Marnie Holborow examines the significance of Saturday’s political earthquake.
The decisive win for Repeal the Eighth in Ireland’s referendum is truly a watershed event.
The media, commentators and politicians had drummed home how divisive and close the result would be. Yet all regions, men and women, across social classes and almost all age groups, voted in their droves to Repeal. Across 26 counties, another popular vote has overturned the political normal.
The Yes side won by 66% to 34%. Dublin voted overwhelmingly yes. The highest Yes vote in the country was Dublin Bay South with 78% for Repeal—a constituency whose working class and middle-class areas returned 90% and 91% yes vote results respectively.
The urban-rural divide, so often held up in the media as a political fact, crumbled. The 63% rural yes vote almost matched its 72% urban equivalent. In Dublin, 75% of people backed Repeal. Exit polls put Leinster at 67%, but Munster’s 63% and Connacht-Ulster’s 62% was equally clear cut for Yes. Donegal, with 52% against, was the only constituency to vote No. However, when the votes in the Donegal regions of the Sligo/Leitrim constituency are counted—the county as a whole was a Yes vote.
The vote showed that when people were finally consulted on abortion, they spoke in one voice with their sisters, their mothers and their daughters. No longer could the reality of Irish abortions be denied and silenced. It was a massive Yes to end political hypocrisy, church control and the shameful anti-woman regime that has ruled Ireland for so long.
Leo Varadkar has catapulted himself to the head of this change. He welcomed the vote as the day Ireland “came of age as a country”, the day in which as he put it “we now have a modern constitution for a modern people”. But the reality of social change is a little more nuanced than his new-found liberal narrative would have us believe. It is true that he and others steered though the Citizen’s Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee which enabled the referendum to happen. But the overwhelming Yes vote expressed something going on in Irish society that those in power had chosen to ignore for a long time.
According to the RTE’s exit poll, 76% of the 3,000 people surveyed said they were always going to vote yes and a further 8% said Savita Halappanavar’s death almost six years ago convinced them. Just 1% referenced last year’s Citizen’s Assembly ruling; another 1% the cross-party Oireachtas committee discussions; and 12% the referendum campaign itself. One in every three people said their yes vote was because of the experiences of people they knew, meaning the core of the yes vote was always there.
Although Varadkar has been quick to claim leadership of what he called “the quiet revolution” it was well underway before his pronouncements.
Movement from Below
The real driving force of this vote was the movement from below—the mass movement of people that shaped this change. Since the cruelly tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 because of the Eighth Amendment, a growing groundswell of women’s rights activists, encouraged by rising radical international women’s movement, mobilised around the call for Repeal.
The Abortion Rights Campaign, also founded in 2012 under the banner of free, safe and legal abortion, mobilized larger numbers culminating in thousands marching in September last year. International Women’s day in Ireland was becoming a focus for this anger as Strike for Repeal direct action on that day proved. Ireland, North and South, had a strong #Metoo movement, which rallied against the violent rape culture displayed at the Belfast rugby trial. These movements were made up of a new generation of young women, working women, students, young mothers—the very people who joined the Repeal movement in such large numbers and galvanised the Yes vote.
The radical left, not the political mainstream, played a crucial role in giving this movement a focus. Independent Socialist Clare Daly in 2013 introduced a Bill to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. This was defeated because Fine Gael and most of Fianna Fáil opposed it, whilst Sinn Féin abstained. The Fine Gael Government’s Protection for Life during Pregnancy Act legislated for the X case some twenty years earlier (to allow abortions when a woman or girl is suicidal) but this was the legislation which we heard from doctors during the campaign which was completely unworkable. It also included a shameful maximum 14-year prison sentence for any other abortions. People before Profit TD Brid Smith in 2017 later proposed to reduced the sentence but mainstream parties ruled it out.
On the ground, the Repeal campaign was a mass active grassroots movement in which the radical left, socialists, individual left leaning activists played a vital role. Monster canvasses, meetings, rallies, stalls, banner drops, mass leafleting, the huge participatory activism of the campaign delivered the biggest expression of people power since the water charges movement.
Choice is Crucial
What the RTE Behaviour and Attitudes exit poll also revealed was something many in the campaign had already discovered on the doorstep—that choice was the decisive issue. Well over a majority (62%) of all voters said the right to choose was the “most critical issue”. And no less than 84% of those who had voted Yes had done so on the basis of a woman’s right to choose, many more than those that considered the key issues to be the health or life of the woman, or pregnancy as a result of rape—the so called ‘hard cases’.
In this respect, the political message promoted by Together for Yes campaign was wide of the mark. Their telling activists not to speak to voters about choice, abortion on request or ‘bodily autonomy’ turned out to be the very things that voters cared about. The thinking behind this ‘soft messaging’—more from the world of PR than that of political movements—was that somehow Irish people were not ready to entertain abortion as a woman’s right. These professional strategists, some of whom had come from working in NGO’s or with Labour, believed Varadkar’s mantra that in politics, spin is everything.
This is a very superficial view of politics. Changed social realities, life experience, the politics on offer, and a host of other factors influence how people think about things. Crucial in this respect is the fact that, unlike three decades ago, Irish women do not see their main role in the home. Women now constitute 45% of the workforce – roughly the same as the US—a number that has increased dramatically and, in comparison to other countries, quite recently. The Irish student population is now more female than male. These facts alter how women see themselves and their social roles and social rights. Today being forced to give birth against your will jars starkly with your expectations and hopes for life. The right to abortion, like for women in the UK and the US in the 1970s becomes understood as a necessary backstop to other freedoms for women.
Genie out of the Bottle
The shiny new liberalism from Fine Gael is limited in what it can provide, in terms of these rights. Simon Harris—cheered by some during his appearance at Dublin Castle—is the minister responsible for the cervical screening crisis whose origins lie in the privatising agenda to which his party is committed. Liberalism of all hues—from Hilary Clinton to Emmanuel Macron—is flawed by its privatisation of personal liberties over the provision of the material means to deliver them to everyone. Its liberalism comes up against its own neoliberal economic agenda. Post referendum will the government provide free abortions and abortion pills for women? Will it provide publicly funded health centres to cater for free contraception and free support systems?
Many in the movement, hugely motivated by their victory, want to take things further. They want a separation of church and state, for schools to be free of religion. They want to see this result change the sterile misogynistic regime in the North of Ireland so that our northern sisters can gain full abortion rights too. Socialists will be fighting with the thousands of activists to win real choice, real equality, real change. The genie is out of the bottle.