Sunday 20 January 2019

The tide flowed to Yes - nothing could have stopped it

Voting to repeal the Eighth puts to rest Ireland's long war over abortion, but those who voted No still asked important questions, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

CHEERS: Repeal the Eighth campaigners celebrate the return of a Yes vote in the courtyard of Dublin Castle. Photo: Gerry Mooney
CHEERS: Repeal the Eighth campaigners celebrate the return of a Yes vote in the courtyard of Dublin Castle. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eilis O'Hanlon

One of most vivid descriptions of the young emigrants coming back to vote in last Friday's referendum came from Irish author Jane Casey, who said it was a 'response to all the silent, secret journeys that went the other way'.

Some comments on the #HomeToVote hashtag on social media were ludicrously over the top; one would have thought the returnees were the modern equivalent of the international brigades who headed to Spain in the 1930s to fight fascism. Casey's image, though, said something quietly profound, reinforcing the case that it would have been a serious rebuff to those young people had Ireland voted No. They are the future, and, as a generation, they thoroughly deserve this victory.

Leaving moral arguments aside for a moment, a No vote would also have prolonged Ireland's difficult relationship with abortion. Divisions would have continued.

If the result of last Friday's referendum proves anything, it's that we're all tired of the squabble. Disagreements over abortion will continue, but they will now be processed at the normal political, rather than an existential, level. There are still legislative hurdles to overcome, but the point is now much nearer when Ireland will no longer have to think about abortion quite so much, or so intensively.

Even the No side, disappointed as they are, concedes that the game is up. The scale of the Yes vote fatally weakens any will to continue the fight.

But why did Yes win? There will be an awful lot of guff talked in the coming days about Ireland throwing off the shackles of Catholic tradition to become a modern, progressive European nation. There's obviously a deal of truth in that insofar as liberal values on questions of personal morality are now predominant, though the narrative that "modern" and "European" should automatically be adopted as indicators of enlightenment remains suspect.

The Yes side certainly managed, in the last week to 10 days, to steer the conversation back round to the rights of women rather than the rights of babies in the womb. The No side may have peaked too soon. But the scale of the win was so great there was probably nothing anti-repeal campaigners could have done to change the result, and, more notably, nothing pro-repeal campaigners could have done to lose it. The fevered arguments about who was ahead or behind in the campaign turned out to be entirely irrelevant. The country had already made up its mind, apparently a long time ago.

People were just sick to the back teeth of talking about abortion and were prepared to vote for it even though opinion polling suggested widespread disquiet about the Government's proposal for abortion on request up to 12 weeks and for many weeks afterwards with a doctor's approval.


How Did Your Constituency Vote?

Final Results Constituencies declared: 40/40

Map Key

Yes 55% 50% 55% No

Sometimes the tide just flows in a particular direction and nothing can stop it. That doesn't mean the tone of indignant superiority which the Yes side adopted towards those urging caution in the face of sudden liberalisation was either helpful or edifying. The demonisation of pro-life opinion has always been, and continues to be, uncalled for.

No campaigners hoped to win the referendum, but they did not fight it anticipating a win. They expected to lose, but fought because it was what they believed in.

When peaceful, democratic debate becomes perceived as a threat to the liberal hegemony, we should be worried. Increasingly, social and political disagreements are being posited as clashes between Good and Evil. Respecting other points of view is the bedrock on which all other liberal values stand, and it's perturbing that social conservatives in Ireland now have no mainstream political representation.

Just because No lost also doesn't mean they didn't have important, and still unanswered, questions to ask about the rights of the unborn. The Eighth Amendment was predicated on the equivalence of a mother and baby's right to life. The debate on this referendum effectively proved it's not possible to balance those rights without incurring a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. The debate was a dramatisation of the contradictions in the Eighth itself.


Constituencies with the strongest Yes/No vote

The table below shows the top five constituencies with the strongest vote for or against repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Dublin Bay South 78.49% 21.51%

Dún Laoghaire 77.06% 22.94%

Dublin Fingal 76.96% 23.04%

Dublin Central 76.51% 23.49%

Dublin Rathdown 76.10% 23.90%

Donegal 48.13% 51.87%

Because the fact remains that it's not possible in pregnancy for one being to have complete rights without infringing on the rights of another. Giving a mother complete control over her own body necessarily diminishes the right to life of a baby in the womb.

Granting a constitutional right to life to a baby in the womb is not possible without diminishing the rights of women over their own bodies, and the No side itself never properly resolved what should be done if a woman, having been granted all possible support in an effort to persuade her to keep her baby, decides she doesn't want to.

The spectre of forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy hung over the campaign. They had no answer to that. In the ultimate analysis, maybe that will be what did for them. One side had to win. This referendum was simply the moment at which those contradictions could no longer co-exist.

Our collective decision as a nation was that the woman's right to bodily autonomy must take precedence over the rights of other sentient beings. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald saw that last Saturday as the Irish people no longer thinking of abortion as a black and white issue, but that's not right either.

What we've done is replace one simplistic view of abortion (it's all about killing innocent babies) with a new but equally simplistic one (it's all about the rights of women).

Realistically, there was no other way out of the dilemma that the Eighth presented. It had to be Yes. But scornfully dismissing those who were and are troubled by that decision as unhinged dogmatists, when they're simply ordinary people struggling with profoundly complex moral issues, is just using force of numbers to silence those who ask uncomfortable questions.

There was a picture, widely circulated on social media, of two women holding a poster of themselves campaigning in 1983, to which they'd added the caption: "I can't believe we still have to protest this bollixology". Last Friday was a great day for such people, who struggled for women's access to safe, legal abortions. They're entitled to relish the victory.

But pro-life arguments are not "bollixology". Most countries introduced abortion without a popular vote, at a time when understanding the complexity of life in the womb was much cruder than it is now. As such it could be argued, as Catholic writer Melanie McDonagh did last week, that Irish law, by standing still, had actually ended up ahead of the curve when it came to the science. In an age which is shrilly indignant about demanding special rights for every interest group, the rights of the least protected, the unborn, could even be pitched as a civil rights battle.

Does Ireland feel like a country more at ease with itself for having voted Yes? It does. The sun is shining; there's a sense both of relief and release. An often comfortless history for Irish women has been symbolically put to rest. The future will involve turning a blind eye to some unpleasant realities, but then it always did. It's impossible to live without some small self-deceptions. We're all hypocrites to some extent. We've just decided to be gentler on ourselves about it.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss