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'Ireland in 2018 is not just a post-Catholic country, it's a pro-choice country'

It’s a very new day and a very new dawn for Ireland.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway


Not one of these adjectives suffices to fully capture this nation’s collective reaction to the vote to remove the (in)famous Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. The opinion polling had indicated, since the very idea of the issue of abortion being put to the people again was floated, that people wanted change. But “wise old heads” knew better. It would be close; the Church would be a not insignificant player; there might be a substantial, hidden No vote; nothing could be taken for granted.


Even the divides that most imagined would produce a close result – urban/rural, young/old, male/female – did not factor. The majority deliberated on all the details and delivered an emphatic verdict. The past few months did not alter their viewpoint. The truth: Ireland in 2018 is not just a post-Catholic country; it is a pro-choice country.

How did we get here?

One of the recurring themes during the campaign was that this was an opportunity for older Irish people to at last reject the intimidatory and unforgiving forces that had perpetually subjugated women and imposed a code that was entirely divorced from the messy realities of life. Yet conventional wisdom proffered that only a certain alienated segment of the population felt this way.

On the flip side, it was repeatedly mooted that tacitly approving abortion without restriction as to reason for 12 weeks would be a step too far for the electorate.

Same-sex marriage was a different item altogether. That has a happy outcome. It was envisaged that the roughly 60%-40% tally in 2015 was the outer limit of societal tolerance. The assumption was that it had to be much closer on abortion. The campaign would focus hearts and minds accordingly.

Again, balderdash! In recent weeks, anti-abortion crusaders accomplished nothing.

What does this seismic result mean for Irish politics?

The short answer is that it is hard to know. It is abundantly clear that the Yes side engaged the hearts and minds of young people, who voted in large numbers and enthusiastically backed the removal of the Eighth Amendment. In the wake of what was an extraordinary mobilisation, all of the political parties will be seeking their support.

This will arguably be an easier task for both Sinn Féin (residual concern that their platform hasn’t yet shifted on abortion is totally overwrought) and Fine Gael than for Fianna Fáil. The near unanimity of the first two in advocating for progressive reform will engender the perception that they are open houses for socially liberal men and women. In particular, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Minister for Health Simon Harris played a blinder in advocating for a Yes vote.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, likewise an efficacious voice for constitutional change, faces a serious quandary. The overwhelming bulk of his parliamentary party, and indeed a sizable chunk of Fianna Fáil’s base, staunchly opposes a liberal abortion regime. This will complicate any attempt to portray the party as a natural home for secularists. That said, Fianna Fáil has demonstrated an uncanny capacity to adapt rather amorphously for electoral gain throughout its storied past.

Stay involved in politics

Notwithstanding the transformative role played by younger voters on Friday, it remains to be seen whether they will be as moved by the “nitty gritty” of Irish politics as by a matter they see as affecting their lives directly. But abortion – now squarely in the political, not the constitutional, realm – will from here on be an issue in the general elections they have typically opted not to participate in.

Moreover, a substantial segment of the citizenry voted No. They are all but guaranteed to stay involved in politics and to vote in each and every election. The issue, for Fianna Fáil especially, is how to best accommodate them while simultaneously keeping ahead of the political curve. And of course, even some of those who voted Yes in the referendum nonetheless have sincere reservations about abortion.

A crucial question is what impact the unusual, cross-party, albethey ad hoc, alliances struck by pro-repeal politicians might have. It was downright disconcerting to see the likes of Mary Lou McDonald and Micheál Martin nodding vigorously as the other spoke. If anything, even if they will soon again be at loggerheads over a variety of issues, it showed that they can cooperate and opens wide the door to alliances and coalitions that many observers previously deemed impossible.

Blow to “Catholic Ireland”

Lastly, what are the implications of this result for Irish society? Already, activists are claiming that the next step is to eliminate the Catholic Church’s influence from the education and health systems. It is manifest that a majority agrees. This will be a complex process, but one that will doubtless soon be underway.

The increasing impotence of the Church is obvious to anyone who lives here, yet a blow to “Catholic Ireland” will be a prominent feature in the international media coverage of the removal of the Eighth Amendment at the behest of the Irish people. So many people’s Yes vote was inextricably intertwined with their desire to repudiate what they see, from bad personal experience in lots of instances, as a blight on the landscape.

This opens a divide between them and those who still love the Church and derive great strength from their faith – this writer included. The gulf between young and old on abortion, however, suggests that the numerical and other strengths of committed Catholics are dissipating by the day. Today not only confirmed that reality; it also proved that the vestiges are fading faster than we thought.

You can pick your own cliché. But it is a very new day and a very new dawn for Ireland. What that means and where it leads is up to us.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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