Inside Story

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Ireland’s new body politics

22 June 2018

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


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 “