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Ireland’s abortion debate will be next year’s big culture war

If you’re fed up with endless bickering over Brexit, spare a thought for the citizens of Ireland. The government here recently announced plans for a new referendum on abortion, currently prohibited by the Constitution with a few limited exceptions.

So the starting pistol has been fired on what is sure to be twelve months of hyperventilating hipsters, jangling rosary beads and a stampede from both the pro-choice and pro-life lobbies towards the moral high ground. The majority of the population – broadly in favour of a liberalisation of the law but against abortion in all circumstances – is already donning figurative hard hats and bracing for the worst.

The vote is likely to be held in mid 2018. A glimpse of what lies ahead was provided by a surreal face-off recently between the new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar and the pop group LCD Soundsystem. The band had finished a three-night residency in Dublin when the Taoiseach – who has somewhat unconvincingly sought to style himself in the Justin Trudeau mould – popped backstage to say ‘hello’.

But rather than the Bono-style bonhomie he had presumably anticipated, he was reportedly confronted by Al Doyle, the ensemble’s guitarist. Doyle had repurposed a pro-choice tote bag – the quintessential emblem of millennial cool in Dublin – into a t-shirt and attempted to square off with Varadkar, who, according to Doyle, ‘walked away’.

 

Having wisely made himself scarce, the Taoiseach woke up the next morning to a disco inferno of Twitter invective from both Doyle –  he labelled the country’s leader a ‘tosser’ – and LCD Soundsystem keyboardist Nancy Whang, who called Varadkar a liar. Doyle, to be fair, subsequently offered a measured apology (Varadkar, he qualified, merely ‘seemed like a bit of a tosser’). His version of events was meanwhile contradicted when a photo emerged of him and the Taoiseach smiling in a group picture. Varadkar later commented that:  ‘One or two of the band members wanted to share their view with me…. I had no problem at all with that.’

Still, the upshot of the spat was by then quite clear. The abortion campaign is barely underway and already Ireland is being lectured to by the international hipster elite. This will inevitably continue. Just as no self-respecting rock icon dared step on stage in 2005 without flaunting a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, so Ireland’s abortion referendum will surely become the number one talking point for musicians passing through. It’s going to be long year.

The day after Varadkar and LCD Soundsystem went at it – or didn’t, depending on who you believe –  a pro-choice march wended its way through Dublin. There was an inevitable pop star cameo from Hozier, while the fashion conscious made sure to be decked out in ‘Repeal the Eight’ sweaters (a reference to the 1983 constitutional amendment which accords equal right to the foetus and the pregnant woman). Blue hair, craft-beards and skinny jeans were present in abundance too.

Not that the pro-life side cuts a particularly sympathetic figure. According to the Atlantic, right-wing American groups have been pouring hundreds of thousands into the anti-abortion campaign in Ireland, which they regard as the last stronghold against western European liberalism. For all that, pro-lifers have a thoroughly modern appreciation of the importance of image. When you see an Irish anti-abortion protest on television, it is invariably fronted by smiling young people with glowing complexions and excellent dental work (suspiciously excellent by local standards).

But they’re just the millennial icing on top, with these pro-life marches overwhelmingly consisting of the middle aged and elderly. Every Irish family has one in its ranks, who is convinced the country hocked its soul when it shrugged off theocracy in the Sixties and Seventies. Never mind abortion. If they had their way, mass would still be Latin and you would be whipped for writing with your left hand.

What neither side have yet succeeded in doing is appealing to the majority, who do not regard abortion as an especially pressing issue and would really prefer for the pro and anti campaigns to put away their loud-hailers. This was confirmed by an Irish Times / Ipsos MRBI poll which last week reported 57 per cent of voters  favoured allowing abortion in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormalities and when there is a real risk to a woman’s life. And though 70 per cent said they would vote to strike down the Eight Amendment, only 24 percent favoured permitting terminations in nearly all cases.

Smug pop stars and off-duty baristas on one side, a Da Vinci Code-esque conspiracy of nutters, nuns and nefarious Americans on the other. The next time you wish the whole Brexit ballyhoo would slip beneath the surface of the EU wine lake, remember it could be worse. Boris v Brussels is nothing compared to the tsunami of vitriol, iffy fashion and toxic self-righteousness about to come crashing down on the heads of the Irish public.

Ed Power is a journalist who has contributed to the Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, Slate, the Guardian and the Boston Globe.


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