Inside Story

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3036 words

Ireland’s new body politics

22 June 2018

Ireland’s vote to legalise abortion is having a percussive impact on its neighbours

Right:

Sticking point: an anti-Brexit sign on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Paul McErlane/EPA

Sticking point: an anti-Brexit sign on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Paul McErlane/EPA


Tens of thousands of Irish women have travelled to Britain over the past half century to undergo an operation that is illegal, except in rare cases, in their own country. Thanks mainly to an array of trailblazing feminists, including June Levine, Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, Mary McGee and Nuala O’Faolain, the shroud of knowing silence began to lift as matters of procreation kicked their way in to Irish politics in the 1970s. Now, after a long and winding climb, Ireland has made the historic choice that means those lonely flights across the Irish Sea will no longer be necessary.

The constitutional amendment allowing the state to provide “for the regulation of termination of pregnancy” opens a fresh chapter in the Irish Republic’s history. It also has consequences across the border in Northern Ireland, where abortion is outlawed unless the mother’s life is at severe risk, and in London, where a Conservative government roiled by Brexit owes its survival to the votes of Northern Ireland’s leading party. An immediate effect of Ireland’s decision was to raise doubts about both Northern Ireland’s law and the Conservatives’ reliance on Northern Irish support. In embracing change for their own country, Irish voters have created new dilemmas to the north and the east.

It’s tempting to see some piquant justice at work here, given Ireland’s two years of anguish and rethinking since the United Kingdom’s narrow decision, two years ago, to leave the European Union. More seriously, the flow-on effects in Northern Ireland and Britain show how intimate the connections are between these two islands and two states in this corner of northwest Europe — and how taxing their political relationships have again become.


An unexpectedly emphatic vote has a cathartic effect, its primary colours redolent of a new dawn. So it was with Ireland’s referendum. After an intensely debated three-month contest, 66.4 per cent voted in favour of the implicit proposal to permit unrestricted abortions up to twelve weeks into pregnancy. Although opinion polls had shown the yes/side always ahead of no/níl, the scale of the result stunned winners and losers alike.

Tears, mostly of joy and relief, were shed and prayers said across that republic of 4.8 million. But an on-the-spot adjustment of so many people to an utterly changed reality is a hard thing to capture. Understandably, the main registers of public emotion as presented (and self-presented) in the immediate aftermath were euphoria and hyperbole. The delirious crowd in the forecourt of Dublin Castle was their emblem. Younger women, here as almost everywhere, were front and centre. In one signal of their passionate commitment, many expats had flown home in order to campaign in the final days before voting, which Irish electoral law requires to be done on the spot.

In seeing this “great act of democracy” as evidence of “a quiet revolution” in Ireland, the taoiseach, or head of government, Leo Varadkar deftly contextualised the general surprise. Three years after a referendum had led to the legalisation of same-sex marriage — an experience with faint echoes in Australia — here was further evidence of the country’s long-term evolution from theocracy towards a secular, tolerant and gender-equal outlook. Varadkar, a gay man of Indian and Irish parentage who took office in June 2017, is himself a fitting symbol of the metamorphosis.

Naturally enough, the celebrations of a resounding verdict framed how the event was initially read. Among the prominent themes were Ireland’s ethical progress and social maturity, women’s pivotal role in a yes/campaign — with experience-sharing and autonomous judgement at its heart — and the Catholic Church’s lost hegemony following a cascade of scandals. The evenness of voting patterns across the country, and the slimness of much discussed urban–rural and generational divides, turned a metropolitan fear of populist contagion almost into unironic pride in the “plain people of Ireland” (as once conjured by the subversive genius Brian O’Nolan). Of forty constituencies, only Donegal in the northwest voted no/níl, and then by a bare margin. In heady days, and by contrast with any general election in memory, it felt to many a colossal national affirmation.


