The Brexit Referendum and the Irish Abortion Referendums.

“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.

Emotional Charge

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.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    One of the droller aspects of the crowbarring off the wall of Ireland’s first condom machine, by torchlight at midnight, by moral vigilantes, was the process being supervised by what would now be called an “incel”.

    On my first longer than a weekend visit to Ireland in many years, in the summer of 2010, I went to the gents in a pub in the middle of Ireland and was amused to find a machine selling “Willy Shaghappy” brand condoms.

    What are you laughing at? inquired my other half. Ireland has changed I replied. For the better.

    The insanely devalued property market was funnier still and I returned at a later date to take advantage of it. Still feels an incredibly compressed history at times. I was an altar boy au fait with Latin once*. Took my globe-traveling kids to a midnight mass in London one Christmas just for the cultural experience. Turned out to be in Latin. Must have said something like “it takes me back” to herself afterwards; son, 13 or so at the time, looked skeptical and said, shaking his head, “Dad, I pity you”.

    *Incl for Cardinal Connell when he was a nobody. At the time there was a priest who patronised Easons bookshop in O’Connell St who had a prosthetic hand over which he wore a transparent plastic bag, conspicuously on show as he perused the magazine section at length (& with the impunity afforded to the clergy in those days). Even as a child it seemed to me that Connell’s personality was like the hand. Creepy. Germ-free. Insulated. Later, in the context of some controversy about sexual matters, and whether he was qualified to comment, he said “One hasn’t lived in a teapot”. And the Irish people pitied him. But if they’d known then what they knew later…

    Anyway, reverting to yr theme the deep parallel is that between the Catholic church in Ireland and the Tory right in the UK. A small group with power, wealth, and delusions that they know best, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to preserve their privilege.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I had forgotten the crowbarring. Ireland has changes so much that it seems far more than 39 years ago.

      Even as late as the 1990s when I used to come to my parents house for Christmas we would normally attend High Park for midnight mass on Christmas Day. There was a young priest, with better than average sermons, and absolutely no inkling that anything was amiss.

      The theme comparing the Tory elite to the Irish Catholic Church at its height is well worth exploring much further. “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” and there is a very credible theory that the Brexit referendum was all about trying to restore the pre-war order where we knew our proper place and treated the Rees-Moggs of this world with deference.

      I would love to see the British Tory establishment suffer a fall from grace similar to the Irish Catholic Church – one can live in hope.

      1. Samuel Johnson -

        As it happens, my new abode is not far from the former Irish country home of a Lord Acton. I haven’t verified it’s the same gent, but a Lord Acton was, I believe, the originator of the axiom “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

      2. Samuel Johnson -

        Forgotten the crowbarring? Hah. I knew the man responsible for the machine. Dave Waddell — a neurobiology PhD student at the time and President of the Student’s Union, partner & later husband of the late Mary Raftery. The likely “incel” I mentioned but won’t name was a diminutive professor of mathematics turned administrator with more than a bit of Mr Burns from the Simpsons about him. Dave was also involved with the student paper, along with Mary, Fintan O’T & others and I can still recall the laughter, indignation & incredulity as he shared 2nd hand an eyewitness account, which no doubt was written up with as much mockery as you’d expect.

        I suppose Singapore went through as rapid change in a short time (read today that Ireland is now most globalised society on earth) but with an illiberal paternalistic elite not unlike a technocratic version of the church. But it still feels beyond anything one could have imagined, and getting better (which seems a bit counterintuitive after the last recession, which I think will leave some Weimar Republic level psychological scars). Just take today, our gay half-Indian Taoiseach visited the Orange Order, shook hands with the grand master, and later took in a visit to a gay bar in Belfast (probably for the craic and not trolling on marriage equality).

      3. Sean Danaher -

        Fascinating detail again
        We Physics people tended to concentrate on academic work and were tucked away in the Science building.
        One exception was Evelyn Cusack now head of forecasting at Met Eireann and weather presenter on RTE for many years who was a real firebrand on women’s rights and a former girlfriend (she dumped me after a few months as I was too conservatively Catholic).

        I think my mother knew the incel you are referring to from her time in UCD in the ‘40s but he was nowhere near as bad a pest as Charles J Haughey whom she had to rebuff repeatedly.

        I used to visit Singapore quite commonly. One of my friends was deported after trying to unionise the University as persona non grata.

        The Irish recession was very deep and real unlike the UK one which was artificially created for political purposes. At the end of real recessions there tends to be rapid catch up and bounce back in productivity growth, as indeed has happened in Ireland. The OECD is worried about over heating. The UK economy sadly is limping along zombie like and I can’t see Brexit helping.

      4. Samuel Johnson -

        Surely the gent in question would have needed a box and a bag to do any pestering? (For his feet and her head respectively)

        I was resigned to failing physics which I had never done (Rev Burke the worst lecturer ever, imo) and thought I’d repeat it after having fun when I should have been studying. Then I drew a J1 visa and decided emergency measures were needed. Scraped through, w honours even, mostly by predicting the questions. I enjoy reading about esoteric physics (Roger Penrose, Quanta Magazine type stuff), CERN (which paid off a bazillion times over w just the web), and what cosmology I can grasp (not v much but I have a clue how little I know) but those days it was the plague with a 50% mortality rate — and the closest I came to doom!

