Abortion referendum: the political winners and losers

Varadkar, Martin and McDonald strengthen their position while conservatives miss out

The referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution is set to be passed by a margin even greater than the most enthusiastic advocates for repeal could have imagined.

The campaign to repeal was led by civic society groups, principally Together for Yes, but there are still political winners and losers from an extraordinary campaign.We chart who they are below.


Leo Varadkar


Before he even celebrates his first anniversary as Taoiseach next month, Leo Varadkar has passed a referendum on an issue that many other leaders have ran away from.

It is a remarkable fillip for Ireland’s young premier and will boost his self confidence and his faith in his own political judgement.

Upon assuming the leadership of Fine Gael, Varadkar said a referendum on the Eighth Amendment would take place within a year. He has held to that promise and skilfully managed the process towards a larger Yes vote than anyone anticipated.

His caginess late last year on what type of abortion regime he favoured was an understandable political tactic. It was not that Varadkar was undecided or was waiting to gauge public opinion on the proposal to allow for abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy that the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment eventually recommended.

He is understood to have come to the conclusion long before last Christmas that abortion up to 12 weeks was the only way to allow terminations in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. Varadkar had to manage his party, the Cabinet and also the public.

His explanation of and arguments for repeal and 12 weeks at the end of January set the tone for the months that followed. His judgement in refusing to rush to declare his position was correct, and showed deft political management.

He has also buried the argument that bigger parties need to be prodded into social change by smaller partners in government. The Labour Party used to correctly boast that it was needed to nudge Fine Gael into action on issues like divorce, abortion and same sex marriage. Varadkar, the leader of the only political party in a shaky minority government, took on and won the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Even though he has been mocked for his repeated reminders to the public of his age - the Taoiseach will turn 40 next year - Varadkar does so in the knowledge that his youth is one of his main political assets. He leads a young government in a country that is stepping forward into the future, and this result will further underline this as an electoral benefit.

The experience of previous referendums has been that the dividend for the parties responsible for social change has been negligible, and the pattern will likely repeat itself this time. Yet some in Fine Gael have argued that a strong Yes in the referendum bolsters the argument for an election to be held sooner than expected.

The Taoiseach, however, has said he wants to honour the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil, which is due to reviewed later this year, although nobody believes it will be extended.

Varadkar has now proven himself, on this issue at least, to be a political winner. The temptation to continue a successful run must lurk somewhere within him. He would be politically negligent not to be keeping an open mind on when he goes to the country.

Although an election in the months after the October budget is still the likeliest option, Varadkar’s confidence in making the big political calls will be significantly enhanced.

Micheál Martin

If the referendum had fallen, the backlash for Fianna Fáil would have been immense. Had it not been for Martin, his party would have been entirely on the wrong side of history.

His decision in January to support the Oireachtas committee’s proposal to allow for abortion up to 12 weeks was the toughest call of all the main party leaders. The subsequent disquiet from within his own party - from parliamentary party down to the grassroots - proved what a difficult move it was for Martin, from an internal Fianna Fáil perspective.

Back in January, one party frontbencher on the opposite side of the abortion debate said that Martin, throughout his leadership of Fianna Fáil, had taken tough decisions and had usually proven to be correct.

And so it has been once more. The flurry of Fianna Fáil TDs now declaring they will support the legislation to allow for terminations up to 12 weeks is a desperate attempt to catch up to where their leader wanted to go. Even though Martin emerges with his authority within his party enhanced, he still has to contend with the wider Fianna Fáil reputation taking a hit. The charge of it being “male, stale and beyond the pale” lingers.

Fianna Fáilers, thinking ahead to the next election, are already trying to cast Martin as a leader who is unafraid to take tough decisions, such as implementing the smoking ban when he was minister for health. His position on abortion, against the wishes of most in his party, bolsters that argument.

Martin has said the Oireachtas should "move efficiently to enact the will of our people". If he wants to further enhance his reputation as a tough political leader, Martin should use this result to force his party into line with modern Ireland.

Mary Lou McDonald

Just months into her leadership of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald has also notched up a political success. During what was the only uncertain moment for the Yes campaign - the bearpit debate on RTÉ's Claire Byrne show - the Dublin Central TD steadied the ship and performed well in front of a huge television audience. She is likely to have won admirers from those who would not be inclined to vote for Sinn Féin.

The referendum campaign was undoubtedly used by Sinn Féin to introduce McDonald as its new face, and she was the only party leader to put her image on posters advocating a Yes vote. But she seized the opportunity to make Sinn Féin her own.

McDonald goes to her first full ard fheis as leader next month - when Sinn Féin is expected to formally adopt abortion up to 12 weeks as party policy - with a successful campaign behind her.

Simon Harris

A year ago, when Varadkar assumed the leadership of his party, Harris was on the losing side. He backed Simon Coveney and, after the scale of Varadkar's victory became evident, the young Wicklow TD's future in Cabinet was an open question. Yet, entrusted with managing the referendum, he was an enthusiastic campaigner and a talented communicator.

As he ran the referendum over recent weeks, Harris found himself drawn into the political treacle of the Department of Health as the CervicalCheck cancer screening scandal dominated political discourse. It used to be that escaping from the Department of Health unscathed was a political achievement in itself. But Harris has now bucked that trend. Whatever else happens during his stewardship in Hawkins House, Harris now has a significant achievement to his name.

The Left and smaller parties

While the consensus among the leadership of the main parties on abortion was one of the most remarkable features of Irish politics in recent months, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar correctly told the Dáil last week that it would not have been put on the political agenda without consistent pressure from TDs such as Clare Daly and Ruth Coppinger.

Daly has tabled a number of Dáil motions in recent years on abortion, both in this Dáil and the last, which ensured that all the main parties had to grapple with the issue. The Labour Party has consistently advocated Repeal, too, and ensured in government that Fine Gael introduced the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.

Deliberative democracy

When Enda Kenny brought forward the idea of a Citizen's Assembly to deliberate on social issues such as same sex marriage and abortion, the former Taoiseach was accused of long-fingering controversial issues such as abortion. However, the process has proven, with both same sex marriage and abortion, that it is an effective way of preparing the ground for wider public debate on contentious issues.


Fianna Fáil conservatives

Something of a febrile atmosphere took hold on the backbenches of Fianna Fáil as the referendum approached. The majority of party TDs took an opposite view to Micheál Martin, and the more excitable among them even indulged in loose talk of who would succeed their leader if he had to stand down in the medium term.

A small group within the parliamentary party would have caused trouble in the event of a No vote, and were ready to claim Martin had misread the public mood, the charge they themselves are guilty of.

Some within Fianna Fáil will now have to accept, as was suggested by Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University, London, that while there may be a place for a conservative party in Ireland, there may not be a bright future for one.

Conservative social politics

The fight over abortion was to be the final stand by those who have opposed numerous social reforms, such as divorce and same sex marriage. They have been routed in a thumping, final defeat.

Anti-abortion Oireachtas members

A significant number of Independent TDs and senators have been strongly opposed to any move to liberalise Ireland’s abortion laws, and many come from constituencies that would have been viewed as pro-life in the past.

The referendum, however, has altered how abortion may affect Ireland’s electoral map. While undoubtedly many TDs have deeply held anti-abortion convictions, others had an eye to so called “pro-life” voters, who are fewer in number now.