The year conservative, Catholic Ireland lost its mojo
The abortion referendum result was the ‘culmination of a quiet revolution in Ireland’
Yes campaigners during the abortion referendum count at Dublin Castle. The Yes side won with 66.4 per cent of the votes. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
In the summer of 2016, Enda Kenny presented a plan to his cabinet that would put into motion a series of events which would forever change the face of Irish society.
Having witnessed what he said was the “outstanding” role of the Constitutional Convention in paving the way for the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the former taoiseach hoped to emulate its success again.
In June of that year, the cabinet approved the plan to set up a Citizens’ Assembly to tease through the complicated issues surrounding the Eighth Amendment, which effectively prohibited abortion in Ireland.
It would prove to be a canny move, although Kenny worried at the time that it would not be an easy road. “There needs to be a real discussion here, and people would want to know if you’re going to take that out of the Constitution, what are you going to replace it with?” he asked.
If a referendum were to be held that very October, “it would not be passed,” he added.
The role of the assembly would be pivotal, and in the fullness of time it would show that the people were, in fact, way ahead of the political classes when it came to a desire for social change.
Ninety-nine men and women gathered over five weekends in Malahide, Co Dublin, and heard from 40 experts in medicine, law and ethics, and six women directly affected by the amendment.
Under the stewardship of Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, they would acquire what she described afterwards as an “almost uniquely comprehensive understanding” of abortion.
In April 2017, the assembly recommended that the amendment on abortion be removed from the Constitution.
The real surprise was the decision of 64 per cent to vote for abortion “without restriction as to reason” up to 12 weeks. The outcome was far more liberal than anyone had expected.
The assembly’s findings were then put to an Oireachtas committee which would deal exclusively with the issue.
Led by Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, it would eventually mirror the decision of those 99 citizens, with the majority of TDs and Senators voting in favour of unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, and for access to terminations in the case of fatal foetal abnormality or where the life or health of the mother was at risk.
The reality was, the committee heard, that three women a day were ordering abortion pills online, and that these were commonly used up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. This would become a key message in the looming campaign: that the amendment did not mean that Ireland was a country without abortion.
The committee finished its work in December of 2017, and the Dáil went into recess. When it returned, TDs held a debate in the Dáil chamber on the committee’s report, leading to the first political bombshell of the year.
In a pivotal speech, the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, said he would support the committee’s recommendations – even the 12-week proposal.
“I agree that there is no legal, practical or humane way to prove rape or incest early on in a pregnancy. Equally it is clear that the reality of the abortion pill means we are no longer talking about a procedure which involves the broader medical system during the early stages of pregnancy,” he said.
It was an unexpected contribution from Martin who had previously described himself as pro-life.He became the first leader of the two largest parties to reveal their hand.
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, promised he would make his views known at the end of the month instead. True to his word, a decision was made on January 30th to hold a referendum in May.
Varadkar said he too supported the committee’s proposals.“We have abortion in Ireland but it is unsafe, unregulated and unlawful, and in my opinion we cannot export our problems and import our solutions,” Varadkar said.
As he outlined the plans during a late evening press conference in Government Buildings, journalists in the room were sent a statement on behalf of Tánaiste Simon Coveney.
He would not be supporting the proposal to make abortion legal up until 12 weeks, the message read. The first divisions in Fine Gael were opening up. Over the following weeks, Coveney would come under intense pressure from his own supporters to change his mind.
Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher would go on to say that the insertion into the law of a three-day waiting period was done to mollify Coveney.
Another turning point came in March when the Tánaiste said he had changed his mind and was now supporting the 12-week proposal, citing the dangers of abortion pills among the reasons.
His struggle to make up his mind was a very public one, but it reflected the hesitancy of some of the voters in the middle ground, who were struggling to reconcile a desire for change with a desire to protect the unborn.
The decision of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to allow their TDs a free vote on the issue took the issue out of the narrow confines of party politics.
By this stage, the campaign was on in earnest. Grassroots feminist campaigns galvanised themselves around the country, working tirelessly and without fuss. They fanned out with maps and leaflets, keeping a tally of how many were saying Yes on the doorsteps. A quiet confidence began to take hold in the Yes camp.
The campaign was not an easy one, however. Graphic posters appeared outside maternity units and on street posts, and some TV debates, notably the Claire Byrne Show, descended into what some described as a “circus”.
Three days before polling day, almost 750,000 people across the country tuned into RTÉ’s Prime Time to watch Minister for Health Simon Harris go head-to-head against anti-abortion TD Peadar Tóibín. Harris put in a convincing performance, winning praise for providing a clear and concise argument.
“We’re standing here with the luxury of being two men who will never experience a crisis pregnancy,” he said, in a standout contribution. “This is a once in a generational opportunity, let’s not squander it,” was his final plea.
When the country went to the polls, the people voted decisively to repeal the amendment, with 66.4 per cent voting Yes.
The result closely mirrored the assembly where 64 per cent had voted in favour of abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks.
When the result came in, Varadkar said it was the “culmination of a quiet revolution that has taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades”.
This was demonstrably true. In an RTÉ exit poll, 75 per cent had said they “always knew” how they were going to vote. “It is a long road that has no turning,” mused Kate O’Connell in the Dáil as the legislation to give effect to the outcome of the referendum made its way through the Oireachtas.
2018 was the year that conservative Catholic Ireland ceased to be a force to be reckoned with – and “middle Ireland” showed itself to be a more enlightened place.