The Dublin government’s principal concern now is to translate the people’s decision into statute, a process led by the thirty-one-year-old health minister Simon Harris, released from a frequently torrid brief to emerge as one of the campaign’s stars. The basis for legislation is a detailed outline published before the vote, which draws on the work of a citizens’ assembly set up in 2016 — under Enda Kenny, Varadkar’s predecessor as Fine Gael leader and taoiseachto consider longer-term themes of constitutional, demographic and climatic change.

Where abortion is concerned, this innovative assembly of ninety-nine citizens, randomly selected, is one mark of how Ireland’s governance has sought to learn from — and thus rise above — a history punctuated by anguish, struggle and tragedy. Several cases are seared into Irish public memory. The most reverberating is of thirty-one-year-old dentist Savita Halappanavar, originally from Karnataka in southwest India, who in 2012 was repeatedly refused termination of her miscarrying seventeen-week pregnancy when doctors at Galway University Hospital detected a foetal heartbeat. Two days of pain and distress were followed by spontaneous delivery of a female foetus, a coma, septic shock, multiple organ failure, and death from cardiac arrest.

This week-long calvary had a profound influence on Ireland’s abortion debate, its immediate result being the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. Many argue that the extremity of her experience made it a turning point in public opinion, whereas previous horrific instances — such as two victims of rape in their early teens caught up in a degrading legal–media spectacle — occurred on ground still routinely censorious of women and indulgent of powerful men, not least those in clerical garb. Politics, culture and the national pulse were yet to align.

The seeds of change had been long present. Control of procreation, fiercely enforced since the irruption of second-wave Irish feminism in 1970–71, sapped the church’s moral authority and wrested limited legal access to contraception. The degree of control also fuelled powerful counter-activism, manifest in referendums on abortion and divorce in the 1980s that saw the defeat of liberalising forces. But those forces had staying power, and as the church wasted its moral capital the Irish underwent a spiritual as much as a social revolution. Two more items in Éamon de Valera’s 1937 constitution, the crime of blasphemy and a clause defining women as homemakers, will be put to the people’s verdict in October.


It was inevitable that politics would soon elbow their way into the post-referendum party. For one thing, unqualified talk of a landslide remained in thrall to those nervous expectations. The turnout was 64.13 per cent, high by Irish referendum standards, meaning that two-fifths of voters backed “Repeal the Eighth.” (The popular slogan referred to the clause inserted in 1983 acknowledging “the right to life of the unborn,” which was backed by 67 per cent of voters on a 54 per cent turnout.) For another, in agreeing to the principle of change the latest referendum could not but leave the precise terms of legislation to further scrutiny. In both areas a chastened minority retains the numbers to make its voice heard.

Political divides will also re-emerge as the moral binaries of the campaign trail seek new vessels in the political mainstream. The suspension of party rivalry in the pro-reform cause was a remarkable sight, none more so than the coming together of such bitter opponents as Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin’s new president, Mary Lou McDonald, who has buoyed the party’s standing in the wake of Gerry Adams’s long-awaited retirement in February. Both parties are in flux: Fianna Fáil is more divided on abortion than its historic adversary Fine Gael, while Sinn Féin’s left-wing populism and appeal to younger, educated progressives — trends not dissimilar to those in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party — mask the rumbling of its own more traditional adherents.

Two more features of those early, jubilant hours would come into play. The scenes at Dublin Castle — widely broadcast, instantly emblematic, wholly unrepresentative — were scolded as unseemly, given that the matter at stake was existential. And an artfully crude cardboard sign declaring “the north is next,” flourished among the throng by McDonald and her colleague Michelle O’Neill, was a gauntlet thrown down to Northern Ireland. O’Neill had become leader of Sinn Féin in the north before the death in March 2017 of Martin McGuinness, Adams’s ancient Irish Republican Army comrade, thus inaugurating Sinn Féin’s generational and gender shift on both sides of a border it seeks to erase.

