Ireland's quiet revolution wins freedom of choice Dublin caste waiting for result. Photo: Beatrice White

Ireland’s quiet revolution wins freedom of choice

On May 25, 2018, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of women’s right to choose whether to give birth or not.  This attests to a deep transformation within Irish society that has taken place over just a few decades, and seems to be in contrast with the developments in some East and Central European member states of the EU, where women’s rights are under substantial pressure.

The 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution had hitherto made it effectively impossible to legislate for abortion even in the most extreme of circumstances. On May 25th it was repealed with 66.4% of the votes. The surprise with which the result was greeted is evidence of a monumental shift in public attitudes and opinions in Ireland – one that was under-estimated by campaigners but also by policy-makers, long reluctant to touch the issue of abortion, regarding it as too politically sensitive. As Minister for Health Simon Harris put it while the final votes were being counted, this is an issue on which “the people led, and the politicians followed”.

Both the vote in favour and turnout (64%) were even higher than for the referendum on marriage equality for same-sex couples, held in 2015. Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland, was the only area with a ‘No’ vote overall, with the highest ‘Yes’ vote – that is in support of repealing the 8th – to be found in the capital (at 78% for Dublin Bay South). The demographic shift in attitudes was highlighted by the fact that 87% of 18-24-year-olds votes Yes. Turnout among women was much higher than at previous general elections, testifying to their high level of engagement with a mobilisation that was not only led but also driven by women across the country. Male participation, on the other hand, was lower, as some men viewed the question as a ‘women’s issue’ and chose to stay away.

The result was hailed by Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach (prime minister), as a “quiet revolution” but there wasn’t much that was quiet about the outpouring of relief and elation that followed the official announcement in Dublin Castle on May 26th that the 8th amendment had been repealed. Although many expected it would pass, few predicted such a landslide. “We were confident of a win”, said Green Party Councillor Roderic O’Gorman reacting to the result, “but 66% is shocking. I think we’re seeing a change in Irish society – an openness, an understanding that the old traditionalist, Catholic dogmas are being swept away – not before time, but I think it’s significant that it’s being done so publicly”.

The people led, and politicians followed

The  8th amendment of the Irish Constitution, equating the right to life of the ‘unborn’ with that of the mother, was introduced in 1983 following a referendum. Although abortion had been illegal in Ireland since the foundation of the state, those who put forward the amendment sought to stoke fears it would be introduced into Ireland, in the wake of liberalisation of abortion regimes in Britain, the EU, and the US. Rights organisations both within and outside of Ireland, backed by the UN, concluded that Ireland’s abortion laws were leading to serious human rights violations on the grounds that the situation gave rise to systematic discrimination against women and girls, interfered with their right to privacy and autonomy, as well as their right to medical treatment, and generally amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

“I think everyone agrees that the law as it stands is unfit for purpose not satisfactory from any point of view”, said Seána Glennon, a member of lawyers for choice and solicitor from Longford. The women most affected by the restrictions are often the most vulnerable women, those “who can’t afford to travel or asylum seekers under Direct Provision who can’t leave the country to get an abortion, some of whom might have fled because they were raped,” she added.


Votes being counted at the RDS the day after the referendum. Photo: Beatrice White

“The 8th was part of secrecy and hypocrisy that characterised this era”, explained former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness at a public event in central Dublin a few days ahead of the vote. “There is less secrecy in Ireland today – since the facts about women travelling and taking abortion pills have to be accepted – but the hypocrisy is alive and flourishing, and takes the form of accepting but ignoring Irish women’s abortions”, judge McGuinness said. Since 1980 at least 170,000 Irish women have travelled to the UK for abortions and it is estimated that every day an average of three women take abortion pills ordered online, with no medical support or supervision at home. Taking these pills carries a 14-year jail sentence.

Many in the medical profession are deeply ashamed of this situation, as it prevents them from being able to provide care or even proper information to their patients. “These women are committing a crime, so of course they won’t go to their doctors”, said Veronica O’Keane of Doctors for Choice, speaking at a public meeting in Coolock at the end of April, “In Ireland we have been indulging in a psychotic fantasy that it isn’t happening but it is happening – we need to wake up to reality and support women already having abortions”.

Although campaigners had been active on this issue for decades, a number of high profile cases contributed to bringing the issue onto the public agenda. The most notable was the case of Savita Halappanavar whose death in October 2012, after she was denied a termination, sparked outrage and calls for change. Vigils and protests were held, and the annual ‘marches for choice’ saw their numbers skyrocket.

In response, the government held a ‘Citizens assembly’ which brought together a representative sample of 100 citizens who were presented with facts, and listened to people from all sides of the debate. This process generated scepticism among those who saw it merely as a way of delaying dealing with the issue, but in a determining and surprising turn of events, the assembly came back with a series of far-reaching  recommendations submitted at end of June 2017, advocating a liberalisation of abortion laws that exceeded by far what many would have expected. A cross-party parliamentary committee was then appointed, which reviewed these recommendations and set out a legislative framework, in a somewhat scaled-back proposal in comparison to the recommendations submitted. This involved access to abortion without restriction up until 12 weeks and afterwards only in limited circumstances, bringing Ireland in line with most other EU countries. But despite its conservative nature, many still feared there was a tough fight ahead to win public approval for the proposal.

