“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
This article was initially going to be a critical comparison of the Brexit and the 2018 Irish referendum, but the 2018 Irish referendum happened when I was heading up to the Scottish Highlands for a week and the excellent Prof. Chris Grey, whose Brexit blog I very highly recommend, covered in Another Referendum crucial lessons which might have been learned in terms of the UK Brexit referendum. Prof Brigid Laffan has also produced a very good comparative analysis in the Guardian: Comparing the Irish abortion vote with the Brexit poll is disingenuous. (Spoiler: the 2018 Irish Referendum gets a near perfect score – the Brexit one does not.)
What has become clear however whilst writing the article is that it is the 1983 Irish abortion referendum which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Brexit one.
From the British perspective it is difficult to understand how emotionally charged the abortion issue is in Ireland, but as Mary Harney famously said Ireland is spiritually closer to Boston than Berlin and similarly to Ireland abortion is, and has been for decades, a hot topic in the US. Currently Trump for example is creating headlines such as Fears Trump’s anti-choice picks could set back abortion fight for a generation. Ireland of course has in the past been a traditionally Catholic country and part of the emotional charge has to do with the concept of Ensoulment. Ensoulment is the time at which the immortal soul enters the body and current Catholic teaching is that this happens at the time of conception and the embryo and in the current Catechism “must be treated from conception as a person.” (Though this seems not to be present in the Green Catechism I was taught as a child, but definitely hard wired into me when I was young). In Catholic teaching abortion is murder.
There have been different views on ensoulment over the millennia and Aristotle for instance believed ensoulment occurred 40 days after conception for male fetuses and 90 days after conception for female fetuses.
Current scientific thinking is very different as discussed for example by Michael S. Gazzaniga (Professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind) in the Ethical Brain. Prof. Gazzaniga’s expert opinion is: However, in judging a fetus “one of us,” and granting it the moral and legal rights of a human being, I put the age much later, at twenty-three weeks, when life is sustainable and that fetus could, with a little help from a neonatal unit, survive and develop into a thinking human being with a normal brain. This is the same age at which the Supreme Court has ruled that the fetus becomes protected from abortion.
There are therefore two highly contrasting views and of course many others in between.
The 1983 Referendum
“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley
Ireland has a written constitution which can only be changed via a referendum. Referendums are common in Ireland, there have for example been eleven on the European Union (and its predecessors).
In the 1970’s Contraception, Divorce, same-sex sexual activity and abortion were all illegal in Ireland. There were fears however that like dominoes they might fall one by one starting with contraception.
Starting with contraception there was increasing push-back, possibly starting in 1971 with the famed Contraceptive Train. In 1971 members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement traveled to Belfast by train to buy contraceptives in protest against the law prohibiting the importation and sale of contraceptives in the Republic of Ireland. It was a landmark moment in the Irish women’s movement. This historic event was immortalised in a musical in 2015. Later in that decade and closer to my experience (I was at the UCD Belfield Campus at the time, but left for Harvard a few weeks later) was the episode where the UCD Students Union installed a condom machine: The first contraceptive vending machine in the State was installed in Belfield in January 1979 by the Students’ Union, with a pack of four condoms costing 50p. The machine proved popular, selling over 160 condoms per day, before it was removed by college authorities less than a week after it was installed. It was discovered much later (2010) that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had considered taking legal action against UCD students in 1979 for selling condoms on campus.
The total ban on the sale of contraceptives was gradually eased from 1978 to 1985.
An extremely strong campaign had emerged early in the 1980s to lobby the government to introduce a ‘Pro-Life amendment’. The move came in the wake of the Roe versus Wade verdict in the US Supreme Court which allowed for the introduction of less restrictive regimes. There was genuine fear in Ireland that the courts could do something similar here unless a Constitutional provision prohibiting abortion was introduced. The start of the 80’s were a turbulent time with both major parties chasing the popular vote. There were three changes of government within 18 months, but the referendum seemed to be a vote winner and have taken on a life of its own. In 1982 both major parties supported it in their manifestos as they were chasing the populist vote.
Fianna Fail (FF) produced an initial wording of the clause to be inserted into the constitution:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
By the time of the Referendum a coalition headed by Fine Gael (FG), who won the 1982 election, was in power and whereas there was almost universal agreement in the Dail that abortion should remain illegal the actual wording was problematic. Indeed Peter Sutherland the then Attorney General advised strongly against including any clause in the constitution. On the specific FF clause he advised: “In summary: the wording is ambiguous and unsatisfactory. It will lead inevitably to confusion and uncertainty, not merely amongst the medical profession, to whom it has of course particular relevance, but also amongst lawyers and more specifically the judges who will have to interpret it. Far from providing the protection and certainty which is sought by many of those who have advocated its adoption it will have a contrary effect.”
This advice proved very prophetic. Fine Gael produced alternative wording which was defeated in the Dail under a free vote. The referendum went ahead with a wording that was not approved by the government at the time, which was and remains unprecedented. The referendum however went ahead almost as if madness had gripped the country.