Arlene Foster, head of the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, which represents most of Northern Ireland’s Protestant voters, was quick to link these exhibits. She restated the DUP’s “pro-life” position and insisted that the referendum “has no impact upon the law” in the UK territory. The latter was technically correct: the north’s own abortion regime is still governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which then applied to a United Kingdom that included all of Ireland. But it was politically cloth-eared, especially during a stalemate in the polity’s governance that has lasted seventeen months and can only be broken by compromise. Abortion reform in the Republic, as well as same-sex marriage, make Northern Ireland an outlier in these islands and expose its approach to testing scrutiny.

The temperature of the issue was already rising. Women in Northern Ireland are arrested for buying abortion pills and many more (919 in 2017) go to England to have an abortion. Last year, parliamentary campaigning forced the UK government to pay the travel costs of poorer ones.

The Irish Republic may soon be hosting such trips. Ulster University’s Ann Marie Gray and her colleagues find consistent majority support in Northern Ireland for a reformed status quo under which abortion would be permitted in cases of rape, incest, serious foetal abnormality and grave risk to the mother. Indeed, abortion has been unusual as a topic where cautiously reformist opinion crosses the Protestant–Catholic religious divide. A political vice is now working on that.


The behemoths of the DUP and Sinn Féin are the very definition of natural adversaries. In startling reality, they were chained together in an executive as a belated effect of the power-sharing model inherent in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that ended the 1968–98 conflict. Their lucrative if always bifurcated coalition, resting on a “hermetically sealed dual ethnic bloc voting system,” nonetheless broke down — over the status of the Irish language, another front in Sinn Féin’s culture war — and the region is now governed by a London-appointed minister working with Belfast civil servants.

Foster is on the liberal flank of the DUP, and indeed espoused abortion reform when she was a young activist with its then larger and more moderate rival. She is trying to pull the DUP beyond a “toxic legacy” that includes “open hostility to gay rights,” according to the Belfast Telegraph’s Suzanne Breen. But her post-referendum blast of negativity came from the DUP’s comfort zone, and found her once-and-future-partners Sinn Féin equally in reflex mode: coating its ultra-nationalism in socially liberal colours.

Sinn Féin is hegemonic among Northern Ireland’s Catholics, a group that will overtake Protestants as the larger of the 1.9 million population’s main communities in coming years. Many of its members decry routine abortion, as the party itself did until very recently. Indeed, a striking feature of reporting outside Northern Ireland is the near-exclusive focus on the DUP’s anti-abortion stance, which skews complex reality into comforting shape.

Sinn Féin’s ard fheis (conference) in Belfast on 15–16 June endorsed the leadership’s proposal that, “based on the best available medical advice,” women should have access to abortions within “a limited gestational period.” Motions by two dozen branches and appeals for elected representatives to have a conscience vote were rejected. Mary Lou McDonald’s confident speech gave the party’s signature linguistic soufflé yet another whisk: from bid (“We [can] reclaim Ireland for all our people, in all of our diversity and difference”) through demand (“The DUP must embrace respect, reconciliation, and rights above all else”) via warning (“Unionism will not hold back the tide of change and equality”) to finale (“Ireland is no longer simply orange and green” but “a rainbow of identities and cultures”).

The DUP was soon besieged from London too, as members of parliament — including the party’s nominal allies in the Conservative Party and even the cabinet — argued that the UK exclave across the Irish Sea needs to be brought into line. Labour’s Stella Creasy, reinforced by the Tories’ Sarah Wollaston and others, pressed the government to impose Britain’s own abortion regime on Northern Ireland, irrespective of the fact that this would override the 1998 Act that devolves relevant powers to the region (as similar arrangements do to Scotland and Wales). The cause gained traction on 7 June when the UK Supreme Court found that elements of Northern Ireland’s abortion framework were incompatible with Europe’s human rights convention of 1950, though it declined to rule on the judicial review case before it.

Britain’s Abortion Act 1967 entailed not a comprehensive statute but a repeal of two sections of that 1861 law, merely giving legal protection to those performing an abortion. Its minimalism reflects the controversy of the time and still informs a reluctance to look afresh at the subject.

