Ireland's taoiseach Leo Varadkar has promised not to hold any referendum on legalising abortion at a time when many young people could be out of the country, after he was challenged by students from Queen's University Belfast.
"The student movement has a proud history of fighting for human rights and social justice, and we want to ensure that the referendum on the eighth amendment is held at a time when students can easily and fully engage their right to vote," Lucy Gault, vice president for education at Queen's, told BuzzFeed News.
Gault and fellow student union representatives Rachel Powell and Jessica Elder wore black "Repeal" jumpers to an event at the Northern Ireland university on Friday at which Varadkar discussed the impact of Brexit.
Abortion is currently illegal in almost all circumstances in the Republic of Ireland, according to the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, although a referendum to repeal the law is likely to take place in 2018 in response to public pressure.
Last week Varadkar came under fire for suggesting that a referendum could take place during the summer months, when many Irish students are likely to travel abroad. Ailbhe Smyth, chair of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, told The Times this “would effectively mean disenfranchising thousands of young people” who would find themselves unable to vote.
"If the referendum is held during the summer, a significant number of students may lose [the opportunity to vote] due to travelling or working," Gault told us.
"We do not want this to happen and opportunities like this give us the chance to highlight just how important it is to take the student body into account. We want to make sure the student voice is heard."
During a Q&A session at the event, Powell, who is from the Republic and is studying politics, philosophy, and economics at Queen's, took the opportunity to directly challenge Varadkar on the way in which the referendum's previously proposed timings might impact young people who travel or work abroad over the summer.
"Do you agree with us that in order to fully engage students, this referendum should be held outside of the summer months?” Powell, vice president for equality and diversity for the Queen's student union asked.
Varadkar said he believed that young people's voices should be heard in the referendum, and said that if a referendum had not taken place in May or June, he would aim to hold it in the "latter part of the year" instead.
"I definitely take the point and get the message that young people would like to have a referendum at a time that they are in the country so they can fully participate," Varadkar said. "So we will absolutely take that into account in setting a date."
Later on Friday, Powell told us Varadkar's response was "extremely significant".
"Now that the taoiseach is on record saying that he believes it would be best to hold this referendum when students are in the country, the student movement and wider repeal movement can hold him to account to ensure this does happen," she said.
"Students across Ireland played a huge role in the success of the Marriage Equality referendum in May 22nd 2015, and the taoiseach has praised this outcome many times and discussed cross-border healthcare.
"It is only fair that the students of Ireland are offered the opportunity to do the same with the eighth amendment referendum and be given a fair opportunity to vote."
The black "Repeal" jumper has become ubiquitous in the abortion rights movement in Ireland, with many women wearing them to demonstrations. Last year TD Ruth Coppinger was one of several members of Ireland's parliament to wear one in the House of the Oireachtas.
After the image of Powell, Gault, and Elder wearing the Repeal jumpers to Friday's event went viral on social media, Powell told us she was proud to have been able to make a statement that was both impactful and respectful.
"The rest of the UK has been paying a lot of attention to Northern Ireland due to some of our oppressive laws in relation to abortion and LGBTQ+ rights," she said.
"We felt that this was a chance to show the rest of Ireland that we in the North are standing in solidarity, that it is time for things to change, and that the student movement has and always will be proud advocates for social justice.
"Students have led many changes over the past and we should not be underestimated."
Abortion is also illegal in most circumstances in Northern Ireland, where the Abortion Act 1967 – the UK law allowing women to access the procedure – was never applied. While a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment would only affect abortion legislation in the Republic of Ireland, the "Repeal" jumper is often worn by women in the North as a mark of solidarity with those in the republic, as well as to highlight issues with abortion law in their own country.
Gault said that wearing the jumpers to Friday's event gave her, Powell, and Elder an opportunity to project a message about an issue that affects many of their fellow students.
"As elected officers we were invited to the event to represent our students and we felt that this was an opportunity to highlight the importance of the Repeal the Eight campaign," she said.
"Our intention was to make a subtle but powerful statement that we stand in solidarity with students both North and South of the border on this issue."
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at email@example.com.
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