A hundred years after one generation of Irish women won their battle for the right to vote, another generation has used the ballot box to deliver a thunderbolt that will echo for years to come.
The emphatic decision of the Irish people to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution is perhaps the most remarkable referendum result since Independence. No single moment better captures the quiet but rapid revolution in social attitudes that has taken place in less than 40 years – one that has turned a closed, conservative Catholic country into one of Europe’s most liberal, outward-looking states.
With powerful symmetry, the result turned the 1983 referendum on its head. That year, 66.9 per cent of voters approved inserting the Eighth Amendment, which affirmed an equal right to life of mother and unborn, into the Constitution. On Friday, 66.4 per cent chose to take it out. The past 35 years have tested those who believe the Constitution is a living document. Today, with the removal of an amendment that this newspaper has long argued should never have been there in the first place, the connection between Bunreacht na hÉireann and the people is renewed.
What was once the State’s most divisive issue is now nothing of the sort. The Yes vote was a cross-section of Irish society. Men and women. Young and old. Urban and rural. As a lens through which to view Irish politics, the liberal versus conservative cleavage is increasingly meaningless. At the same time, a third of the population voted No – far fewer than many expected, but a significant share nonetheless.
It would be wrong to think those voters are any less compassionate or caring than any others, and their views will continue to be a factor in Irish politics – if no longer on this issue.
The experience of recent months has shown that politics can work. With the Citizens' Assembly, 99 members of the public gave up their time and deliberated seriously, calmly and conscientiously on ideas for abortion reform. They came up with a set of proposals that many dismissed as too liberal but which ended up closely reflecting the wider public desire for change. From then the issue went to an Oireachtas committee – a forum that can at times show politicians at their worst but on this occasion allowed them to shine. Members listened to experts and explored the lived reality of the Eighth Amendment.
In civil society, opposition was driven by courageous women activists who persisted in arguing what was for decades a minority view
They also interrogated their own views and, in some cases, changed their minds. That same spirit – a respect for affected women, an openness to expertise and a willingness to challenge one's own assumptions – marked the subsequent parliamentary debate and, in recent weeks, the campaign itself. Unlike in the United States, Britain and much of Europe, our democracy showed it can withstand foreign attempts to influence its decisions. We have resisted the illiberal reaction sweeping the US, Britain and the Continent, and in that we can serve as a beacon to others.
Results like this don't come about overnight. Friday was the culmination of a long, lonely and often thankless effort by many people stretching back to September 1983. Credit must go to those who opposed the Eighth Amendment from the beginning. In politics, for much of the past 35 years, that meant the Labour Party and the wider left. In civil society, opposition was driven by courageous women activists who persisted in arguing what was for decades a minority view. More recently, it included the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. In particular, its ranks were swelled by a generation of young women who refused to put up with the cruelty and second-class status the amendment imposed on them.
Men voted strongly for Yes last Friday, but ultimately this result belongs to the women of Ireland
In 1983, one of the arguments against the Eighth Amendment was that it would alienate many in Northern Ireland and entrench partition. Today, the imminent repeal of Article 40.3.3 opens up a new breach: while the Republic is extending abortion rights and steadily liberalising in other areas, women in the North will continue to live with one of the most restrictive regimes in Europe. That should make the North the focus for a generation of activists who can now see what it is possible for them to achieve. The 2015 referendum on marriage equality demolished the notion that young people cannot be mobilised and energised by a political cause. If that spirit can live on in our politics, so much the better.
The Oireachtas now has a clear mandate to legislate for the abortion regime proposed by the Government. It should take the time needed to get the law right, but no more. We have waited long enough already. Those politicians who called for a No vote are entitled to their views, but they must respect the will of the people.
Men voted strongly for Yes last Friday, but ultimately this result belongs to the women of Ireland. It was women who ran the Yes campaign, women who gave it its animating purpose and women who, through their medical and legal expertise and their powerful personal stories, persuaded us to face up to a reality that could no longer be avoided.