The Irish Times view on abortion referendum: Assessing the political impact
A clear mandate
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Senator Catherine Noone and Minister for Health Simon Harris at Dublin Castle on Saturday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The referendum landslide has given the Government a clear mandate to legislate for abortion along the lines of the draft framework published at the start of the campaign.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Government’s approach to the issue was that the consequences of a Yes vote were spelled out in precise detail so voters had no doubt about the choice they were being offered. That was in striking contrast to the Brexit referendum in the UK, which the Conservative government initiated without preparing the electorate in any coherent way for the choice it would have to make.
Right from the start the abortion issue was approached in a considered manner. First a Citizens’ Assembly was established to listen to experts and offer recommendations. On taking office a year ago, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar promised a referendum within 12 months and established an Oireachtas committee to examine the options and consult expert witnesses. It produced a report advocating the introduction of unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks and the Government made a formal decision to follow its advice.
Labour deserves great credit not simply for supporting the move but for being the only major party to oppose the introduction of the amendment in the first place back in 1983
Many mainstream politicians were initially uneasy at the decision to opt for 12 weeks rather than legislate for hard cases but the Taoiseeach and Minister for Health Simon Harris wholeheartedly backed the move and brought their Fine Gael colleagues with them. The decision of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to back the 12 weeks proposal was vital in ensuring that it had broad political support. Many Fianna Fáil TDs were dismayed at his decision but it ensured that the issue never became a narrow party-political squabble between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
The Labour Party also deserves great credit not simply for supporting the move but for being the only major party to oppose the introduction of the amendment in the first place back in 1983 and for campaigning against it ever since. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald played an important role in the campaign as did longtime pro-choice campaigners like Clare Daly. The Oireachtas now has a clear mandate to proceed with the legislation outlined by Simon Harris and there is a balance to be struck between proceeding with appropriate speed and necessary deliberation with a view to having it passed in the autumn.
The impact of the result on party politics is debatable. The marriage equality referendum would not have taken place in 2015 if Labour Party leader and then tánaiste Eamon Gilmore had not insisted on it. Far from providing any political dividend to Labour, the party was almost wiped out in the general election a year later.
Varadkar has certainly emerged from the referendum with his standing enhanced, but whether that will translate into a long-term lift for his party is far from clear.