The referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which underlies Ireland’s strict abortion laws, marks the end of one of the last bastions of Catholic influence in the country. Leo Varadkar’s government will now move quickly to pass legislation that will introduce an abortion regime similar, though not identical, to that of Britain.
The referendum question passed much more easily than polls predicted, with 66.4 per cent of voters in favour to 33.6 per cent against. Thirty-nine out of 40 constituencies voted Yes, with only rural Donegal – arguably the most conservative part of the Republic – voting narrowly against. Yes campaigners were triumphant, with Dublin Castle being opened for a post-referendum party, while No campaigners have been left stunned over how this could have happened.
The scale of the Yes vote raises questions about the reliability of the polls and the assumptions that people on both sides had made. It was reasonable to assume that legalising abortion would be a tougher sell than same-sex marriage, which passed by 62 to 38 per cent in 2015. It’s much more difficult to make a secular case against gay marriage than it is against abortion. Also, the No campaign in the marriage referendum was shambolic, while the No campaign this time was much more professional and its representatives performed strongly in television debates.
But it possibly isn’t the case that the polls were so far out. Both campaigns expected from their internal canvassing that the result would be close. But published polls never showed the No vote higher than 34 per cent, and it was usually closer to 26. There was a widespread assumption that the large number of “don’t know” responses to polls hid a lot of shy No voters. In retrospect it seems more likely that the “don’t know” camp were those in the middle who didn’t like abortion but wanted limited change to deal with highly publicised tragedies such as the death of Savita Halappanavar (controversially blamed on the Eighth Amendment by abortion campaigners). In the closing stages, it seems as if these soft voters broke heavily to the Yes side, turning what might have been a narrow victory into a landslide.
This is speculative – the headline results don’t tell us much about the motivation of voters – but it was interesting to note the tactics of Sinn Féin, the most uncompromisingly pro-repeal of the main parties. Earlier in the debate, its leadership had been criticised by supporters for its strong-arm approach to party representatives who were unwilling to support a Yes vote. Towards the end, a softer tone was taken and leading figures such as Matt Carthy and Pearse Doherty, who had a reputation for being close to pro-life thinking, were deployed to say that they were personally uncomfortable with abortion, but wanted a Yes vote to allow for hard cases like rape and fatal foetal abnormality. This was a conscious move: party leader Mary Lou McDonald is clever enough to know that her own brand of Dublin feminism wasn’t enough to bring the base with her.
But even if it was reluctant Yes voters who made the difference, this won’t matter. It’s true that the government gave the impression that the new abortion law would be more restrictive than it actually will be, but even if it had openly campaigned for a British-style abortion law that probably still would have got majority support. So the government will be in no mood to compromise, except possibly with forces to its left calling for the law to be liberalised beyond even what the government has proposed. It’s likely that within three to five years there will be a serious attempt to make the law even less restrictive.
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