Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Diarmaid Ferriter: Ireland faces a day of reckoning on abortion

The State is finally confronting the consequences of the 1983 referendum

The atmosphere during the 1983 abortion referendum campaign was toxic. So much so that Thomas Hesketh’s 1990 book about the referendum was titled The Second Partitioning of Ireland? Journalist Gene Kerrigan, who described the referendum as “the Moral Civil War”, wrote about the campaign for Magill magazine and referred to “the rabid accusations, the political speeches from the pulpit, the poison pen letters, the threatening phone calls, the attacks on the media”.

The polarisation facilitated the reduction of a complex issue to a supposedly “pro” versus “anti” life stance. There was much denial too. Despite talk of Ireland as the last bastion of Christianity – gynaecologist John Bonnar insisted “Ireland stands alone in her fight to defend the Judeo-Christian moral code of sexual behaviour and the sanctity of life” – Eamonn McCann pointed out that “abortion is as Irish as the little green shamrock”.

At the time of the amendment it was estimated that each year approximately 3,600 women who sought abortions in Britain were giving Irish addresses.

It is often forgotten, however, that despite, or perhaps because of, all the acrimony and emotiveness the turnout in 1983 was very low at just 55.6 per cent. The Catholic Church was very vocal in exhorting its flock to vote but many of them clearly did not. Anne Marie Hourihane, who was active in campaigning against the amendment, later suggested, “The fact of the matter was – and both sides let this slip – that the argument became so arcane, so obscure that it alienated many voters.”


The vote in 1983 (the amendment was endorsed by 66.45 per cent of voters) also served to underline the differences between Dublin and the rest of the country; all five of the constituencies that returned majorities against the amendment were in Dublin.

All changed?

In advance of this year’s referendum has all changed utterly? There is undoubtedly much more acceptance now within the political establishment of the idea of a “free vote”.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s support of repeal and of the Oireachtas committee’s proposals, and a Taoiseach committed to the same despite reservations within their own parties are evidence of that. Sinn Féin, however, has yet to demonstrate the same flexibility.

Emotiveness, accusations and intimidation might well be features of the forthcoming campaign unless both sides can manage to strike a dignified and calm tone. Too many male sermons are also likely. The urban versus rural divide is also still relevant; an opinion poll last week suggested there is much broader support in Dublin for repeal than in Munster, Connacht and the rest of Leinster. The importance of the turnout of younger voters will also be crucial given the obvious generational divide in attitudes to abortion.

If the Eight Amendment is repealed and the Oireachtas committee’s recommendations are legislated for – and that is a big “if” – Ireland will have what will be considered a liberal approach to the abortion issue. This might be seen as curious given Ireland’s tortured history with this issue and the dominance of a conservative Catholicism over so many decades.

Historic denial

But it could be seen in another way; as a consequence of the weight of historic denial that has finally forced confrontation with and acceptance by many of reality. It might also be seen as a consequence of the fallout from the 1983 amendment. The X Case in 1992 did much, not only to cause outrage at the idea that a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim could be prevented from leaving the country for an abortion, but also to expose the hypocrisy of the exportation of the problem.

There is a lot less denial about abortion as an Irish reality requiring an Irish response

Mary Harney, the first female leader of an Irish political party, directly addressed this question in light of the Supreme Court ruling overturning the decision of the High Court to prevent the girl from travelling: “If it is morally right in London, I can’t see why it is morally wrong in Dublin.”

The 1983 referendum and its outcome also generated considerable cynicism about the capacity of Irish politicians to deal honestly and effectively with issues that directly affect women.

In 1992, Judge Niall McCarthy in the Supreme Court excoriated the failure to enact legislation to give effect to the 1983 amendment: “What are pregnant women to do? What are the parents of a pregnant girl under age to do? What are the medical profession to do?”

In facing up to these questions in a way that previous efforts have not, a new generation of politicians has created a path, not just to repeal the amendment, but to go much further than that, and most of them have been persuaded, not by abstract arguments or righteous moralising but by concrete evidence and personal testimony, which was either absent or got completely lost in 1983.

There is no guarantee this will not happen again during this year’s campaign, but there is, it seems, a lot less denial about abortion as an Irish reality requiring an Irish response.