The 8th: Ireland, the abortion referendum. You can feel the tectonic plates shifting

TV: This highly watchable film chronicles the Repeal side’s winning campaign of 2018

Repeal the Eighth: if The 8th doesn’t declare its stance outright, the film is unambiguously on the side of the Yes campaign. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Repeal the Eighth: if The 8th doesn’t declare its stance outright, the film is unambiguously on the side of the Yes campaign. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The historic significance of the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, in the referendum of 2018, was lost on nobody at the time. Three years later, The 8th (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm) captures the sense that tectonic plates were shifting under Irish society as the electorate went to the polls to allow abortion in Ireland.

The 8th, which comes to television after a video-on-demand run earlier this year, is told largely from the perspective of the Repeal campaign, particularly that of the veteran women’s-rights advocate Ailbhe Smyth. The point she and other campaigners make over and over is that, although the vote was of course about restoring to women their bodily autonomy, the wider context was the State’s beginning a long journey of atonement for decades of institutionalised misogyny.

At moments The 8th feels a news bulletin trapped in a Möbius strip. Where it comes into its own is in positioning the events of 2018 in the context of Ireland’s treatment of women since the foundation of the State

The Repeal vote is very recent history, and at moments The 8th feels like an overly long Prime Time special, or a news bulletin trapped in a Möbius strip. Where this highly watchable film, which is directed by Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle, comes into its own is in positioning the events of 2018 in the context of Ireland’s treatment of women since the foundation of the State.

There is footage from the 1983 referendum to crowbar into the Constitution an equal protection of the mother’s right to life and that of the “unborn”. This was done in order to head off fears that an activist Supreme Court might follow the example of its American equivalent, which had legalised abortion with its Roe v Wade ruling of 1973.

The problem is that wedging religious morality into a Constitution is a bit like trying to fly a plane with your little finger: things are going to change, all right, but not in the ways you intended. This is pointed out by none other than the future president Michael D Higgins, who warns that the vagueness of the word “unborn” – an adjective rather than a noun, after all – only creates confusion and introduces ambiguity where none existed.

Events unfolded just as he predicted a mere nine years later, with the X case, in which the attorney general sought to prevent a 14-year-old pregnant by rape from travelling to the UK for an abortion. This was hugely ironic, as the future Dublin Bay South TD Ivana Bacik explains. In striking down the High Court’s ruling in support of the attorney general, the Supreme Court’s decision, she says, “represented a legalising of abortion”, albeit in limited circumstances.

Is there a cosmic joke more profound in Irish jurisprudence? The Eighth Amendment, far from banishing abortion for all time, had actually enshrined it in law

Is there a cosmic joke more profound in Irish jurisprudence? The Eighth Amendment, far from banishing abortion for all time, had actually enshrined it in law.

Anti-abortion advocates were unhappy with The 8th’s approach both to their campaign and to their arguments. They do, it is true, come across largely an afterthought in a documentary that, if it doesn’t declare its stance outright, is unambiguously on the side of Repeal.

When the Yes vote carries the day – and by the same margin by which the Eighth Amendment was originally approved – Ailbhe Smyth characterises the result as a triumph for Irish women. “We’ve just had the most stunning victory in Irish history,” she says. “I’m very glad to know our daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters will be okay.”