Could the Irish establishment lose?

Marchers support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment in Dublin last month (CNS)

Irish voters will be going to the polls on May 25 to decide whether to liberalise the country’s strict abortion laws. Leo Varadkar’s government is pushing strongly for a Yes vote in what will be a test of Ireland’s declining Catholic identity.

The referendum concerns the proposed repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, passed in 1983, which establishes the right to life of the unborn child on a par with that of the mother. As a result, Ireland has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, with abortion only permitted when there is a risk to the mother’s life. The constitutional provision has made it very difficult for legislators or judges to widen the scope of the law.

The referendum, if passed, would be a radical change. If it secures a Yes vote in May, the Varadkar government is proposing a law which would be more permissive than that in Britain for unborn children up to 12 weeks, allowing abortion on demand, and mirroring UK provisions on medically certified abortions after 12 weeks.

Since the 1983 referendum, abortion has been one of the most long-running controversies in Irish politics. So far, every attempt to overturn the Eighth Amendment has failed at the polls. However, it has long been a symbolic measure, with cheap travel to Britain making it easy for any Irish woman who wants an abortion to access one. But Varadkar is confident that he can succeed where previous governments have failed.

The atmosphere has changed since 1983. What is most striking is that No campaigners have had to position themselves as underdogs fighting an establishment which has rigged the terms of the debate.

This is a complete switch from the 1983 referendum passing the Eighth Amendment, in which pro-lifers were the establishment, or at least a solid majority of the population. That referendum was won by a two-to-one majority and swept every constituency outside Dublin. More recent referenda have shown a more or less even split.

This vote is different. The repeal side is supported by an overwhelming majority of the Irish political class, even politicians first elected on a very different platform. Not so long ago, Varadkar’s own Fine Gael party had a strong conservative element which has now disappeared. The bill for the referendum passed 115 votes to 32 in the Dáil and 40 to 10 in the Senate, and those numbers would have been even more crushing if the opposition Fianna Fáil party had not been forced to allow a free vote. Almost the entire Irish media is on the Yes side. United Nations bodies and international NGOs have been pushing for legalisation for years.

On the other hand, the No campaign has had little money or organisation behind it, and is having to rely on old-fashioned street campaigning, especially in rural areas, and drumming up interest through social media.

The Catholic hierarchy, its credibility hammered by years of scandal, has kept a low profile. Instead, the lead has been taken by seasoned lay campaigners, with a particular focus on the rights of the disabled.

It is still unclear which way the vote will go. Recent polls show around half of the electorate in favour of repeal, with just over a quarter opposed, but even advocates of repeal have been warning against complacency. Rural areas, more likely to vote No, traditionally have a higher turnout than Dublin. Irish voters also have a tendency to tell pollsters what they want to hear on contentious social issues – although same-sex marriage passed easily in 2015, the vote against was much higher than polls had suggested. In 2013, voters rejected a proposal to abolish the Senate, despite every poll pointing to a Yes.

Some Yes campaigners have even been considering the possibility of losing. Employment minister Regina Doherty, in an interview recanting her previous opposition to abortion, hinted strongly that a No vote would be unacceptable, leading to a second referendum being held to get the ‘right result’. This is reminiscent of how the European Union pressed Irish voters to think again after they rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. That caused a lot of resentment in a country that is generally very pro-EU. For Doherty to signal that only one result will be accepted is a very risky move. It could fire up voters who resent being dictated to by Dublin politicians and media.

It is still likely that the proposed referendum will pass, with the government, most of the opposition, the media and international pressure all pushing in one direction. But, whatever the result, the controversy will not be settled. If the vote is No, pro-repeal campaigners will keep coming back until they get the result they want. If it is Yes, that will open up a new fight over the government’s proposed changes to the law.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the April 6th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here