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Una Mullally: Political backsliding on the Eighth Amendment referendum has begun

Our politicians are once again in fear of a middle Ireland than exists primarily in their imaginations

Anti-abortion protesters Jennifer Christie, Laura Ní Chonghaile, Shauna Prewitt, and Rebecca Kiessling outside Leinster House this week. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Already we are hearing that Fine Gael Ministers “Do not believe the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly for the legislation of abortion will pass ‘party, Dáil or country’ and will have to be significantly amended.”

It’s hard to know what these Ministers’ assertions – as reported in this newspaper this week – are based on. It reminds me of the run up to the marriage referendum, when the public was regularly being told by (often anonymous) politicians that the referendum would not pass and that there was a silent “no” vote. Anyone on the ground could see this wasn’t the case, but perhaps it’s hardly news that some politicians were disconnected from that.

These two referendums are very different, of course, but both unearth a curious reaction from politicians. One grounded in a disconnect with the public, and in fear. Fear of change, fear of progress, fear of an Ireland dead and gone. We cannot be guided by fear. We’ve done that for too long.

Any attempt to change or replace the Eighth Amendment with something that regulates women’s bodies in the Constitution is unconscionable. There is no road left for this can to be kicked down. What is crucial, is the wording of the referendum, and the legislation drawn up by the Oireachtas to regulate abortion in Ireland.

The Citizens’ Assembly gave generously of its time, poring over the issues, and having informed conversations. They posed difficult questions in a respectful space, and heard positions and points of view from many sides without the “devil’s advocate” moderation of a media panel show scrap. Essentially, they took on as much information, research, opinion, debate, local and international context and expertise as they could, and made informed decisions based on that. The conclusion was emphatic: the Constitution is no place for the regulation of women’s bodies, the Eighth Amendment as it exists must go, and if replaced, replaced with a line that directs the issue towards the Oireachtas to legislate on.

The assembly’s thoughtfulness may turn out to be one of its weaknesses in a broader context of being a guide to constitutional changes. The average voter is probably not going to dedicate as much time to this issue as the members of the assembly did. They will hear heightened debates in the media, and hand-wringing politicians. But when all of the information from all sides was available to citizens at the assembly, that’s what they went for. That decision has to be respected.

Ironically, if politicians think there is political capital (or just a few votes) in kicking the can down the road, they are ignoring the growing hundreds of thousands who have been mobilised by the Repeal movement, who are politically engaged, and who will not forget the names and parties in their constituencies of those who choose fear as a reason to fall short on reproductive rights.

No one is saying the run up to the referendum is going to be easy, not least for those who will have their bodies and rights debated in the media. The anti-choice movement is already engaged in a war of misinformation and extreme tactics.

The wording of the referendum and the legislation on abortion cannot hide from the reality that we need safe, free, and legal abortion regulated in Ireland. Politicians cannot fudge this, or present yet another half-baked Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Fantasy creation

The phantom “Middle Ireland” some politicians manufacture when it comes to social issues seems to primarily exist on Kildare Street; the fantasy creation of a political class perceived to be much more deft at dodging than it is at stepping up to the plate. No one is saying this will be easy, but it has to be right.

I think most people have reasonable, complex, thoughtful, and probably private positions on the Eighth Amendment. The pro-choice movement has been moving the conversation into a more respectful space, starting honest conversations about people’s experiences. Politicians have to listen to those reasonable voices, and respect the recommendations already made by reasonable citizens. If you want a Middle Ireland, that’s it.