Irish Catholicism will now have to be defiantly counter-cultural

The No campaign was professional and its representatives eloquent, but it still lost (CNS)

The referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which underlies Ireland’s strict abortion laws, marks the end of one of the last bastions of Catholic influence in the country. Leo Varadkar’s government will now move quickly to pass legislation that will introduce an abortion regime similar, though not identical, to that of Britain.

The referendum question passed much more easily than polls predicted, with 66.4 per cent of voters in favour to 33.6 per cent against. Thirty-nine out of 40 constituencies voted Yes, with only rural Donegal – arguably the most conservative part of the Republic – voting narrowly against. Yes campaigners were triumphant, with Dublin Castle being opened for a post-referendum party, while No campaigners have been left stunned over how this could have happened.

The scale of the Yes vote raises questions about the reliability of the polls and the assumptions that people on both sides had made. It was reasonable to assume that legalising abortion would be a tougher sell than same-sex marriage, which passed by 62 to 38 per cent in 2015. It’s much more difficult to make a secular case against gay marriage than it is against abortion. Also, the No campaign in the marriage referendum was shambolic, while the No campaign this time was much more professional and its representatives performed strongly in television debates.

But it possibly isn’t the case that the polls were so far out. Both campaigns expected from their internal canvassing that the result would be close. But published polls never showed the No vote higher than 34 per cent, and it was usually closer to 26. There was a widespread assumption that the large number of “don’t know” responses to polls hid a lot of shy No voters. In retrospect it seems more likely that the “don’t know” camp were those in the middle who didn’t like abortion but wanted limited change to deal with highly publicised tragedies such as the death of Savita Halappanavar (controversially blamed on the Eighth Amendment by abortion campaigners). In the closing stages, it seems as if these soft voters broke heavily to the Yes side, turning what might have been a narrow victory into a landslide.

This is speculative – the headline results don’t tell us much about the motivation of voters – but it was interesting to note the tactics of Sinn Féin, the most uncompromisingly pro-repeal of the main parties. Earlier in the debate, its leadership had been criticised by supporters for its strong-arm approach to party representatives who were unwilling to support a Yes vote. Towards the end, a softer tone was taken and leading figures such as Matt Carthy and Pearse Doherty, who had a reputation for being close to pro-life thinking, were deployed to say that they were personally uncomfortable with abortion, but wanted a Yes vote to allow for hard cases like rape and fatal foetal abnormality. This was a conscious move: party leader Mary Lou McDonald is clever enough to know that her own brand of Dublin feminism wasn’t enough to bring the base with her.

But even if it was reluctant Yes voters who made the difference, this won’t matter. It’s true that the government gave the impression that the new abortion law would be more restrictive than it actually will be, but even if it had openly campaigned for a British-style abortion law that probably still would have got majority support. So the government will be in no mood to compromise, except possibly with forces to its left calling for the law to be liberalised beyond even what the government has proposed. It’s likely that within three to five years there will be a serious attempt to make the law even less restrictive.

The result also makes it more difficult for pro-lifers to sustain the idea that a rigged political system is to blame for their defeat. It’s true that a lot of factors stacked the deck against them. Ireland has been under pressure for many years from European Union and United Nations bodies, as well as international NGOs like Amnesty and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. Most of the Irish political, media and cultural establishment have long been pushing for repeal of the Eighth Amendment. If the result had been on a knife-edge, factors like Facebook and Google censoring social media ads could have been decisive. But you can’t escape a two-to-one majority.

To look at it another way, media bias has been part of Irish life for a very long time. In the 1980s, when Ireland was supposedly one of the most Catholic countries in the world, it was commonplace for the media to identify an “enemy of the people” such as a bishop or pro-life campaigner – the other main disapproved group, the IRA, was banned from the airwaves – and run a week-long campaign to demonise them. An outsider who could only judge Ireland by its media would have assumed it was a fiercely anti-Catholic country. In fact, at the time the state broadcaster RTÉ was heavily infiltrated by the Workers’ Party (formerly Official Sinn Féin), a hardline Stalinist group that really did want to destroy Ireland’s traditional Catholic culture.

But it’s also true that the attacks would never have had an impact if they hadn’t resonated well beyond the small percentage of people who supported the party.

The people who may have best understood this were the activists of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign who pushed for the Eighth Amendment in 1983. This was a lay initiative, not sponsored by the bishops, which was based on the idea that, although abortion was already illegal in Ireland, the taboo against abortion was already eroding and needed to be protected by a constitutional amendment. In retrospect, it is surprising that the amendment lasted as long as it has.

It’s also worth asking whether Ireland can still be called a Catholic country in any meaningful sense. There have been other countries, such as Netherlands or Canada, where the Church rapidly lost influence. The Irish collapse is more dramatic because it was long delayed, and because – given the size of the Irish diaspora – it is more important to Catholics internationally than other traditional strongholds like Portugal or Malta.

Exit polls indicated that around 90 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 voted Yes. This undermines the case of those who imagine there is a Catholic revival in Ireland. In the abortion and marriage referendums, large parts of the Yes campaigns were based on kicking the Church while it’s down. Many would argue that the Irish Church deserves that, given the endless scandals of the past 20 years. The bishops kept a low profile during the referendum, and in any case, the Church is so discredited that an intervention from them might have been counter-productive. In fact the Orange Order took a stronger line for a No vote than many prominent Catholics.

At the moment, the only Catholic figure commanding any popularity is Pope Francis, which is why the referendum was held before the forthcoming papal visit. But Ireland has not been high on his list of priorities. So far his main initiative has been to remove the nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, who had upset local cliques and has now been posted to the backwater of Albania.

Irish Catholics are going to have to get used to life on the margins. Generations of young people have been raised on horror stories of 1950s Ireland, a time of poverty and repression, while modern Ireland worships consumerism and sexual autonomy. Religious education in Catholic schools has been terrible for decades. Even without the scandals, it would be difficult for Catholicism to get a hearing – and Ireland is a small country which is as ferociously conformist in its post-Catholic phase as it was in its Catholic phase. If Irish Catholicism is going to survive and rebuild, it will have to be consciously counter-cultural.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the June 1st 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here