A group of canvassers for the Yes Campaign in Finglas, North Dublin. Photo: Beatrice White

Door-to door versus online campaigning

Foreign interference and misinformation online were some of the main pitfalls that risked undermining the public debate around the referendum, particularly in light of the recent evidence uncovered of manipulation from abroad in other referendums and elections worldwide. This  prompted Irish Times columnist Hugh Linehan to ask: “Is Ireland ready for its first post-truth referendum campaign?”.

As the campaigning got underway, alarm bells began ringing about the level of campaigning from abroad on both sides and calls were made for assurances that this would be kept in check. In the wake of allegations of election interference through social media, Facebook announced it would block all foreign spending on advertising around the referendum in an effort to adhere to the country’s election spending laws (which prohibit donations from non-Irish bodies or citizens). A few days later, Google went one step further and banned all adverts relating to the Irish abortion referendum from its platform. The decision hailed as historic by the ‘Yes’ side, although some still feared the bans could be bypassed through legal loopholes.

One aspect that may have helped minimise the impact of any such attempts can be attributed to the tradition in Ireland of door-to-door canvassing – a crucial part of campaigning in all elections and referendums. “That’s part of our democratic process”, explained Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green party and one of its two TDs (members of the Irish Parliament), “What’s good about canvassing is that it is done in a respectful way that minimises the division that can sometimes come out of difficult, complex political issues.” For Ryan, this process was crucial in ensuring that the vote was based on a meaningful national conversation. “Getting people involved, having people knocking on doors, getting the debate happening, is a really healthy exercise. Even if it’s not the most decisive factor influencing vote overall, as many people may have already made up their minds, but by doing that you raise the quality and level of debate in general”.

Representatives of Repeal Brussels travelled to Ireland to vote and support the Yes campaign. Photo: Beatrice White

Women’s voice

Another element of the campaign that proved to be decisive was the number of women who came forward to share their own personal stories. Floods of powerful testimonials were published on social media, including devastating cases of women forced to travel for terminations of pregnancies even where a fatal foetal abnormality meant the baby would not survive after birth, because doctors were unable to act in Ireland if a heartbeat could still be detected. Mary McDermott set up one such platform ‘Everyday Stories’ – a website collecting stories from women about how they had been affected by the 8th amendment. “I think the likes of [everyday stories] can complement face to face conversations that people might be having with loved ones – and bring it back to the realities that real women have faced.” In response to criticism that this approach relied on appeals to emotion rather than factual arguments, she said: “There is a factual side and an emotional one. We are human beings and it is an emotional decision. The other side are also free to tell their stories. It’s not about manipulating anyone but about opening up people’s eyes.”

The ‘No’ campaign used its own appeals to emotion, sometimes employing shorthand judged to be misleading or insensitive, such as putting up posters showing foetuses – even in proximity to maternity hospitals – and claims that the proposal would legalise abortion up to 6 months and make Ireland the most liberal regime in Europe. Some campaign materials also featured disabled children and claims that conditions such as Down Syndrome had been all but eradicated in countries where abortion was available. These claims were repeatedly debunked, but many felt the use of graphic imagery and false claims was merely discrediting the ‘No’ side in the eyes of voters. A notable aspect of the ‘No’ side’s campaign was its ostensible secularism and absence of any overt appeals to religion to support their argument – an important point of rupture with the 1983 referendum campaign, and a strong indication that the authority of the Catholic Church has significantly diminished in Irish public life, in the wake of the exposing of numerous scandals and cover-ups in which the Church was complicit over the years.

The referendum’s outcome is a source of hope and inspiration for women’s rights defenders in Poland, another predominantly Catholic EU member state. Current Polish laws prohibit abortion except in cases where the pregnancy is the result of a crime; the health of the mother is under threat; or the foetus suffers severe and irreversible impairment. With the Catholic church still dominating politics , society, and culture, Poland’s present government is trying to tighten further the laws regulating the procedure.

“Ireland could be a pattern for Poland”, Rozalia Kielmans-Ratynska, a legal analyst at the anti-abortion Ordo Iuris Institute in Warsaw, told the Wall Street Journal. Ireland is sending a new sign of hope in times when women’s and gender rights, and human rights in general, are facing increasing pressure across Europe, Stanimira Hadjimitova, Director of the Gender Project for Bulgaria Foundation commented.