      5. Sean Danaher -

        I had put you down more as an Arts person, but the first Science Physics lectures by Fr Burke were pretty dreadful. I think the quality of the much of the teaching in UCD Science in the ’70s was poor by modern standards. It did get better after 1st year. There was much more focus on teaching in the old Polys in the UK, which for many years put teaching excellence before research, but that seems to be changing. A very interesting debate could be had here.

        There was a very interesting study in Heidelberg which showed an inverse correlation between teaching quality and academic performance. Apparently the students used to spend most of the library time studying subjects which were not covered properly in the lectures.

        I think you are right at the time the failure rate in UCD 1st year Physics was indeed close to 50%. In the UK heads would roll and departments shut down; different times.

  2. Ivan Horrocks -

    A facinating blog on Ireland as usual, Sean, and convincingly argued too. I have to say that having just read the comments from Boris Johnson in The Guardian, the final paragraph of ‘Samuel Johnson’s’ comment was never truer. And not only is it about protecting their privilege but that having it means they’re entirely devoid of any thought or concern for what their actions might visit on others. Thus, they can stick to their ideologically pure belief in Brexit knowing that if ill and suffering are the result – as they will be, and not simply in the short term either (as Johnson now concedes) – they have the position and means to avoid any of it.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. The ideological Purity theme also deserves further exploring. In a perfect world a total ban on abortion would work but the suffering caused to Irish women is far too high a price. Brexit will probably produce suffering for so many of us, and I suspect much of the real reason apart from Vulture capitalism is the restoration of the British class system to its pre-war glory as discussed in my reply to Samuel Johnson.

  3. Peter May -

    If Brexiteers are the ideological purists wanting to restore the old order, the new order must consist of those telling us there is no money.

      1. Peter May -

        Well I was thinking of the telling really. There is no money because we choose to be dishonest about where it really comes from.

  4. Andy Crow -

    Very informative and illuminating, Sean.

    Many thanks. You quite rightly say:

    “From the British perspective it is difficult to understand how emotionally charged the abortion issue is in Ireland,” For example, I don’t have any recollection of there having been an Irish abortion referendum in 1983. If anyone had asked me I would have wrongly assumed that the 2018 referendum was overturning some much more ancient ruling.

    I was thinking the other day that one frequently hears people describe themselves as a ‘lapsed catholic’.

    I don’t think I’ve heard anyone describe themselves as a ‘lapsed Protestant’ and certainly not a ‘lapsed Anglican’.

    My guess, based on my own experience and prejudices is that the lapsed catholic doesn’t observe the rituals and rigmarole of the church but still ‘believes’. Whereas the Anglican probably never did really believe all that mystical stuff in the first place, just doesn’t bother to go to church any longer. Hardly a significant lapse.

    1. Andy Crow -

      I might add that I had not thought of making comparison between Brexit and the recent Abortion referendum.

      That in itself is perhaps indicative of the gap between Irish and mainland culture.

      Of course I recognise that I’m generalising from my own specific.

      1. Sean Danaher -

        I think initial comparisons were made by Toby Young and other right wing Brexiteers complaining that the left were very happy with the Irish referendum but not the Brexit one, which they saw as hypocrisy through their blue/purple tinted lenses.

        Ireland is very different in mentality to Britain (I exclude about 15% of the population of the Island who see themselves as British). For example your use of the word “mainland” is never one I would have used. For me Britain is simply another island off the European mainland and the thought of Britain being the “mainland” is an alien concept.

        I think it was Dr Tim Mc Inerney who put it well “The major misunderstanding the British have towards Ireland is they still think it is part of the family.” To some extent the Irish see the English as and extremely abusive and arrogant husband, whom they finally thew out, despite help from what Seamus Heaney has described as their bastard child, created through rape – Northern Ireland.

        The other difference is what has been called the Knowledge Gap. I would go so far as to say the average Irish person has a better understand of England and its political structures than the average English person.

        Knowledge of Ireland by the English is poor to non existent. This probably did not matter so much when Britain was a Geo-political Superpower and Ireland an impoverishes ex-colony. this is no longer the case.

        This has come to a head over the Irish Border. I need to dig out the exact quote but in December May said to Tusk “Britain is a much more important country than Ireland – I’m not going to let it get in the way.” Tusk replied (with something approaching contempt) Dublin will inform Barnier when it is happy and Barnier will inform me.

    2. Sean Danaher -

      Church attendance used to be extraordinarily high in Ireland – well over 90%. In the road I grew up in everyone out of 47 houses used to go every Sunday and Holiday of Obligation. apart from one house with a protestant family. Even now church attendance is about 45%.

      I have mixed feeling about it as the Church has also done tremendous good as well as evil and many of the priests and nuns I know (often relatives) are the best rather than the worst of us. Though they say “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

      I think also Catholicism has a grip possibly only exceeded by Islam, though some of the more fundamentalist protestant flavors such as the Free Presbyterianism of many of the upper echelons of the DUP may have an even greater grip – they truly believe everyone else will burn in hell immediately after they fie with the 9th circle reserved for Catholics.

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