Irish voters will be going to the polls on May 25 to decide whether to liberalise the country’s strict abortion laws. Leo Varadkar’s government is pushing strongly for a Yes vote in what will be a test of Ireland’s declining Catholic identity.

The referendum concerns the proposed repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, passed in 1983, which establishes the right to life of the unborn child on a par with that of the mother. As a result, Ireland has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, with abortion only permitted when there is a risk to the mother’s life. The constitutional provision has made it very difficult for legislators or judges to widen the scope of the law.

The referendum, if passed, would be a radical change. If it secures a Yes vote in May, the Varadkar government is proposing a law which would be more permissive than that in Britain for unborn children up to 12 weeks, allowing abortion on demand, and mirroring UK provisions on medically certified abortions after 12 weeks.

Since the 1983 referendum, abortion has been one of the most long-running controversies in Irish politics. So far, every attempt to overturn the Eighth Amendment has failed at the polls. However, it has long been a symbolic measure, with cheap travel to Britain making it easy for any Irish woman who wants an abortion to access one. But Varadkar is confident that he can succeed where previous governments have failed.

The atmosphere has changed since 1983. What is most striking is that No campaigners have had to position themselves as underdogs fighting an establishment which has rigged the terms of the debate.

This is a complete switch from the 1983 referendum passing the Eighth Amendment, in which pro-lifers were the establishment, or at least a solid majority of the population. That referendum was won by a two-to-one majority and swept every constituency outside Dublin. More recent referenda have shown a more or less even split.

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