In the wake of the landslide vote to Repeal, Kieran Allen looks at how the vote was won and what else can be achieved by people power in ‘conservative’ Ireland.
The huge Yes vote to repeal the 8th Amendment has finally put an end to the myth that the Irish are a naturally ‘conservative’ people. In a short space of time, the population voted in overwhelming numbers to support marriage equality and to liberalise abortion laws. It is not simply a matter of Ireland ‘catching’ up with the rest of liberal Western Europe as if there were some inevitable mechanical path to ‘progress’. Similar reforms introduced in other countries often came from parliamentary votes rather than popular suffrage. Moreover, the sheer scale of the endorsement for abortion rights and marriage equality would probably surpass any possible vote in the US or most of Europe. The dialectic of history shows that late-comers on the ‘march to progress’ often skip over gradual stages and develop a radicalism that surpasses their mentors.
Changing Face of Ireland
An RTE exit poll showed that 75% of voters ‘always knew’ how they would vote, even before the referendum began. This indicates that deeper social changes were occurring in Ireland for some time. These include:
- The growing participation of young women in the labour forces in huge numbers: today 78% of women in the age 25-34 are in the labour force.
- The huge numbers of women who are entering third level education: 55% of women attend a third level college compared to 43% of men.
- The urbanisation of Ireland: farmers accounted for only 4.6% of the workforce in 2016 compared to 31% in 1966. That is a drop of 88%.
- The decline of the Catholic Church: weekly attendance at mass has dropped to 14% in Dublin and even lower in some working class areas. Since 1995, the number of priests has dropped by 43% and now stands at only just over 2,000.
These huge social changes ripped apart traditional roles assigned in Irish society. Dympna McLoughlin has suggested there were three main characteristics to the so-called traditional Irish woman:
- An overwhelming desire to marry and to remain faithful, dependent, and subordinate.
- An unquestioning readiness to regard the domestic sphere as her natural habitat and to engage in reproduction rather than production.
- A willingness to accept that women’s sexuality was confined to marriage.
These norms—which were not always adhered to—have become historical anachronisms. Lone gone are the days when sex outside marriage was a cause of shame and secrecy. Very few Irish women believe that their fate is to be economically dependent on a man. They seek meaningful relationships where they are treated as equals; sexual pleasure when they desire; and life where they can control their own fertility. Neither the bishops nor the politicians have the right to determine whether or not they will be pregnant or when or with whom they will have children. Young women regard abortion rights as a necessary back-up for the type of lives they seek. They were never going to tolerate the shaming regime that previous generations had experienced.
How We Won
But this did not mean that victory in the referendum was inevitable. The Catholic Church decided to make a last stand and joined with a fundamentalist lay movement to oppose change. Together with support from the US alt-right, they funded a massive campaign of fear propaganda. Their rhetoric escalated from accusing their opponents of ‘destroying the unborn’ to ‘killing the pre-born’ to ‘murdering babies’ and eventually even ‘murdering children’. They thought they could use past ignorance and a culture of shaming to stop the changes.
There is a mainstream media narrative that the fundamentalist forces were beaten by the ‘courageous leadership’ of two men, Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris. Harris, in particular, was promoted by some of the leadership of Together for Yes because they wanted an alliance between civil society and a ‘progressive government’.
But this narrative ignores how ‘people power’ was the real game changer. This occurred in two main ways. Firstly, the political elite only conceded a referendum because of huge demonstrations that were organised for abortion rights—particularly after the death of Savita Halappanavar. The case of Simon Harris illustrates this perfectly. In 2011 he wrote to the Pro–Life campaign to assure them that he was ‘pro-life’ and that he would express ‘grave doubts’ inside Fine Gael if any attempt was made to liberalise abortion. But then suddenly, he had a dramatic change of mind.
As an individual, it may be that tragic stories of people who suffered from the 8th Amendment helped to change his mind. But, as a politician who is obsessed with PR, he saw 20,000 people marching on the streets in 2016 for ‘free, safe, and legal abortion’ and Strike4Repeal occupying O’Connell Bridge for several hours on International Women’s Day in 2017. More concerning from Fine Gael’s point of view, these people were overwhelmingly young and female and the only politicians giving expression to their views came from the radical Left.
A small layer within Fine Gael saw this movement as an opportunity to re-configure their party as a socially as well as economically liberal party. To do so they did an about turn. Even if this were motivated by some genuine individual reflection there can be little doubt that this was strategic and driven by long term political and electoral considerations.
