain between 2007 and 2013. Those eight maternal deaths and how families struggled against extensive institutional disinformation, trying to find out why their wives, partners, and mothers of their children had died, became the basis for a concerted campaign, with Clare Daly working in the Dáil, while the Elephant Collective toured the country between 2015 and 2019 with a multi-media exhibition which attracted widespread participation and support from communities at all levels for this crucial change in law.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the right to life, also states that in the event of an unexpected death, the person’s family has the right to know why that death has occurred. Clare Daly’s work in securing this legislation, first as a private members bill and then pursuing it forensically through all stages as a government bill, albeit with many bumps along the way, is what brought us to Berlin as finalists in the human rights category.

On the night, a very worthy project on safe harbours for fleeing migrants, put together by 16 German municipalities, received the award in the human rights category.

But what we learned in a working session in the afternoon, entitled ‘Cake and Politics’ was reward in itself. This was citizens’ Europe, alive with inventiveness, responding to truly pressing problems countries are facing, utilising government administrations at all levels, local and national, to achieve small but substantive changes. The best of these projects reached upwards and outwards: like a small town in Finland, Ii, winning the ecology award for dramatically lowering carbon emissions with the involvement of their schools. A number of sterling projects from Ireland were entered as finalists, including one on increasing voters’ participation in Monaghan and the Fossil Fuels Divestment Act involving the Strategic Investment Fund, introduced and steered through the Dáil by another independent TD Thomas Pringle. In a way, these projects are all connected: protecting women and families, protecting the futures for migrant families made homeless, protecting the environment in which we must all live, encouraging all citizens and newly-arrived citizens to our shores to go and vote to secure a government and legislature to pursue these objectives.

So these projects, along with our one, are critical in a number of ways: shifting people from a perspective that we face so many problems it is hard to know how or where to begin, to actually getting dug in and fighting adroitly to connect public consciousness and political power. We came away identifying the amazing scope there is to develop important initiatives from the grass roots and how these can achieve solid political change.

Unlike many of the projects in Berlin, the Elephant Collective had no local, regional or national funding, no paid staff, nothing but sheer hard work and the synergy between citizens and a dedicated parliamentarian, based on trust. And generosity. And a few cake sales. This was equality in action, challenging dislocations between people and dysfunctional institutions head-on. And it worked. The bill’s passage into law is a signal victory. Greater accountability will, we hope, lead to safer, better-staffed maternity services for all women.

We are not in the least naïve about this aim. A key clause in the legislation gives coroners full powers of compellability, including leave to go to the High Court, to obtain hospital records so often hidden from families and lay people.

By the time this blog is published, Ireland will have gone to the polls in a general election and the whole country will have been deeply immersed in the counting of votes and transfers under proportional representation and the single transferable vote (we get the last full measure out of our single vote under PR-STV!). Our maternity services are in deepest trouble as reflected in the inquests we have had on maternal deaths. Poor maternity services commit violence against women, their babies and their families, of which the very worst is the loss of life. But so many other aspects of people’s core needs are being neglected and require that citizens stand up to demand concrete change. In the midst of this election campaign, on a perishing cold night, a young homeless woman gave birth on a street corner in Dublin at 1am in the morning. It is a miracle that she and her baby survived.

So I have been so pleased and eager to help the Midwives Association of Ireland produce the Midwives Manifesto for GE2020. Again this was vital collective work ending with the marvellous artistic flourish of newly qualified midwife Deb Hadley.

We have written as tight a briefing document as we could to detail the precise facts about our dysfunctional services. And what better way has there been to greet the hopeful politicians and canvassers knocking on our doors than to have copies of the Manifesto printed out and ready to give to them. You can view the Manifesto here.

As soon as the Dáil reconvenes with a new government, we will pursue our political establishment with all the learning we have gained about ours and others’ citizen actions. And we hope this will also provide an encouraging example and impetus for other vital grass roots actions by committed citizens elsewhere.

#politicalcontextofbirth #maternitycare #midwifery #pregnancy