Posters from the Yes and No campaigns in Central Dublin. Photo: Beatrice White

Bigger than Ireland

Unlike many countries, Ireland does not allow its citizens living abroad to vote. Irish nationals lose eligibility after having been outside of the country for 18 months. Given the size of the Irish diaspora, this is perhaps not surprising, yet for many Irish emigrants this disenfranchisement deprives them of their right to have a say in the course of the political development of a country to which they still feel deeply connected. The ‘Home to vote’ movement, which began during the marriage equality referendum campaign, sought to mobilise eligible Irish citizens abroad, and encourage them to travel back to Ireland to vote in the referendum. There was a massive response to the campaign, with Irish citizens travelling abroad from all across the globe. Those who had lost their vote contributed too, by founding ‘Repeal’ groups around the world to support the campaign, to organise solidarity actions and to assist eligible voters to make the journey home. Although the ‘No’ side also managed to mobilise some of its own network outside Ireland, the great majority of those getting involved from abroad were on the ‘Yes’ side, leading some to warn that it could lead to a challenge from the ‘No’ campaign if there was evidence of a large number of ineligible voters returning to vote.

Ailbhe Finn, who has been campaigning from Brussels on the issue for years, said “Repeal Brussels was one of the first repeal global groups – there are now about 27, from Guatamala to Australia. It was hard to predict so many people would get behind it, but I’m so glad we were able to show that people still care about Ireland.” For those on the ground such as O’Gorman, it was “a very motivating factor and moral boost to see so many people making long journeys to come home”.

For the Greens and womens’ rights campaigners, however, the work continues. “It’s not as if we’re in nirvana now”, Ryan pointed out, “how can you have free choice in pregnancy if you can’t get housing, for instance […] so there are other things we have to do”. Bolstered by its victory, campaigners from ‘Together for Yes’ are also looking ahead, and calls have already been made for a change to the situation in Northern Ireland where abortion remains illegal. It is hoped that beyond the political reverberations of this historic result, the activists who made it possible – many of them young women who were not previously involved in politics – will channel their enthusiasm and energy into bringing about further progressive change in Ireland.

Having lived through two life-changing referendums in the space of three years, Finn is confident that further positive change is on the horizon, given the strength of the movement. “First it came as a trickle, then a stream, then an unstoppable wave of change and progress in Ireland, and it’s not stopping here. Ireland needs to be fairer, more inclusive, to fix all the things that were broken, and this vote shows we have a majority to do that – that we are compassionate, progressive people. I think that with all of this power that we have now we can move mountains”.

Crowds gathered to welcome the result as it was officially announced in Dublin Castle on May 26. Photo: Beatrice White

A green consensus

Ireland’s Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, along with almost all other political parties, called for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum and campaigned as part of a broad coalition under the ‘Together for Yes’ banner. Among government figures and members of parliament, almost all took a clear position in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote, with the exception of a few outliers, mostly conservative or independents, who rallied to the ‘no’ side. They were joined by numerous institutions, from medical organisations to trade unions. Yet this broad coalition raised concerns for some, who feared voters might feel alienated by such an ‘alliance of elites’. A big unknown was how citizens outside the capital who weren’t strongly aligned with either side – the so-called ‘middle Ireland’ – would vote. In fact, far from generating any sort of ‘protest vote’, the result showed that politicians across the spectrum had rather underestimated the readiness and desire for change on this issue among the population. The result was interpreted by some media commentators as an endorsement for the government, particularly Varadkar and Minister Harris, who had both been vocal advocates of the Yes campaign, and for the leaders of the parties who took a strong stance for repeal.

Although the Green party entered the campaign in full support of repeal, it took some soul-searching among the party’s membership and debates over several years for the party to reach this position.  “Among Greens it is a complex issue and there have always been people of different views,” explained Eamon Ryan, “Like the country we came round in recent years, and wrote a new policy. It was contentious but in the end we had a very clear decision and our policy now very much mirrors what will be in the legislation”.

The party’s youth wing was instrumental in bringing about this shift in the party’s policy. “Up until maybe three years ago, the Greens in Ireland had always taken a free vote on the issue of abortion and left it as a matter of conscience for individual members”, said O’Gorman. “But in the last few years, seeing the damage that the absolute ban on abortion was doing, with the death of Savita and so on, particularly our youth branch said it was time for the party to take a more active and clear stance on the issue. That was quite a significant change over the course of a few years and brought the party more in line with the policy of Greens across Europe”. The party did produce its own campaign materials, but its priority was to support the common campaign rather than to seek extensive visibility for itself.

Greens outside of Ireland also offered their support to the party, Co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales Caroline Lucas sent a message on behalf of the Green Party of England and Wales, recalling the fact that if the status quo was maintained, it would still effectively be politicians in Westminster such as her regulating abortion for Irish citizens, given the numbers of women travelling to the UK for terminations.  Although this solidarity was welcome, Greens in Ireland were cautious about any statements from abroad. “We didn’t want a sense of other people forcing their views on Ireland,” explains O’Gorman, “So it was good support but I think people realised that getting too involved risked being counter-productive”.

This article is based on material and interviews originally collected for an article for the Green European Journal on the referendum.

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