I was fortunate enough to be out of Ireland at the time (at CERN) but the 1983 referendum is legendary for its toxicity, hyper-emotionalism, outside interference (major American Right Influence), exceptionalism, and downright dishonesty. The experience was so bad it prompted Tom Hesketh to write The Second Partitioning of Ireland. There has been nothing like it in Ireland since; definitely a nadir in democracy and a case study in how not to do things. One of the few major figures in the vote no campaign was the then Senator Mary Robinson who later became president.
The power of the Catholic Church in Ireland was still very strong and the referendum passed by a 66.9% majority. The clause was inserted as the 8th amendment to the Constitution. The referendum experience was however so horrible that it took 35 years to consider repealing; as a 2nd referendum would be needed.
From Spiritual Superpower to Busted Flush
It had not been the intention of most of the founding fathers and mothers of Ireland to create a Catholic dominated state but it occurred by happenstance through the loss of many of the leading figures through the 1916 rising, the war of independence and the civil war. The loss of the six north-eastern counties was both an economic and secularist blow. At the time about 80% of the industrial output was concentrated in the now Northern Ireland. Much of the wealth and of course a majority Protestant population were lost, making Ireland both poorer and more Catholic in the process. After the civil war almost the last man standing was Eamon de Valera who was the towering figure in Ireland for much of the 20th century, being leader of the FF party and Taoiseach for much of the 1937-1959 period followed by a move reminiscent of Putin to president from 1959 to 1973. De Valera had a vision of Ireland being a spiritual superpower spreading the Catholic faith across the world.
De Valera was very successful and in 1957 for example 334 priests were ordained and there were about 5000 Irish priests working overseas in the “Pagan” Missions. Priests and nuns were revered, indeed two prominent members of my own family are an aunt, Sr Enda Ryan, considered to be one of the founding mothers of Malaysia and a cousin, John Fleming, who was head of the Irish College in Rome and is now Bishop of Kilalla. In addition the Church was given immense powers in both education and health, running the vast majority of both schools and hospitals. Within a few hundred metres of the house I grew up in Dublin was a Catholic Girls School, Maryfield College, run by nuns, and Magdalene Laundry and orphanage, High Park. This was not unusual, Church buildings seemed ubiquitous in Ireland at the time.
The Church had acquired immense power over government, never more evident perhaps than at the planned introduction of the Mother and Child Scheme by Dr Noel Browne amongst others. This was initially to be rolled out simultaneously with the introduction of the NHS into Northern Ireland in 1947 and to provide free health care to mothers and children under 16 (later to be extended to the entire population). The scheme was resisted by the Catholic Church and some in the medical profession causing Dr Browne’s resignation. The Church objected to the scheme on the grounds of creeping socialism and the provision for advice on family planning, claiming this was the Church’s prerogative. It looked very much that in the event of a showdown between Church and State, the Church won. The optics looked dreadful and were gleefully seized upon by Northern Unionist as proof that “Home Rule means Rome Rule”.
The power of the Church remained strong right up to the start of the 1980s but then was rocked by a series of scandals from sexual misconduct by priests, and appalling cruelty in the Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. At the High Park Magdalene Laundry near the house I grew up in 155 bodies were discovered after the site had been sold as building land. Unsurprisingly the number of priests in training is in free-fall and the moral authority of the Church has all but gone.
The 2018 Referendum
As predicted by Peter Sutherland there were a number of difficult cases, possibly most prominently the X case concerning a 14 year old girl who had been raped and the Savita case where the death of 31 year old dentist could almost certainly have been prevented if the abortion prohibition was not so strict.
Much has been written about the 2018 referendum but the contrast to the 1983 referendum could not have been starker. There is an account of the immediate aftermath in this Irish Passport Podcast. It seems the Referendum was conducted in an exemplary fashion, with arguments on both sides being discussed rationally and maturely. Outside interference was kept to a minimum with a total ban on Google and Facebook ads. I had been confident of a Yes vote in the major cities of Dublin and Cork but worried that more traditional rural areas would vote No.
With the exception of Donegal (which split 48% Yes and 52% No) however, the Yes vote won everywhere by a comfortable margin. In almost perfect symmetry to the 1983 the result was 66.4% Yes. Far from diving the country it seems that the country has come together. I highly recommend Fintan O’Toole’s excellent Irish Times article.
And this is not just an Irish achievement. It has global significance. It shows democracy itself can still hold fast, that decent politics and a serious-minded citizenry can rise above hysteria, hate and manipulation.
A special tribute to the young.
A generation caricatured as snowflakes went out and took the heat on the doorsteps and did not melt. Young people who are supposed to live in echo chambers went out to talk and listen face to face, to take the abuse, to try to answer the hard questions, to engage with people superficially very different from themselves. This is what patriotism really looks – not flag-waving xenophobia but real belief in the possibilities of a better Ireland. And we find ourselves, astonishingly, with a new generation of patriots.
Sadly the Brexit referendum bears a far greater resemblance to the 1983 than the 2018 one. From the fact that the referendum was unnecessary and badly set up to the toxicity, hyper-emotionalism, outside interference (updated to social media in the more modern world), exceptionalism, and downright dishonesty. The Brexit referendum has the potential to do far more decadally lasting damage than the 1983 abortion one. It is to be hoped that it will not take 35 years to undo the damage caused.