Opinion
Subscriber Only

Fintan O’Toole: Abortion result shows democracy can rise above hysteria and hate

Ireland has voted No to tribalism and fear in overwhelming decision to remove the Eighth

So Ireland voted overwhelmingly No.

No to the tribalism that would divide it into mutually exclusive clans of male and female, rural and urban, young and old. No to Constitutional body-shaming. No to “feck off to England”.

No to holier-than-thou. No to the condescension of knowing more about what a woman must do than she is allowed to know herself.

No to the politics of fear, misrepresentation and manipulation that have given the English-speaking world Brexit and Donald Trump.

No to the Ireland of As If.

No to the self-declared Moral Majority that is now emphatically a minority whose notion of morality cannot be enforced by the State.

This referendum was a collective act of letting go, the end of a very long goodbye. Three years ago, when the results of the same sex marriage referendum came in, it felt like a big Irish wedding.

This time, it feels more like a wake - albeit one of those wakes where most people do not bother to hide their disdain for the deceased. For something has undoubtedly died.

End of Irish exceptionalism

This is the end of Irish exceptionalism. The Ireland of absolutes is dead and gone, and with the Eighth Amendment in its grave. An Ireland of complexities, of ambiguities and uncertainties has taken its place.

The light in the beacon of holiness that Ireland once imagined itself casting on the world has been turned off for good. Instead, we have turned the light onto our millions of intricate, convoluted, open-ended all-too-human selves. Ireland is an ordinary place now and must find its nobility in that ordinary humanity. There is no great cause for euphoria in that, but there is room for a deep sense of relief.

At wakes, after all, there is sometimes a quiet joy that a life that had gone on far too long and become too painful to bear has ended at last. Even for many of those who voted No there must be some tacit sense of release.

The Eighth Amendment was never much loved by the people at a large even in 1983 when most of them either did not vote or voted against it. For its most passionate supporters, it turned sour in 1992 when the Supreme Court ruled in the X case that it did not mean what they thought (and insisted) it meant.

And after the referendums of 1992 inserted the rights to information and to travel, the whole thing ceased to be any kind of statement of moral principle and became a mere matter of geography. The only Irish exceptionalism it pointed to was an exceptional hypocrisy.

The Eighth became mere Constitutional nimbyism. And yet it stalked on like a zombie, not really alive but undead.

Sheer scale

The sheer scale of the vote to end it, and the way that choice was made in every part of Ireland, shows a determination to finish this thing off once and for all. It has already had a 26-year afterlife since 1992 and we have made plain to the political system that we do not want it to have another.

There is no great glee in laying such a creature to rest and no call for wild dancing on its grave. There has been too much grief, too much hurt. Too many women have been made to feel small, contemptible, shameful, unwanted. Too many families have had bad situations made infinitely worse.

The abortion bomb is packed with visceral emotions, ancient prejudices, religious doctrines and deep anxieties about meaning and identity

For all the courage of those who spoke out and told their most intimate stories, too many people still carry silences within them that will go with them to their graves: the unexpectedly high vote showed that there are still silent Yeses. Too many vicious things have been said in the campaign, things that will be harder to forget than to forgive.

And yet, even if outright triumph would not be appropriate to the occasion, we are surely entitled to at least three cheers.

Three cheers

The first cheer is for democracy.

What the Irish political system and the Irish people have just done is very hard. Planting a bomb in the Constitution was relatively easy in the atmosphere of 1983. But defusing a bomb takes skill and nerve and courage.

Even though the cultural and social context has changed radically, the abortion bomb is still explosive. It is packed with visceral emotions, ancient prejudices, religious doctrines and deep anxieties about meaning and identity.

To defuse it you have to get right into the wiring of those forces, to touch the rawest of nerves without setting the whole thing off.

The timing, too, was inauspicious. Ireland was undertaking this delicate political process at a time when democratic politics have seldom been more indelicate. It was raising deep questions of national identity at a time when a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.

It was conducting an open democratic exercise at a time when the online techniques for subverting democratic choice have been honed and proved in the Brexit referendum in the UK and the Trump campaign in the US. It was trying to embrace complexity at a time when simplistic sloganeering is in the ascendant.

