Micheál Martin is no Repeal hero

The Fianna Fáil leader has become a beacon of Irish feminism for changing his mind

Someone who had travelled abroad for an abortion once told me that the Irish State owes an apology to every woman who has made a similar journey. The statement stayed with me for years, rolling around the floor of my mind like a weighty marble gathering meaning, as with each new day the list to whom the State needed to atone grew longer.

Perhaps this is why I found myself roaring expletives at the radio the day after Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, stated his position on repealing the Eighth Amendment and legalising abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. A gatekeeper to a society most of us have had a gutful of finally appeared to be repenting. Hushed, celebratory tones could be detected.

Commentators marvelled at the political risks the brave leader was taking and wondered about the political capital he could make from “beating” Leo Varadkar out of the traps. Added to that, the sheer banality of waiting for the Taoiseach to state his own position on an issue of such historical and contemporary significance is like waiting for a bus you’ve already missed.

Politically disastrous

Tuning into the radio last Friday was like listening to the sound of history being rewritten. It was as if, overnight, Martin had become a beacon of Irish feminism simply for changing his mind and for being the first to state it. What he didn’t state, of course, was that aligning himself with the likes of Mattie McGrath and Rónán Mullen was not an option he could realistically take – in fact it would be politically disastrous.


Martin should never be lauded for this move for he is no hero. Fianna Fáil’s last attempt to disfigure the Constitution with an amendment aimed squarely at the bodies of women was only in 2002. The failed Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which attempted to exclude the risk of suicide as a grounds for abortion, was led by Micheál Martin as the minister for health.

It has taken so long for these powerful male politicians to drag their parties into even a moderate position that their late repositioning is nothing more than a boring footnote. Neither is this a political earthquake

We cannot allow the conversation to be so overtaken with deference to power that we forget these men lead parties that have consistently thwarted change and protected the status quo. The collective membership of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which represents a mere 1.06 per cent of the population, is the only group to whom they were bowing with their reluctance and sometimes obstinate refusal to deal with this issue properly. We’ve waited for decades for someone to put an end to the unnecessary cruelty and dangerous experimental medicine that the Eighth Amendment has enshrined in the Constitution. This fact can never be revised or written out of the history books – Martin and Varadkar’s roles in the road to repeal can never be understated enough.

Nobody should ever forget that it took the death of an Indian woman in a Galway hospital, Savita Halappanavar, to drag Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael kicking and screaming towards an Ireland that could look forward to a future without the amendment. After Savita died, the women of Ireland were terrified.

The real heroes

In truth, the real heroes in the Repeal movement are the women of Ireland, regardless of nationality, who endured pregnancy and childbirth in the knowledge of what happened to Savita, and others. The real heroes are the brave men and women who despite the prevailing winds of disapproval always stated their opposition to the amendment and campaigned tirelessly for its removal; the mothers who marched for choice in the 1980s, only to watch their daughters march the same path 30 years later; the political parties who printed the words “free, safe and legal” in their manifestos; the people on both sides who genuinely listened to the other; the ones who understand it is okay to still have some reservations about abortion but still be pro-choice; those who know it is possible to be pro-choice and still have a relationship with God; those who don’t judge others for having a relationship with God, or not; those who will never require a termination but will still vote to repeal; they are, among others, men such as Praveen Halappanavar who must endure life without their lovers due to the insertion of a cruel and unworkable amendment into the Constitution.

Bravest of all

And finally, the bravest of all are the women who silently made the journey no one wants to make across the Irish Sea. Their need to not be pregnant outweighed the stigma they risked by obtaining an abortion and for that, they are heroes.

It has taken so long for these powerful male politicians to drag their parties into even a moderate position that their late repositioning is nothing more than a boring footnote. Neither is this a political earthquake. We have waited too long for this to be anything but the slow erosion of Ireland’s own peculiar style of patriarchy.

Political capital is not theirs to take.

Áine Carroll was an administrator for the Technical Group of independent TDs and United Left Alliance TDs in the 31st Dáil and is a social care worker.