independent

Monday 21 April 2014

John Downing: Legacy of bitterness that haunts generations

YOU have to have lived through Ireland's first referendum on abortion to realise how utterly appalling the campaign was. And many of us who did live through it often don't want to recall it.

"It was a dialogue of the deaf, though not of the mute."

The words of the irrepressible historian Joe Lee sum up what happened in Ireland in August and September 1983. The campaign on the eighth amendment to Bunreacht na hEireann – which appeared to put a total constitutional ban on abortion into the Constitution – was very loud.

The debate was also unfair, confusing and personally hurtful and summed up by another historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, as 'one of the most poisonous witnessed in 20th Century Ireland'. It split Ireland into town and country, it divided parties and professional and trade organisations – including trade unions, and it put a huge strain on relations in families.

It exposed a bigoted side of some within 'traditional Irish Catholicism' who argued that those advocating a No were against God, the Faith, the Church, Ireland, and – of course – babies. It exposed how limited and shallow some 'Irish Liberals' were by their showing disrespect for older, traditional values and confounding liberalism with indulgence.

During the campaign a Catholic priest in one Dublin church was heckled in his sermon when he said that Catholics could in all conscience vote No. The hecklers disregarded his additional comments which made it clear that he opposed abortion.

On September 7, 1983, half the nation's voters concluded that both sides deserved one another and they stopped at home. But those who did vote decided by two to one in favour of the referendum.

Amid the intense noise, many people who opposed the amendment failed to get a big part of their message heard. This was that they were not in fact in favour of abortion; that it was already illegal under statute and there was no public taste for changing this.

One of the more regrettable features of the affair was that the Protestant churches – equally neither then nor now proponents of abortion – had objected to the amendment saying it was sectarian and imposed a religious ethical code on the country. The minority community's view was rejected and/or ignored.

That simple fact of majority dislike of abortion has been borne out by the intervening almost 30 years in Ireland. Most Irish people still dislike the idea of abortion to the extent that we never confront it until we are obliged by events to do so. The campaign of autumn 1983 has not helped in that regard.

The big fear of those working for a constitutional ban on abortion back in 1983 was that it could come about by a landmark court ruling either in Ireland, or the European Union Court or the European Court of Human Rights. A minority of lawyers warned at that time that the amendment might, in fact, make the introduction of abortion to Ireland easier.

These lawyers were proved right. Just nine years later the Supreme Court ruled that the threat of suicide by a 14-year-old girl, made pregnant by rape, meant she could have an abortion in Ireland under that 1983 constitutional amendment which also pledged the authorities to protect the mother's life.

Three inter-related referendums followed in November 1992 and modified the abortion ban to allow the rights to information and travel for that purpose. But a proposed third amendment, legalising abortion where the mother's life was at risk, was rejected apparently because it was too liberal for some and too restrictive for others.

A further referendum in March 2002 again failed to clarify the issue and we are left with the ambiguous situation which has prevailed for two decades.

This week's events remind us that we have to confront the issue of abortion. But let us all agree to be more human in our discussions than we were in September 1983.

Irish Independent

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