The Center for Reproductive Rights notes that “liberal interpretation of the law has made abortion services freely available in practice,” though the original twenty-eight-week limit for termination was reduced to twenty-four in 1991. That is still double Ireland’s planned first trimester, reflecting its own achieved consensus. Northern Ireland is nowhere near that level of decision; any initial reform is likely to focus on exceptional cases and take into account the views of its people in order to deliver an agenda that a solid majority could support.

Against this background, an abortion fiat by a British government would be at once democratic violation, constitutional absurdity and societal injury. But such is now par for the course in the United Kingdom. Moreover, London’s cack-handedness over Ireland can’t be overstated, and Theresa May is maladroit enough to prove it. Her influential adviser Damian Green, still occupying that position despite his belated resignation from cabinet during Westminster’s harassment scandal, says the government could “step in” if Belfast isn’t prepared to act on abortion. Into a minefield, it might be said.

These problems for Belfast and London following Ireland’s vote also stir latent panic over the country’s departure from the European Union. In Ireland, continuing disquiet over the narrow vote for Brexit — which majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland opposed — exists in super-concentrated form. Theresa May’s government relies on the (pro-Brexit) DUP’s ten MPs for its slender majority in the House of Commons, and benefits from the absence of (anti-Brexit) Sinn Féin’s seven, reflecting that party’s boycott of Westminster. It also faces an iron aversion, shared by the Republic and the north, to any return of a hard border between the island’s two states, which many argue would lead to disrupted lives, expensive controls and security threats. Ireland’s referendum, in exposing anew Belfast and London’s divergence over abortion law, also highlights these two capitals’ mutual dependency and animosity — and their shared political paralysis.


To the contrary, Dublin knows what it wants on key issues, as shown by the broad political consensus over Brexit and now abortion reform. A united Ireland, albeit weightier on people’s minds than for a generation, is more delicate. The early election Sinn Féin seeks, which may bring the party close to or inside government, will make the topic unavoidable. The counsel of the Irish Independent’s Dan O’Brien over the “partly British” character of any such animal might then gain the wider attention it deserves.

But leaving aside this other existential matter, the fact that Ireland’s habitual constitutional referendums are integral to the country’s governance means they underpin the Republic’s stability and legitimacy. The citizens’ assembly, still in its infancy, may become another such mechanism. Whereas in the class-bound and attritional United Kingdom, referendums work as a febrile calibration of populist sentiment with no defined role in a top-down constitutional jalopy: settling nothing and satisfying nobody. It’s little wonder that observers bask in the contrast between a forward-looking Ireland and its backward, dysfunctional neighbour.

It might be truer to say that Ireland and the United Kingdom are coping — one, on the whole, well and the other not — with a rare, stressful fusion of historical legacies (now of the 1990s as well as the 1920s) and multiple new forces driven by clashing agendas. The two states’ core interests remain aligned, though that can be hard to see amid current acrimony. It could also change if absolutist politics on different sides prevail.

The historian Roy Foster, writing just before the epic financial crisis in 2007, acutely characterised the evolving sensibilities of the Republic’s previous thirty years in terms of “How the Catholics Became Protestants.” The siege by “feminism and secularism” of “patriarchy and the Catholic Church,” though far from a linear process, as his study reveals, had been the engine of a revolution.

That revolution continues, as the abortion referendum shows, while the Republic’s neighbours to north and east undergo transformations of their own. In the first case, if the Protestants have not exactly become Catholics, the DUP’s recoil in face of Sinn Féin’s trolling liberalism has something of that. In the second, Brexit hacks at the root of an Ireland–Britain amity that grew from the mid 1980s to reach an apogee in the reciprocal heads-of-state visits of 2011 and 2014. Now the English and the Irish are moving past each other. But after all, peoples as well as individuals are allowed to change, aren’t they? As long as they take responsibility for what comes next. ●

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