Why Ireland said No

The defeat of the latest abortion referendum shows that tradition and Catholicism no longer hold sway in modern Ireland - but that nothing new has taken their place.

Wendy Earle

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Visiting Dublin in February 2002, the unavoidable issue for both visitors and residents was the latest abortion referendum.

We were hardly out of Dublin airport when we were confronted by government-sponsored placards, strapped to every lamppost, demanding a Yes vote to ‘protect the unborn’. Returning to Dublin three weeks later in March, the referendum had taken place – and the government had lost.

Ireland’s third abortion referendum in 19 years was called by the Fianna Fail government (in alliance with the Progressive Democrats), with the support of the Catholic Church. Its aim was to strengthen and clarify the law against abortion – but during the month-long campaign, the electorate became more and more confused about what exactly the change was designed to achieve.

The main aims of the referendum were to outlaw a woman’s threat of suicide as a justification for abortion, and to strengthen the penalty against anybody who carries out an abortion. The government motion reasserted that the unborn child’s right to life is paramount, and that only the necessity of saving a pregnant woman’s life justifies the loss of a fetus.

But the Irish government’s traditional and steadfast protection of the unborn child looks a little ragged around the edges when you consider the referendum’s other two proposals. The first defined abortion as destroying the embryo after it has implanted in the womb – meaning that the morning-after pill, condemned by most ‘pro-life’ campaigners, is acceptable because it prevents implantation after the egg is fertilised.

The second proposal reaffirmed that women in Ireland should have access to reliable information about abortion abroad. According to the Irish Times, about one in four women of childbearing age has left Ireland, usually going to the UK, to seek an abortion (1). The current government, like previous governments before it, has turned a blind eye to this ‘abortion traffic’, seeing it as a convenient way of dealing with the problem.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern claimed that the referendum question had been carefully formulated after a consensus was reached during a consultation process between government and medical authorities. He claims to be a traditional anti-abortion Catholic prime minister, but he clearly lacks the courage of his convictions. He refused to take part in a TV debate with the pro-choice lobby who opposed his referendum – preferring to distance himself from the issue by attesting to his ‘personal commitment’ to the unborn, while claiming that his main motivation for calling the referendum was to keep a promise he made in the last election.

In the event, the referendum had the backing of the Catholic bishops who campaigned for it from their pulpits. So what went wrong?

The referendum had one of the lowest turnouts of the past 20 years – telling us much about changing Irish attitudes to abortion and about the influence of the Catholic Church. In the abortion referendum of 1983 a 53.7 percent turnout voted a strong Yes (67 percent) to enshrine the right to life of the unborn in the Irish constitution. But 10 years ago, in 1992, there was again a high turnout (68.2 percent), but 65 percent refused to strengthen the abortion law.

In this latest referendum, just 42.9 percent of the electorate voted, with 49.8 percent voting Yes and 50.42 percent voting No. It is revealing to look at how different regions voted: where most of rural Ireland narrowly voted Yes on a low turnout, Dublin voted No on a relatively high turnout and swung the referendum. So while there was a 48 percent turnout that resulted in a No vote in Dublin, there was just a 38 percent turnout in Connacht in the West, where a majority supported the referendum.

The low turnout and the government’s defeat suggest that the Irish electorate doesn’t feel as strongly about protecting the rights of the unborn as it did in the past. A recent survey claimed that 70 percent of Irish people think abortion should be permitted in certain circumstances.

Ireland has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, with the demise of the two central pillars of Irish society: nationalism and Catholicism. In the past, successive Irish governments played the nationalist ‘green card’. Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution laid claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland, and Irish ministers often paid lip service to the idea of a united Ireland – allowing the authorities to look like they had something to aspire to, despite all the poverty, unemployment and emigration. But with the discrediting of nationalist movements after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, and the start of the peace process in Northern Ireland, nationalism in Ireland has been in steep decline. In 1993 the then government ditched Articles 2 and 3 as part of the peace process.

Where the Catholic Church once had a powerful influence over Irish people and Irish society, it is now largely discredited and mired in child abuse controversies. The church is currently waiting with baited breath for the results of the Laffoy Commission on Child Abuse, which has been sitting in Dublin for the past two years.

Some commentators have pointed out that the government’s defeat in the latest referendum shows how much Ireland has changed. ‘Hardline conservatism is vanquished as never before’, said the Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole. ‘And the kulturekampf of the right has lost its ability to rouse the mass of the electorate on abortion.’

This might be true – but there is nothing new for the Irish electorate to engage with either. Nationalism and Catholicism may be old news, but they have not been replaced by any new politics or visions for Irish society. The low turnout in the abortion referendum suggests that people were not fired up by the issue. And the government’s defeat looked less like a declaration of support for a woman’s right to abortion, than a lashing out at politics and politicians in general.

The Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats government claims that its defeat in the abortion referendum won’t affect its election plans for later this year. That remains to be seen. But it could certainly do with some new issues with which to engage voters.

Read on:

Abortion traffic, by Barbara Hewson

spiked-issue: Abortion

spiked-issue: Ireland

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