And all of this gave the No side huge advantages. In referendums it is always easier to be negative. The positive proposition has to be clear and coherent. The assaults on it can be as wild, untruthful and as self-contradictory as they are self-serving.

Soft repealers

The Yes side played with its cards turned up - the proposed legislation was published and even though there was in reality no workable alternative to what it envisages, those proposals were a shock to many soft repealers.

Exit polls show that significant numbers of Yes voters had to overcome their own unease.

But the No side did not merely not have to show its cards. It could play from different decks at the same time, insisting both that all abortion is murder and (especially in the last week) that if the Eighth was retained it would come up with some unspecified solutions for the “hard cases”.

Irish democracy withstood all this. It stuck to a thoughtful deliberative process through the Citizen's Assembly and the Oireachtas committee. Most TDs and party leaders took their duties seriously and gave responsible leadership. Civil society groups showed tremendous commitment, resilience and skill.

The much-maligned mainstream media broadly succeeded in holding open a public arena for truthful information and civilised debate.

And this is not just an Irish achievement. It has global significance. It shows democracy itself can still hold fast, that decent politics and a serious-minded citizenry can rise above hysteria, hate and manipulation.

The second cheer is for civic engagement, especially by the young. There were plenty of old-timers around the Repeal campaign and many undaunted veterans who have endured the hard times.

New generation

(It is important to remember that The Irish Times exit poll shows us that in absolute terms more Yes voters were over 65 than under 25.)

But this campaign has been largely won by a generation that had good reason to give up on Ireland. It is the generation of 2008, the generation that was handed a massive bank debt, that was told there were no jobs, that had its wages and welfare payments cut, that was informed, in so many words, that it would be greatly appreciated if it would kindly remove itself to somewhere else.

Yet it’s a generation that cared enough about Ireland to want not to be ashamed of it any more.

And to do something about it.

A generation caricatured as snowflakes went out and took the heat on the doorsteps and did not melt. Young people who are supposed to live in echo chambers went out to talk and listen face to face, to take the abuse, to try to answer the hard questions, to engage with people superficially very different from themselves.

This is what patriotism really looks - not flag-waving xenophobia but real belief in the possibilities of a better Ireland. And we find ourselves, astonishingly, with a new generation of patriots.

Blow against misogyny

The third cheer is one that can be just a little bit raucous. It’s for the big blow that has been struck against misogyny. The equation in the Eighth of a woman to her ovum at the exact moment of fertilisation was not just about abortion.

It was an act of profound belittlement. And of stark division - women’s right to life and health were qualified and made conditional in ways that could never be applied to men. So long as those words were in the Constitution, women could never be equal citizens. But they could be, in their childbearing years, objects of suspicion and bearers of shame.

We have taken a giant step towards taking gender out of Irish citizenship. This is good for all citizens. A citizenship that is qualified and hedged around, that is uneven and unequal, is devalued for everyone who holds it. It was moving to see so many women posting pictures of themselves with their Éire/Ireland passports as they arrived home to vote or showed up at polling stations.

There will no longer be a kind of invisible asterisk on the passports of Irish women - Nationality: Irish (*but female). Women will no longer have to read the Constitution of their own republic and turn their eyes away from Article 40. Belonging has become that bit easier for all of us.

But even as we toast the deceased with these three cheers, we must know that this end is also a beginning. A huge space has been cleared. The Eighth and the struggle against it has filled too many rooms in our heads and in our public arenas.

Energy

It has forced the body and its intimacies into places where they should not be - there has been too much body in the Irish body politic. It has siphoned off 35 years of energy that might have been devoted to child poverty, to housing, to health, to education. It has kept people apart who should be united on many of these things, creating false tribes of liberals and conservatives and weakening the possibilities of a broad consensus for social justice. We refused on Friday to be identified with these tribes.

Now we can go on to be part of a real republic.

After the wake, we can bury, along with the delusions of Irish exceptionalism, the anger, the frustration, the bitterness.

All the wasted energy that went into the politics of pointless gestures can be unleashed into something more constructive. We have decided not to be the holiest place in the world but we can still be a country to be proud of.

We have decided not to think in black and white anymore. Now we have to decide whether to subside into greyness or to replace that old monochrome with new colours of justice, decency and inclusion.