Seán Moncrieff: If the referendum fails, then what?

Irish abortions will continue. Next Friday, we’re just voting on where they take place

The anniversary Mass for my parents was one of those Saturday evening jobs that fulfil your obligation for Sunday morning. I don’t know when the practice arrived in Ballinasloe, but I think I recall my parents viewing this new development as a bit exotic but just about acceptable. Others, they told me, were quietly scandalised and refused to attend.

It was ostensibly introduced to accommodate the likes of doctors or guards: people with job schedules that might not always allow them to get to a church on the Sabbath; but also, I suspect, as a way of squeezing in yet another Mass. Because there was never enough room. On Sundays, the church would be so reliably jammed that some would carefully time their arrival so that they would have no option but to stand at the back. Standing at the back meant you would be first out the door when the Mass ended, or even that you could sneak out during communion and have a pint on the way home for Sunday dinner.

But that was decades ago. At this Mass the choir sang to a church that was barely a third full, and to a congregation that was overwhelmingly elderly: the Ireland they knew dissolving before them.

Towards the end the priest invited us to pick up a copy of the bishop’s letter on the way out. The letter contained his thoughts on the referendum.


Decades ago, such a letter would have been read out from the pulpit to a packed church and would have left them in no doubt which way they were required to vote.


Outside the church, there was a collection for Fianna Fáil (some traditions are indestructible), but nothing about the referendum. Nothing around the town either, except for a few posters on the road back to the M6. I'm sure the citizens of Ballinasloe have opinions just like everyone else, but it seemed to me then that they had opted to be more circumspect about it. Because there will be an afterwards.

The 1983 referendum campaign was dark and nasty; in a way that's difficult to imagine now. Expressing an opinion – being openly pro-abortion – could carry penalties far worse than being slagged off on Twitter. Many people who campaigned on the No side had to do it while not using the A-word.

On balance, this time hasn’t seemed so bad. There was mischief, of course. Posters torn down, the odd row on the street. Yet the media debates, the opinion pieces, the posters, the protests were all predictable. The social media rows were at times petty and even comical. Both sides tried to play the victim. Both sides accused the other of lying and hypocrisy. And both were right.

But what happens next?


If the referendum fails, then what? Keep handing English telephone numbers to women who have been raped or women with fatal foetal abnormalities? Pretend that woman aren’t buying abortifacients online or driving north or getting a plane? Pretend it’s still 1983?

And if it succeeds, what will that mean for the people still in the churches, or anyone who voted No? Will they feel that they now live in a country that’s strange to them? Afterwards, we might need to keep talking, to explain that this decision was not taken lightly, and certainly not out of a need for brutish modernism. But out of love.

We don’t know what the result will be next week. What’s certain is that on that day, like every other day, a number of Irish women will get on a plane or in a car and terminate their pregnancies. Irish abortions will continue. Next Friday we’re just voting on where they take place.