Both sides prepare for Eighth Amendment poll battle

Coveney’s position on 12-week abortion limit may come to be seen as key moment in campaign

The LoveBoth Project ‘Lives Saved’ tour launch  in Galway on Friday.  Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

The LoveBoth Project ‘Lives Saved’ tour launch in Galway on Friday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

 

Groups campaigning to repeal and retain the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution are awaiting the official start of the campaign when the wording is announced and the referendum Bill introduced in the Dáil.

All that is expected to happen over the coming weeks – once the Supreme Court rules on an appeal from a High Court case which involves the rights of the unborn. But in reality the campaign has been underway for some time.

Anti-abortion groups have been mounting an active canvass for months. On Friday, the Pro-Life Campaign (one of the main groups) launched a campaign in Galway to highlight what it says are the lives saved by the Eighth Amendment by preventing abortions. The social media effort has been intensified in recent weeks.

The Repeal campaign is using the slight lull during this period, when the political and judicial developments are awaited, to intensify organising and training around the country, conduct market research and prepare for the nuts and bolts of a long campaign.

Both sides say that this is not the marriage equality campaign of three years ago; yet both sides hunt for lessons and comparisons too.

The repeal side, which includes some of the same personnel and draws support from many of the same voices in the media, will seek to establish the same co-ordinated messaging and organisational discipline as the marriage equality campaigners demonstrated three years ago.

One senior repealer jokes that she spends much of her time telling people to calm down; it’s early days.

Those campaigning against repeal point out that the big anti-abortion groups did not get involved in the marriage equality campaign; they kept their powder dry for this day, knowing it would come.

They say they will have political support, “not just Mattie McGrath and Ronan Mullen, but politicians like Mary Butler and Peadar Tóibín” who will speak in favour of keeping the amendment.

“This time three years ago, the lead for Yes was about 50 points. Now it’s about half that,” said one senior anti-abortion campaigner.

Standout moments

There have been a couple of standout moments so far in the long road to the abortion referendum: the Citizens’ Assembly, the report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, and the Government’s decision to accept the report and move forward towards a referendum.

These have all been helpful to the repeal side, generating a momentum towards change that seemed to be sweeping the entire political system towards backing repeal.

The Dáil debate was heavily pro-repeal. Micheál Martin’s intervention, detailing his change of mind on the issue and grounding it in concern for women, was a big moment for both Fianna Fáil (many of whom were taken aback by it) and the repeal movement. Then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar nailed his colours to the mast with a late-night press conference in Government Buildings.

It was all going one way.

All, that is, until Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney made his intervention a few days afterwards, declaring his opposition to the proposal to allow abortions on request up to 12 weeks. This is the proposal that Varadkar and his Minister for Health Simon Harris have indicated will be tabled in the Dáil by the Government if the referendum is carried. Though Coveney backs repeal, this was a big moment for the anti-repeal side.

In trying to figure out the progress of this campaign, it’s wise to be careful of overstating the importance of politicians and of the prevailing mood in Leinster House. The referendum, after all, will be decided by the people, not the politicians.

But politicians know politics all the same and many TDs – in the two big parties and outside – believe Coveney’s intervention has changed the course of the campaign. At least one Cabinet minister believes the referendum will be defeated because of it.

It’s a little early to be making such sweeping predictions, but there’s little doubt that Coveney’s intervention arrested the momentum of the repeal side. And in political campaigns, momentum is important.

Coveney’s decision to oppose abortion up to 12 weeks, potentially even seeking to amend his own Government’s legislation, has given cover to other Fine Gael TDs to follow suit. Subsequent headcounts of TDs by The Irish Times have demonstrated that it is by no means certain that the legislation on 12 weeks would pass the Dáil.

It has also aided the anti-repealers by illustrating the uncertainty of a post-repeal landscape. Don’t hand it over to the politicians, they warn – a potent argument in an age that does not trust politicians.

There will be other twists and turns in this long campaign, for sure. Both sides await the Supreme Court, await the wording, await the heads of the Bill, await the Dáil debate, await the date. But both also know the waiting will soon be over.