On May 25 Irish voters will decide whether to repeal the pro-life Eighth Amendment to the country’s constitution. The latest poll, published by the Sunday Independent, found 45 per cent in favour of repeal, 34 per cent against and 18 per cent undecided (four per cent did not express an opinion). With days to go before the referendum, this might seem disastrous. But not so, according to pro-lifers. They point out that in February the same pollsters reported that 60 per cent were in favour of repeal. The gap then was 39 points. Now it is 11. They are confident that they will have taken the lead by the time voters reach the ballot box.
There is so much at stake. For decades Ireland has resisted pressure to follow the rest of Western Europe by introducing liberal abortion laws. Indeed, in 1983 the Irish voted, by 67 per cent to 33 per cent, to insert a clause in the constitution recognising the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child. The Eighth Amendment ensured that abortion would be restricted to cases in which a mother’s life was at risk. Thus in 2016, 25 legal abortions were carried out in Ireland, according to the country’s department of health. The number of terminations is likely to increase drastically if the amendment is repealed.
When they enter the booth, voters will be asked: “Do you approve of the proposal to amend the constitution contained in the undermentioned bill?” This refers to the Constitution Bill 2018, which seeks to replace the wording of the Eighth Amendment with the line: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancies.” If the amendment is passed and the constitution altered, lawmakers will be free to introduce a permissive abortion regime.
As several observers have noted, pro-lifers have waged a “Brexit-style” insurgency, presenting the liberalisation of abortion as an elite project which has little support among the general public. It is easy to see why such a strategy might appeal. It does seem that the Irish establishment – in media, politics and the arts – is almost uniformly in favour of abortion.
It treats pro-lifers with contempt. Defenders of the Eighth Amendment say that they are being deprived of publicity and are suffering intimidation, and even violence, at the hands of their opponents. It is clear who is David and who is Goliath in this struggle.
But if pro-lifers win, it will be because they have done more than tap into anti-establishment feeling. They will have also convinced the majority of Ireland’s voters that the country’s reputation for protecting the weakest is a source of pride, not shame. They will have persuaded the public not only that politicians cannot be trusted with vast powers of life and death, but also that every human being has an inherent dignity that should not be violated.
That dignity is disregarded by the laws of most Western nations. Ireland has the chance to show that a country can be modern and outward-looking and still defend its weakest members. A book published in the 1990s famously described “how the Irish saved civilisation”. On May 25 they have a chance to do so again.
History is important. Thus when the BBC documentary Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents stated that Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators met the Jesuit Fr John Gerard to receive “God’s blessing” for the plot to blow up Parliament in 1605, Michael Maslinski, the priest’s 10-times great-nephew, was swift to lodge a complaint. Happily, this has been upheld, and the programme will be edited before it is broadcast again.
Does the reputation of Fr Gerard matter some 400 years after the event? Indeed it does. The idea that the Jesuits in particular, and the Catholic Church in general, were behind the Gunpowder Plot is a piece of early modern propaganda which has poisoned British discourse for far too long. This particular example of what we would now call “fake news” led to the supposition that Catholics were somehow un-English, devious, not to be trusted and loyal to a foreign power rather than their lawful sovereign.
As such, they deserved to be made to suffer through anti-Catholic legislation, some of which, incredibly, is still on the statute books. The legend of Guy Fawkes was one of the wellsprings of British sectarianism.
That sectarianism is now, thankfully, not what it once was. The night of November 5 is today a quaint piece of folklore, and no more, in most parts of the United Kingdom. Even in Northern Ireland, the Orange celebrations are less deliberately offensive to Catholics than they were.
Yet we must be continually wary of sectarianism, as it represents a blight, historically, on this country’s reputation. And we must be alert to the way that hatred of religious minorities is fed by conspiracy theories. History matters because bad history gives rise to injustice.