'We certainly do things differently in this little corner of Europe - but that’s not necessarily a bad thing'
THREE years ago Ireland made global headlines after becoming the first country in the world to approve gay marriage by popular vote.
This weekend the world’s media focused on Dublin Castle again as we decided by an animated margin to become one of the last countries in the western world to legalise abortion.
We certainly do things differently in this little corner of Europe but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Four times over the past 35 years this country has been asked its view on abortion.
Different generations struggled with the question – but yesterday the class of 2018, young and old, rural and urban, found the answer.
In the words of Leo Varadkar, the vast majority of people decided to have “a modern constitution for a modern people”.
“The day Ireland stepped out from under the last of our shadows and into the light.
“The day we came of age as a country. The day we took our place among the nations of the world,” he said.
But it wasn’t as simple as people deciding on change for the sake of it.
Exit polls suggested voters were decided long ago that the Eighth Amendment wasn’t working.
No doubt the death of Savita Halappanavar had an influence on this.
But there were two messages which resonated most with voters over recent months.
On January 17, Health Minister Simon Harris opened a two-day Dáil debate on repealing the Eighth Amendment by reading into the record the number of people from each county who travelled to the UK for an abortion in 2016.
“These are not faceless women. They are our friends and neighbours, sisters, cousins, mothers, aunts, wives.
“Each woman is dealing with her own personal situation and making what is a deeply difficult decision,” he said.
It set a tone for what would follow. We started to hear about the importation of abortion pills. Three women a day taking them and hiding the secret shame.
And then the ‘faceless’ women began to tell their stories. They emerged from the shadows – and we knew them.
They were our family members, our friends, the girl from down the streets. They could be anybody.
As the campaign wore on, the No side were forced to admit that they wouldn’t seek to stop women travelling to the UK for abortions.
They also rejected the idea that women who import pills should be jailed for up to 14 years.
In essence, their solution was to continue exporting the problem and turning a blind eye.
In his speech after the full poll result was revealed, Mr Varadkar said: “We have voted to look reality in the eye and we did not blink.”
But even when the Yes campaign established that abortion already exists in Ireland, there were people who argued that doesn’t mean its acceptable.
These voters were pointed towards the ‘hard cases’. The women and girls who were raped. Should they be forced to carry a baby to full term?
The word “compassion” entered the debate. Most people decided it wasn’t right.
And because of the work done by the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee, we knew that the only answer was to allow abortion up to 12 weeks. There was no other legal solution.
From there the debate moved on to healthcare and women’s rights.
We heard the stories of much-wanted babies who stood no chance outside the womb. Mothers who had to fly to England to end the pregnancy rather than face months of being asked about their bump.
It was fitting that Mr Varadkar concluded his speech by paraphrasing one of his favourite poets, Maya Angelou.
“The wrenching pain of decades of mistreatment of Irish women cannot be unlived. However, today we have ensured that it does not have to be lived again,” he said.
The question on the ballot paper was uncomfortable – but that’s what it came down to: reality, compassion and healthcare.
It’s amazing what can happen when politics unites, older people listen and young people engage.
Ireland is a changing country. Forever changing.