Relief for the women of Ireland as change is achieved through real stories

This piece was originally published in a shorter Dutch version on Photo credit Melissa Mannion, Galway.

The voices of Irish women set out a vision of a hopeful future for all


After the abortion referendum in Ireland, Irish writer Alice Burke takes stock. “After years of confusion and insufficient medical care for women, Irish voters have changed the course of the narrative: It’s time for self-determination, with room for free, safe and legal abortion.”

Growing up in Ireland we had an expression: “Getting the boat to England.” It was our euphemism for an abortion, heading across the waves to a country where it was allowed. We all knew women who got the boat to England, so common was the need to head off and seek reproductive healthcare elsewhere. Heading over to England was a byword for not being looked after in Ireland, for knowing that you would be shamed for a teenage pregnancy, a pregnancy outside of marriage, or for seeking an abortion for any reason at all.

Just over one week ago, a woman in Ireland who took abortion pills was a criminal who could face 14 years in prison. A woman in Ireland who became sick and needed chemotherapy during her pregnancy was unable to procure an abortion and receive treatment, even if her own life was at risk. A woman in Ireland whose world shook beneath her when she found out that a much-wanted baby had birth defects and would not survive long outside the womb could not choose a peaceful death for her child, but instead had to endure the rest of her pregnancy and deliver a child certain to die.

On Friday May 25th, the world changed for the women of Ireland, and the ground shook not in sorrow, but in assured relief that no longer would women need to travel to foreign jurisdictions to access life-saving healthcare.

On that day, voters said yes to repealing the 8thamendment to the Irish constitution that effectively made the life of a foetus equal to the life of the mother, prohibiting healthcare professionals from effectively caring for women’s reproductive health across the spectrum.

During the run-up to the referendum to Repeal the 8thamendment, a Facebook pagewas set up to allow women to anonymously submit their stories of how they were treated in Ireland when they needed an abortion. Thousands of women came forward.

“…The 8th has impacted on me, and I bear the physical and emotional scars of that impact. The 8th affects every single pregnancy in this country and is a toxic element in our maternity care,” said one.

“I can’t imagine having had to carry that pregnancy. I can’t imagine bringing an unwanted ‘life’ into this world; a ‘life’ that was conceived in a violent, hateful, non-consensual way. That is not what I would want for a mother or a child. Yet, this is what happens in my home. Ireland”, said another.

The stories ran for weeks, endless tales of loss, tragedy, oppression but also freedom and hope. Women opened up to each other and – in many cases – themselves and their own families for the first time. Close friends of mine took part, sharing stories of having to travel abroad for terminations in cases where they knew their much-loved babies would not survive being born, pouring their hearts out to complete strangers online. We watched in awe of the strength of these women, and make no mistake, the campaign was won by fierce truth and great courage of these women. Cloaks of shame became swords of honour, and every lost child was remembered with love in the midst of it all.

The Yes campaign became a space of sharing and support for women, where years of silence due to societal pressure and often religious conservatism had erased stories like this.

Watching from afar as an Irish emigrant, it was phenomenal to see my country grow and stretch itself in this way. In 2015, I watched from afar as Ireland voted Yes to same-sex marriage, with 62% of voters approving the changes to the constitution. This time, I watched as over 66% of voters said Yes to reproductive healthcare and access to abortion for women, and felt immense pride at what Ireland has become in such a short space of time.


Ask almost any Irish woman who Savita Halappanavar was, and she’ll talk to you about a case that brought this issue to the fore for many of those Yes voters. Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist, living in Galway on Ireland’s west coast who lost her life as a result of confusion relating to the 8thamendment.

Savita was 17-weeks into an otherwise healthy pregnancy when she began to miscarry, and was exposed to sepsis. The law in force at the time stated that the act of abortion where there was no immediate physiological threat to the woman’s life was a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment. By the time Savita’s sepsis had become life threatening, it was too late to help her. A midwife in the hospital attempted to explain the situation to Savita’s husband by saying Ireland was “a catholic country”. Savita’s daughter was stillborn, and Savita died, another name on the list of women lost to the cruelty of the 8thamendment.

But the death of Savita would prove to be a turning point for the entire pro-choice movement in Ireland. No longer were people polarised by the Catholic Church or social norms, people now saw the 8thamendment for what it was: a confusing, badly enacted piece of legislation that was leading to barbaric conditions for pregnant women.

During the run-up to the referendum, many on the pro-life side tried to paint an Ireland of rural vs urban, of catholic vs atheist, but at the end of the day there was only one side that mattered; the side of compassion. Only one constituency in the whole island voted against repealing the amendment. The need for equality of reproductive care and access to safe abortion united all age groups, all genders and all backgrounds.

With legislation currently being drawn up and expected to be in place by the end of the year, it won’t be too long before Irish women can go into a pregnancy with confidence that if the worst happens, they do not have to get on a ferry or a plane to stay safe. It’s estimated that approximately 170,000 Irish women travelled abroad to procure an abortion between 1980 and 2016, with over 1500 of those women receiving abortions in the Netherlands.

It is also estimated that those figures are much lower due to under-reporting, and also do not account for women taking black market abortion pills.

Several days after the referendum, on a well-known Irish radio programme, Jane, a clinical midwife specialist in foetal medicine in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital spoke about what the result meant for the medical community in Ireland. She expressed reserved relief that safe guidelines could now be developed for patients and professionals, and talked about her worry during the years when having to send patients off into the streets knowing they would need to go elsewhere to seek a safe abortion whilst grieving for a wanted pregnancy.

The host of the show asked her how many times in her professional career had she been faced with a couple or a woman who said “I just don’t understand why you can’t take care of me here”. It was the only time in the interview that her sharply professional voice showed her true emotions. “Too many times to imagine; every day, of every week. It is heartbreaking. I think this legislation now will mean that we care for our patients in our country.”

That is the hope of every Irish person who voted yes, that we can now take care of pregnant women in a safe and responsible way, and that those same parameters for reproductive care are extended to our sisters in Northern Ireland before long.



The valley of the squinting windows


Seeing as it’s Christmas and I haven’t shared many stories on here about life in The Hague, I thought I’d let you in on a gross little tale that’s been going on in my life since I moved in May.

Much like Luka, I live on the second floor, and directly across from me, in a near identical block of flats, lives a man who, almost nightly, watches what one might refer to as nudie flicks on his extremely large television.

He doesn’t close his Venetian blinds, he doesn’t appear to indulge in any manual vigorousness, he just sits down and watches terrible people riding for hours. And hours. And more hours. I have made complex and laborious stews and eaten them and taken a a nap and when I’m washing my plate he is still just arsing around watching Sasha and Josh bate the sexy heads off each other in a police station. (He is very into police-themed stuff.)

He’s upped the ante since the nights got darker, so now I can’t so much as make a cup of tea after 7pm without seeing a HD fanny a few yards away.

Sometimes he sits at his desk near his window and browses stuff on his computer while the panoramic intercourse takes place in the background. Ordering a few bits off Amazon while Shirley does reverse cowgirl over his shoulder. He must just like the sound of it. Just sitting by the wintery seaside, in a soundscape of moans and seagulls. My very odd neighbour.


Game of Thrones Fan Appointed European Vice President: A Brief History of Frans Timmermans








(This piece was published in August’s edition of The Holland Times, right before it was revealed that Timmermans would be appointed as an EU Vice President in Jean-Claude Juncker’s new commission.)

Recent weeks have seen the profile of Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans gain widespread attention internationally, much of it in light of his sensitive handling of the MH17 tragedy in the eyes of the world’s media. Considering much of the attention garnered by those holding a political rank is generally of a critical nature, it has made a refreshing change to see Mr Timmermans bring about a renewed sense of positivity in politics. The Holland Times examines the rise of Mr Timmermans and how he uses social platforms to communicate his political message.

A member of the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA), Mr Timmermans was born in 1961 in Maastricht, attended elementary school in Belgium and then high school in Italy, moves which presumably provided the basis for his linguistic aptitude; Mr Timmermans speaks fluent English, German, French, Italian and Russian.

Mr Timmermans had a solid but relatively low-key start to his career when, in 1987, he became an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague. In 1990, he was appointed Second Embassy Secretary at the Dutch embassy in Moscow.

After a brief period back in The Hague, Mr Timmermans became a member of the staff of then European Commissioner Hans van de Broek. He later became advisor and private secretary to the High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 1998, he was a member of the House of Representatives for the PvdA, a capacity within which he dealt principally with foreign affairs.

In the fourth Balkenende government, Mr Timmermans was Minister for European Affairs. After the fall of that government he returned as the PvdA’s spokesperson on foreign policy. In November 2012, Mr Timmermans was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Rutte-Asscher government.

What makes Timmermans so appealing to Dutch and international media seems to be his honesty and directness in addressing political issues. He has often stressed his view that politics must be addressed to the public in a transparent manner and often touches on cornerstones of popular culture to get his point across in an clear manner. Mr Timmermans is an avid Facebook user, often shunning traditional press releases in favour of a direct status update to his 190,000 followers. In recent weeks he has used the page to highlight his love of Bruce Springsteen, inform people on the outcome of meetings related to the MH17 tragedy and declare support for International Women’s Day.

In 2013, he gave a speech at the Google Zeitgeist conference in London that referenced one of the most popular fantasy series of recent years, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and compared its themes to those of current European politics:

Game of Thrones sort of captures the Zeitgeist more than anything else I’ve seen,” said Mr Timmermans. “One of the most important catch phrases of the series is ‘winter is coming.’ And ‘winter is coming’ in the series means a lot of different things to different people. ‘Winter is coming’ to some means, you know, ‘Hide because hard times are coming, we can’t do anything about it, and the only thing we can do is hide away.’ For others, it means: ‘winter is coming, that’s an opportunity to show how strong we are, because we — in this case, the Starks in the series — we are wolves and wolves are best when they are challenged and winter is a challenging time and will give us an opportunity to be better.’”

Following his TEDxAmsterdam speech in 2009, Mr Timmermans gave an interview with TED and when asked what the Dutch Parliament could learn from the structure of TED talks, where a speaker presents an idea to a captive audience on a generally inspirational topic, Mr Timmerman replied: “Politicians who are able to make their point within 18 minutes, without looking at their notes, or chasing away their public – would really make a difference. Politics does not communicate [to] the way people want to be addressed.”

Regardless of whether you view him as a rare specimen – an honest politician – or as a clever user of social media and a gifted reader of public sentiment, the directness of Mr Timmerman’s words speak to people in ways that political rhetoric often does not. In his now widely shared United Nations address on the MH17 crash, Mr Timmermans appealed to the humanity of his fellow politicians “Just for one minute, I want to say that I am not addressing you as representatives of your countries, but as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, just imagine… To my dying day, I will not understand why it took so long for rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs. For remains to be used in a political game? If someone around this table talks about a political game, this is it, this is the political game, it has been played with human remains and it is despicable.”

With words as strong as that in a time of great human distress, it is easy to see why Mr Timmermans is being welcomed as a refreshing alternative to a what is commonly perceived to be a distant political elite.

