Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. is a direct action performance and protest group based in London, established to raise awareness of the Irish and Northern Irish abortion laws, which effectively require women to travel to England to terminate pregnancies in almost all circumstances. I.M.E.L.D.A. is an acronym, which stands for ‘Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion’. The name Imelda has an older origin. ‘Imelda’ was the code word for abortion used by the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG), which helped women travelling from Ireland to access abortion in England. A code word was needed to protect women in the 1980s who might be telephoning to make arrangements (at a time when access to abortion information was heavily censored) on a shared line. The members of Speaking of Imelda usually wear red for performances. This is another gesture to to the IWASG, who might tell a woman travelling from Ireland by ferry and by train to look out at Paddington Station for the woman in the red skirt who would look after her for the night.
In the last six months or so, the Imeldas have adapted this image of practical care, secrecy and private solidarity for public protest. Some of the performers were members of the IWASG. Some are connected to the Spanish pro-choice organisation ‘My Belly Is Mine‘. Most are Irish women more recently settled in London. They have staged a variety of provocative actions. At the St. Patrick’s Day parade in London, women in red wheeling ‘solitary suitcases that scream one night only’, wove their way through the crowd of spectators, asking directions to the abortion clinic. In August, when the story of Miss Y broke, they stood on the steps of the Irish embassy to recite a ‘secular rosary’ of the names of Irish women subjected to gender-based violence by the Irish state.
Their most recent campaign is #knickersforchoice. During the holidays, the Imeldas appeared, in red headscarves and sunglasses, to polish up the brass and granite of the Irish embassy building with their underwear They have since asked supporters to take photos of knickers emblazoned with pro-choice slogans hanging in public places and tweet them with the hashtag #knickersforchoice. At the March for Choice in Dublin, they appeared in costume at the margins of the crowd, pints of Guinness in hand, with a banner asking for ‘choice in Ireland’ sewn out of bright red knickers. In the evening, they hosted a station where attendees could make their own #knickersforchoice.
On October 3rd, the Imeldas arrive at the Crown Moran Hotel in Cricklewood, but not all of them are in red. While some distribute informational knickers outside the hotel, two are undercover in dark dresses. They need to make it inside, to where the Taoiseach is the guest of honour at a Fine Gael dinner with
Irish emigrants based in London whose views on abortion are of no interest to the government donors paying 1200 euro a table. They are successful. They welcome him to England. As they chant reminders of the ’12 women a day’ who travel from Ireland to England for abortion, he reaches for a steadying glass of wine. A pair of knickers asking him to repeal the 8th Amendment is served to him at his table (one of his companions quickly covers it with a napkin to spare the Taoiseach’s gaze). Within less than a minute, they are steered out of the hall by security, setting off a rape alarm, still chanting “Solidarity to our Sisters in Ireland!”
Why is this sort of activism important? Why is it more than a bit of craic? Is it just a collection of improper insults, much less important than the real business of law reform? In In Spite of Plato, Adriana Cavarero retells Plato’s story of the Greek philosopher Thales and a young, attractive maidservant from Thrace. The philosopher was walking along, contemplating the stars, performing the great and important work of truth-seeking, distracted, when he fell into a well. The foreign slave girl laughed at him, because he had been so busy with what he thought of as grand conceptual matters that he has become awkward and clumsy around the real and the practical. She laughed because ‘she fully belonged to the world of life’, as a slave and as a woman. She belonged to ‘the services and concrete rhythms of life that the patriarchal order assigns to women’. This is an oppressive space, but hers was an unrestrained, and insightful and ‘desecrating’ laughter. It drew attention to the woman’s presence even where she has no place. It redirected focus to the facts of life, to the ways in which the lives of men and women are constrained.
The Imeldas’ mockery is important as a counterpoint to Fine Gael’s po-faced ‘statesmanship’. For the government, abortion is a matter of deep moral and political consequence for the entire populace – to be held away from the ballot box until the moment is exactly right. It is the constitutional issue of our time. It is a matter for cautious unpublished advice by the Attorney General. A referendum cannot be rushed. A proper political debate should not be allowed to excite undue passion. Reform cannot be triggered by the mere facts of any individual case, but must be preceded by careful weighing of abstract propositions. The purpose of any legislation is to keep the floodgates of choice firmly closed.
And then, in Cricklewood, the Taoiseach is ‘knickerbombed’ into embarrassment. The mockery, with its connotations of sex and scandal – dirty laundry – creates a space in which he can be reminded of troublesome reality. His dinner is, for a moment, spoiled.
I wonder did they bring him a fresh plate?