Is the abortion referendum going to be Ireland’s Brexit moment? Despite the financial crisis, a clerical scandal and a vote on gay marriage, the country had managed to steer itself relatively harmoniously along. Yet just as the EU referendum brought to the surface deep tensions across Britain, this week’s vote is in danger of doing the same to Ireland.
From the outside, a decisive vote in favour of repealing the clause in Ireland’s constitution that gives the unborn equal rights with the already born might have been just another chapter in Ireland’s journey towards European secular modernity. But a fiercely-fought referendum battle has instead weaponised every single divide that was lurking latent in Irish society: rural versus urban, young versus old, rich against poor. The campaign has been a nasty one and has among those I know come at the price of several friendships.
Ireland hasn’t faced a social cleavage this sharp for decades, possibly even since its 1922-23 Civil War. That war has formed the basis for the country’s politics ever since, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael coming from opposing sides in the conflict. – Since both parties were broad coalitions, politics in Ireland has been a story of gentle party alternation. Policy barely got a look in.
But suddenly, Ireland is smack dab in the middle of the culture wars. Those from outside the republic are desperate to have their say in this contentious vote; only 37 per cent of Facebook ads against repealing the eighth were managed from Ireland, according to reports; the number for pro-repeal ads is higher, 81 per cent). For American conservatives, Ireland’s abortion vote is a last stand for Catholicism in a country to which many of them feel an affinity. Those living abroad are flocking back to Ireland to have their say, too. But when the dust settles who will be there to pick up the pieces?
For Ireland, a 51-49 per cent split vote is likely to leave lasting scars in a country whose journey from its traditional religious moorings to postmodern European secularism, it turns out, is a little less far along than many city dwellers may have thought.