Thursday 16 August 2018

Whatever happened to the Spring Tide?

On November 25, 1992, a societal and political revolution ­appeared to take place as women were elected in ­greater numbers than ever before and Dick Spring's Labour Party emerged triumphant in the general election. A quarter of a century on, how much has Irish society really advanced

Joan Burton and Dick Spring on the campaign trail in the 1990s
Joan Burton and Dick Spring on the campaign trail in the 1990s
Niamh Bhreathnach, then Minister for Education in 1993. Photo: John Carlos
Tribute: Joan Burton (left) in 2008 with Labour deputies and senators, past and present, at an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 election, the first in which women had the right to vote, and in which Countess Markiewicz was elected as the first woman TD and MP. Photo: Tom Burke
Frances Fitzgerald as chairperson of the Council of Status for Women at the annual conference in Jury's Hotel in April 1992. Photo: Tony Gavin

Niamh Connolly

Few millennials born between the 1980s and mid-90s would have known the patrician figure standing beside rugby star Brian O'Driscoll for photos during Ireland's doomed bid for the Rugby World Cup.

Dick Spring, now 67, has been through many incarnations since the 1992 general election when a radical shift in the political landscape looked certain.

It was 25 years ago today when the Labour Party doubled its seats to 33 and almost doubled its vote in what was called the 'Spring Tide' election.

It appeared that the old two-party order was upended, a new era of politics had begun, and the so-called 'liberal agenda' was under way.

Niamh Bhreathnach, then Minister for Education in 1993. Photo: John Carlos
Niamh Bhreathnach, then Minister for Education in 1993. Photo: John Carlos

Just two years earlier, Mary Robinson was elected the country's first female President. Spring had nominated Robinson, a former Labour senator. And although she ran as an Independent, her success reflected well on the Labour Party.

Robinson's election also planted "a ticking bomb" under Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, according to Fergus Finlay, who was a political adviser to Spring from 1982 to 1997.

A radical change

Finlay describes in his book, Snakes & Ladders, how he knew radical change was coming in 1992 when voters by-passed Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael canvassers to tell Labour people "about how great Dick Spring was and that he was going to stand up to that shower".

When the ballots were counted, Fianna Fáil had suffered its greatest losses since 1927, and Fine Gael lost 10 seats. It certainly seemed like the old order was coming to an end.

Spring presented the Labour Party's document for coalition to Fianna Fáil, including a liberal agenda for family planning reform, a second divorce referendum, and decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Tribute: Joan Burton (left) in 2008 with Labour deputies and senators, past and present, at an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 election, the first in which women had the right to vote, and in which Countess Markiewicz was elected as the first woman TD and MP. Photo: Tom Burke
Tribute: Joan Burton (left) in 2008 with Labour deputies and senators, past and present, at an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 election, the first in which women had the right to vote, and in which Countess Markiewicz was elected as the first woman TD and MP. Photo: Tom Burke

It was a watershed election for women - an additional net gain of eight female TDs, five of them from the Labour Party.

This brought the tally of women in the Dáil up to 20, the highest representation up to that date.

To put it in perspective, a grand total of 53 women had been elected to the Dáil in the 70 years from 1922 to 1992. Little wonder it was seen as a new dawn for women in national politics.

The Labour benches were swelled with first-time deputies Joan Burton, Róisín Shortall, Niamh Bhreathnach, Eithne FitzGerald and Breeda Moynihan-Cronin. Frances Fitzgerald was elected for the first time for Fine Gael and Liz McManus for Democratic Left.

Niamh Bhreathnach, now 72, made history with her appointment as Minister for Education on her first day in the Dáil.

"There was a great euphoria at the time," Bhreathnach recalls. "It all started with Mary Robinson and Dick Spring's nomination of her for President. Her record on social issues was outstanding."

Frances Fitzgerald as chairperson of the Council of Status for Women at the annual conference in Jury's Hotel in April 1992. Photo: Tony Gavin
Frances Fitzgerald as chairperson of the Council of Status for Women at the annual conference in Jury's Hotel in April 1992. Photo: Tony Gavin

A generation of feminists

A generation of feminists such as Gemma Hussey, Nuala Fennell, Monica Barnes, Frances Fitzgerald, Mary Robinson and Bhreathnach were in the Women's Political Association for some years previously, strategically planning to access the corridors of power through various parties.

Bhreathnach recalls with irony how the women's council arrived to a Labour Party conference in the 1980s to present "this fabulous document called 'Equality' - and the whole stage was full of men".

The document had been written by Mary Robinson and included all the social issues needing reform, including divorce and contraception.

And there was diversity for the first time in the Dáil with Dr Moosajee Bhamjee, the first Muslim TD, taking a seat for the Labour Party in Co Clare.

Finlay recounts the running gag that Dáil Éireann "had elected many a cowboy in its day, and had finally elected an Indian".

"The culture in Leinster House was very male. It was lonely being a woman there. In my time I think they introduced scones and tea in the Dáil bar - when you think of it - tea and scones, or a biscuit, in the bar was a bit revolutionary 25 years ago," Bhreathnach recalls ruefully.

The watershed for women was short-lived. While women's representation never again dropped below 23 TDs, real progress has been slow. The introduction of gender quotas ahead of the 2016 general election resulted in another significant milestone, with 35 women elected to the Dáil, an increase from 16pc to 22pc.

"It's been tortuously slow, but going in the right direction. There was no suggestion after 1992 that parties would go back to the days when they didn't even have a woman nominated," says Bhreathnach.

The abortion question

On this day 25 years ago, three referendums were held alongside the general election - all related to the 1983 referendum on the 8th Amendment to insert a ban on abortion into the Constitution.

Two referendums returned a majority in favour of the right of women to travel for an abortion, and the right to information on abortion services.

The third referendum, which aimed to roll back the 1992 Supreme Court judgment in the X case by removing suicide as grounds for abortion in Ireland, was rejected.

Shortly before the referendum establishing the right to information, Irish newsagents scrawled lines with marker through the phone numbers of clinics in British magazines such as Cosmopolitan. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) was taking court actions against anyone who published information on abortion.

"The late 80s had been so grim for the women's movement and progressive politics generally," recalls Ivana Bacik, Labour Senator, who was President of the Union of Students in Ireland which published information on clinics in England.

"Everyone was too afraid to distribute the phone numbers. Open Door Counselling and Well Woman had closed down. Women and girls would come in off the streets, or call us up from all over Ireland because they couldn't get a phone number of a clinic in Britain."

Mary Robinson - as their lawyer - saved the students including Bacik from being jailed for contempt of court, arguing that there was a right under EU law to give information that related to services legally available in other EU states.

And 25 years on, the 8th Amendment is again back on the agenda with another referendum planned next year on the issue.

Bacik believes the referendum should recommend repealing the 8th Amendment, so that abortion would be dealt with by legislators.

She adds: "I don't want my daughters to be fighting the same battles that I fought."

@NiamhConnollyC

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