Secondly, the turning point in the campaign came when thousands of young ‘inexperienced’ people took hold of it and turned into a grassroots canvassing movement. Originally, the Together for Yes leadership relied on focus groups to tap into Ireland’s ‘middle ground’. They considered language and messaging to be a key factor in this. As a result they sought to select canvassers by means of workshops that could control the message. The aim was to ensure that canvassers stayed ‘on message’ and did not frighten this middle ground. The following is taken from a Together for Yes manual sent to team leaders:
‘We know that certain language resonates with the middle ground and some of it does not. See below a list of words and phrases that are of helpful use and some that are useful to avoid. Words to avoid: Choice; On demand; Without restriction/unrestricted; Free; Right to choose; On request; Bodily autonomy.’
The effect of this strategy was to put the Yes campaign on the defensive. The suggestion that canvassers were not to frighten the ‘middle ground’ misunderstood this ‘middle ground’. In the world of focus group pollsters, the ‘middle ground’ conveys an image of a staid bourgeois family that holds fairly conservative view. In reality, however, the ‘undecideds’ were mainly people who were breaking from Catholic morality but were not sure about why abortion should be available on request for up to 12 weeks. It was necessary to genuinely explain.
The suggested prohibition of key words such as Choice was throwing away the strongest argument for Yes—namely the right to choose. Many people who would not have an abortion themselves readily agreed that it was a woman’s right to make a personal choice. ‘A woman’s right to choose’ was confirmed by the exit polls as the MAIN reason for voting yes.
However, the weakness at the start of the campaign was quickly overcome when thousands of activists joined the campaign. The effect was to free the movement from the shackles of its own conservatism. Young people who had never canvassed before went on doorsteps and spoke spontaneously about their own experiences. They took on the argument about the provision for abortion for up to 12 weeks on request and showed how it was necessary for those using the abortion pill. Above all, they talked a language of choice that won huge sympathy.
The sheer scale and energy was astounding. The Dublin Bay South campaign began with mass canvasses of 70 or so people and then grew rapidly. It broke down into nine different local area groups and on any one night, there were about 200 people out knocking on doors. It is estimated that over 9,000 volunteers joined the canvas campaign on a national level.
This movement was a remarkable example of how grassroots activism extends and upends the boundaries of carefully laid plans.
Most commentators believe that the Yes vote is a watershed for Irish society. And indeed it is. But there is no automatic escalator towards a liberal horizon. The reality is that Fine Gael’s current liberalism is limited.
Thus, it makes certain moves to prevent the Catholic Church imposing a baptism barrier on entry to primary schools. But it will not push the church out of controlling of those schools. It will talk about a new curriculum for sex education in schools but it will not insist that religion should only be available after hours on a voluntary basis.
Its deputy leader, Simon Coveney, promises that abortion legislation will be the ‘most conservative’ version in Europe. By this he means that ‘conscience clauses’ and the imposition of a three-day reflection period which will add to the costs will hinder access.
All of this means that contradiction between Fine Gael’s advocacy of greater personal freedom and its neoliberal policies will come into contradiction with each other. For the small upper professional strata who form the backbone of Fine Gael’s support this is not a problem. As long as there are few legal restrictions on their lives, they can easily pay for greater freedoms.
For the majority, however, it is a different story. If abortion costs €300 because of the needless expense of having to see doctors twice or thrice, it will be harder for working class women. If childminding costs remain among the highest in Europe, what real choice do working women have about whether or not to have a child?
And even if there is more bodily autonomy, is that not somewhat diminished by the brutal fact that many have nowhere to live because rents are so high and owning a home has become an impossible dream.
For these reasons we need to continue a fight for Choice and Equality. We should keep the networks created during the referendum together, and fight for further social changes to Irish society. Here are some—but by no means all—of the key issues we need to change through people power:
- ∙Abortion legislation: The Dail should sit in special session to legislate for the will of the people. There should be no restrictive clauses which obstruct women’s access. That means abolishing the three-day waiting period and ensuring that a ‘conscience clause’ is not sued to restrict access in certain areas.
- Extend abortion rights to the North: Women in Northern Ireland should not have to travel and abortion must be decriminalised.
- Free contraception: the government should keep its promise to provide free contraception. Long term contraceptives such as IUDs or implants can cost over €200. These should be included in the range of options available.
- Unbiased Sex Education: The school curriculum should cover contraception, sexuality, gender, LGBT+ issues and consent. There should be no opt-outs for ‘school ethos’ and the courses should not be outsourced to agencies controlled by Bishops.
- Separate Church and State: We were called ‘baby killers’ and ‘murderers’ by those who used pulpits to preach for a No vote. It is now time to end church control of our schools and hospitals.
- Childminding costs: Ireland has the dearest childminding costs in Europe, with over €200 a week being charged for a single child. We need a new system of public provision.
- Housing for all: There are no real choices when you are paying huge rents and can never hope to own a home. We need proper rent controls and a new form of social housing with higher income thresholds.
There is much still to fight for, therefore, but there is no doubt change is on the way. As ever feet on the street and grassroots activism will be the key determining factor.