How the world’s media saw the Netherlands in 2013

There has been plenty of coverage of Dutch stories over the last year in the international press. ALICE BURKE takes a look at some reporting on the Netherlands from outside the country last year.
It has been a year of highlights for the lowlands; the coronation of King Willem Alexander, the announcement that after a year in economic recession, we had finally emerged on the other side, and a stunning summer with temperatures peaking at 31 degrees Celsius in mid-July. We also had some not so positive moments, with relations with Russia becoming increasingly strained as the year progressed, a progression that stood out as being even more disappointing considering that 2013 had been pitched as a “year of friendship” to strengthen bilateral relations between the countries.  It was a year where the UN took us to task on the issue of Zwarte Piet, a move that does not seem to have had any impact on the traditional festivities so far. We also bid farewell to Prince Friso, who passed away in August following a skiing accident in February of 2012. Let’s take a look at the year, and find out how the world’s media saw us at various points throughout 2013.
January’s main news story from the Netherlands was the same the world over: the announcement of the abdication of Queen Beatrix. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s (VVD) quote that the Queen had “applied herself heart and soul for the Dutch society” was a particular favourite of broadsheets from London to New York.
In February, the world saw wave after wave of revelations pertaining to horsemeat masquerading as beef in supermarkets and wholesalers internationally. The Guardian reported on allegations that a Breda warehouse was potentially at the centre of the distribution ring of the infamous horsemeat. The company involved, Draap Trading, “is a Cypriot-registered company, run from the Antwerp area of Belgium, and owned by an offshore vehicle based in the British Virgin Islands. Draap spelled backwards is the Dutch word for horse,” explained the Guardian, showing that sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte made international headlines for very different reasons than usual in March, with Vanity Fair proclaiming him to be the world’s 3rd best-dressed world leader. “The Dutch prime minister’s crinkly eyed smile and lush, impressive-on-a-20-year-old hairline appear all the more ruggedly handsome aside his delicate frameless glasses. His classic, understated style suggests his tailor must be as good as his optometrist,” they wrote of Prime Minister Rutte.
April saw the coronation of the King, and also a sharp-tongued opinion piece in The New York Times, entitled “Ditch the King. Hire an Actor.”  Arnon Grunberg wrote “And wouldn’t it be nice if, from now on, auditions were held for the roles of king and queen? One could probably find candidates who have far more acting ability than the current royal family and who would also be willing to perform for a fraction of the salary.”
Earthquakes in Groningen made the news across the water in June, with The Telegraph reporting on tremors caused by the extraction of gas from shale rocks in the region.  The report was dark in its predictions: “Last year, the Dutch state made 12 billion British pounds in government revenues from the Groningen gas fields and if the cash flow was switched off the country would quickly go bankrupt.”
Immigration once again raised its head in August, with The Economist reporting that, “worries about workers from eastern Europe are changing Dutch politics”. The article discussed the lack of Dutch workers employed at power stations in Eemshaven and showed us once again how our politicians can never resist a good dyke metaphor, referencing an article by Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA), vice prime minister, where he said “the dykes are on the point of breaking.” Buried in the piece is a mention of a study carried out by the Ministry of Social Affairs, which pointed out that “most east European immigrants take jobs that no Dutch worker would accept, such as picking vegetables in greenhouses.”
Overall, a year of mixed news. We will never escape the prominence of the immigration issue it would seem, and the monarchy remains a topic of heated debate, as the monarchy always does in any country. We saw St. Jude the storm batter the north of the country and take a life in Amsterdam, and we’ll surely see a December of discussions regarding how big the freeze will be for the winter. But we can all agree on one thing; the hope that 2014 bring more good news than bad for the Netherlands.

Music of the Lowlands


I live on a former canal in a former potato-monger’s warehouse around the corner from the poor, unfortunate annex of the Franks. I arrived here on a freezing day of February of this year, the canal at the end of the road turned to thick ice. The year warmed, the summer arrived slowly and beautifully and I learned that my chosen home is the epicentre of drunken Dutch singing. I’ve written before about the Sunday karaoke in the bar facing my bedroom window. The endless procession of wine-filled, pot-bellied singers turns my usually hungover Sunday evenings into an odd carnival. The people of the Netherlands don’t appear to have an in-between setting when it comes to celebrating, it’s either an air of detachment or raucous wildness that borders on the unhinged. In Ireland we only have the latter, so i’m quite at home here.

It started with Queen’s Day back in April. Everyone wears orange. I do not mean that people wear an orange brooch or an amber hat on an otherwise ordinary outfit. I mean that everyone wears orange everything. The drinking starts early, the streets fill, roads cease to exist as they all turn into makeshift dancefloors. To put it succinctly, the world and their mothers get unmercifully shitfaced and sing songs of yesteryear. And when enough drink has been taken, you’ll get the odd classic like this thrown in…
On Friday morning of last week, I woke to the sound of heavy machinery and that horrendously irritating noise a truck makes when it’s reversing. Some large men were advancing in their attempt to construct an enormous stage about 20 feet from my window. I sadly couldn’t stay around all weekend to witness the ensuing mayhem, but I did see a man dressed as a cross between Woody the toy cowboy and Ruud Gullit take a piss against the front wall of the house, which was more amusing than I can accurately describe.
This weekend, it’s the Jordaan Festival,, a tribute to Dutch folk music and particularly the songs of Mr Johnny Jordaan.
There is something of the night about the Jordaan Festival, and I am entirely at a loss to say why. Walking to the shop earlier on a man barked at me. Like it was de rigeur to do this to a tracksuited woman at 9 pm of a Sunday evening. Several brazen looking youngfellas have been whizzing up and down the street on scooters for what feels like 24 hours. Woody Gullit showed up again and danced at the junction of the streets. Whilst dancing he made a shrieking sound not unlike a sound effect from The Shining. Somebody broke the metal carousel you have to walk through to get in to the supermarket and it’s now thrown haphazardly across some crates of courgettes. There is a very strange black skidmark on the footpath, which calls to mind District 9.
The songs will continue long into tonight. But it’s a very lovely thing to feel the heartbeat of a city, even if it’s noisy. The winter will be quiet enough and long enough, the music is welcome now.