Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The landslide vote to repeal the constitutional amendment that effectively bans abortion in Ireland highlights the major changes going on in that country.
That really happened. Three days after the results of Ireland’s referendum on abortion were confirmed, many supporters are still pinching themselves at the overwhelming 66 percent victory for the campaign in favor of repealing the country’s eighth amendment, which effectively bans all abortions and has been part of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution since 1983.
In the referendum run-up, however, media coverage often framed the vote as being about far more than abortion rights. It’s been presented as reflecting a battle between urban Ireland and its more traditional, rural heartland. And it’s been considered—infuriatingly to many Irish people—a litmus test for Ireland’s modernity. In Britain, some commentators have even tried to shoehorn it into somehow reflecting the result of the Brexit referendum.
One thing is inarguable: The scale of the win is remarkable. In the run-up to polling day, Yes was comfortably ahead of No (by 44 percent to 32), but with a large proportion of voters not yet decided, it was still not entirely clear which way the pendulum would swing. The landslide overturned that expectation.
An urban-rural divide that never was
One common theme in the coverage of the referendum prior to the vote was that it represented a generational and geographic conflict between the younger, relatively more affluent urban country embodied in Dublin’s global village and the older, more traditional Ireland living out on the land.
But this standoff never happened. All but one of Ireland’s counties, urban and rural alike, voted to repeal. While younger people and women were more likely to vote Yes, that side enjoyed support across all ages and genders. The only county that seemed to reject repeal was Donegal, by 52 to 48. Even here, though, the picture isn’t clear. The southernmost part of Donegal is in fact counted electorally as part of another constituency (Sligo-Leitrim, which voted Yes), so overall even a majority of Donegal voters went for repeal in the end.
There was also much attention paid to Irish citizens who were returning from living in Britain and Europe to cast their votes. On social media, people shared dramatic images of Irish citizens coming back from abroad in ports and airports, under the hashtag #hometovote. While the show of determination by voters who sometimes traveled across the world may have fueled enthusiasm for the Yes Campaign, it probably did little to change the results. Under fairly strict electoral laws, only 40,000 Irish people living outside the country were eligible to vote in the referendum—not a result-shifting number in a country with over 6.5 million citizens.
Overall, this relative unanimity between urban, rural, and overseas should work wonders for Ireland’s social cohesion in the near future. A debate that was predicted—not entirely inaccurately—to be bitter and divisive ended up producing something far closer to consensus than even many ardent Yes campaigners dared to imagine.
A growing distance from the diaspora
While the seams in Irish society weren’t torn asunder by the vote, one minor rift did gain notice—the one between Ireland and the Irish-American diaspora. Irish media have noted with some perplexity and embarrassment the high number of Irish-American names orbiting around the current U.S. presidential administration—think Bannon, Flynn, Conway, and the Seans (Spicer and Hannity). Then there’s Mike Pence, who has both Irish grandparents and a voting record on social issues that places him on the Irish political spectrum’s extreme right.
The ideological gap between this high-profile Irish-American coterie and the general disposition of the Irish public, which voted in a landslide referendum for marriage equality just three years ago, has been marked for a while. Its specific significance to the abortion referendum was that much advertising for the No Campaign was funded with cash from outside the country. Such was concern about the influence of outside money—largely from American groups, it was believed—that Facebook bowed to pressure to ban all advertising not funded from within the country. Some commentators, such as the Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole, celebrated the Yes vote not just as a sea change in Irish public opinion but as evidence that Irish-American conservatives were now far out of step with the country they claimed as partly their own.
A (not so) new Ireland
Beyond Ireland’s borders, the referendum’s results may have helped banish the outmoded international images of what Ireland and Irishness consist of, and replaced them with the lived realities of contemporary Ireland. Outside the country, many people’s idea of the place are still rooted firmly in the 20th century, or earlier—an insular, God-fearing satellite of the contemporary world, whose citizens lived in a photogenic emerald-and-sepia backwardness. This image isn’t entirely baseless—the Catholic Church retains considerable influence in Irish life, and will continue to do so after this referendum. But so much has changed. This referendum result, as well as the similar landslide for marriage equality in 2015, is arguably more a reflection of this change than its architect.
That route to change has been painful. It included not just the endless rolling sexual abuse scandals of the church, which have loosened the clergy’s grip on public opinion, but more specifically revelations of the cruelty with which Irish law treated women seeking abortions. For decades, they were forced to travel to the U.K. for terminations—making Ireland’s ban, as has been often pointed out, a bar not on abortions, but on abortions for women without money.
Another turning point in public opinion: the horrific 2012 case of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who was living in Galway when she and her husband were expecting their first child. She died in the hospital in protracted agony because staff would not abort a fetus that had no chance of survival, highlighting widespread fears about the treatment of expectant mothers with complications. Critics of Irish abortion law saw it as a damning indictment of a culture that revered theoretical motherhood while simultaneously treating actual mothers’ well-being with an indifference that at time seemed to border on actual malice. In the wake of the repeal vote, Halappanavar’s name and image have been on prominent display.
Abortion is still not as yet legal in Ireland—the vote succeeded in removing any constitutional blocks before such legislation can be proposed. As a result, it’s not yet clear what the new law will be, though the proposal put forward by the government before the vote was cast was to allow abortion for 12 weeks after conception, and beyond that (up to 24 weeks) under exceptional cirumstances—less than the blanket 24-week limit in England, Wales, and Scotland, but also quite different from the situation in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal except if the mother’s life is under threat (another battle to come rumbling in the near distance). This legislation should be in place by the end of the year.
There’s one other significant takeaway from Ireland’s results. So many recent elections and referendums—from Brexit to Trump to Italy’s current confusion—have been dogged by charges that foreign influence, misinformation, and fear-mongering have warped the democratic process. But the Irish referendum seems to have avoided that characterization. Instead, the vote appears to have been decided by thousands of grassroots conversations in which Irish women argued persuasively for the right to their own bodily autonomy, and talked personally of their bleak experiences of having it denied. That they were able to make their case, and were listened to, should give some cause for hope that change can still come via the ballot box.