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What really happened in Ireland’s abortion referendum

26 May 2018

9:49 AM

26 May 2018

9:49 AM

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, had declared that there would not be celebrations if and when the Yes side won in yesterday’s referendum on liberalising the abortion laws. But there’s a decidedly celebratory aspect to his side, now it turns out that nearly 70 per cent of voters voted for change.

‘Democracy in action,’ is what he now says. ‘It’s looking like we will make history.’ Or as Miriam Lord, the Irish Times’ sketchwriter, says with the unconcealed partisanship that characterised that paper’s approach to the poll, and incidentally channelling When Harry Met Sally:

‘Yes, Yes, Yes; a resounding, emphatic Yes. Suffocating old certainties, unrepresentative lobby groups and celibate clergy all swept aside.’

Then – of course! – there’s Emma Thompson, for whom this is ‘a vote for freedom to choose, a vote for women’s rights, a vote for women’s rights, a vote for women’s control over their bodies,’ though not, unfortunately, a vote against groupthink. It seems as many as 87 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Yes, which rather gives the lie to the suggestion that the vote was a uniform rejection by all parts of the population of the Eighth Amendment to the constitution.


This may be democracy in action, as Leo says; what it also shows is the problem with democracy when the political and media establishment cohere on one side. It seems that about a third of the electorate voted No, and the only surprise that it was that many, given that this not insignificant minority had nil, zero, nada, representation in either politics or media. All the party leaders campaigned for repeal; the only half-recognisable figure to campaign for Yes was Peadar Tóibín, a previous unknown from Sinn Fein, who was effortlessly outgunned by the leader of his own party, Mary Lou McDonald, who took the high risk strategy of putting her own picture on Yes posters. So, the Yes campaign had all the heavy hitters, the Taoiseach, the minister for health, the leader of the opposition, and they were faithfully followed by television coverage. As for the media, I can only repeat what I said earlier for this paper: the suffocating consensus in print and broadcast media was such that I can think of only two regular columnists who articulated the arguments against repeal: Breda O’Brien for the Irish Times (the paper’s token concession to impartiality) and David Quinn for the Irish Sunday Times. And that’s it.

That in turn reflects the real #MeToo character of the Irish media and the Irish intellectual establishment, which is to faithfully replicate whatever sentiment and mood is articulated by the Guardian, only without fear of contradiction. There is no equivalent in the small, self-regarding world of Irish journalism, of this magazine, or indeed the Daily Mail or the Guardian. To get some idea of the wildly skewed nature of the referendum, imagine the Brexit campaign without Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and the Mail, Telegraph and Spectator. That’s how fair and representative it was. Oh and let’s not forget the wording. The Brexit vote was an impartial choice between Leave or Remain; in Ireland it was Yes (positive, upbeat) for Repeal; No (sad face, negative) for retaining the amendment. It could have been put the other way round but of course it wasn’t. The internet and social media was stymied as a debating arena, not least because Google banned online referendum advertisements, though it was notable that the Yes side used a device – RepealShield – themselves to block debate.

On the issues, what was evident was the extraordinary extent to which the campaign focused on cases which were simply unrepresentative. I have the official Yes pamphlet in front of me and almost none of it refers to normal abortion, the kind of abortion that is overwhelmingly what’s going to happen now: young women who simply do not want to have a baby; not hard cases, just the unwillingly pregnant. Yet almost all the coverage was about that tragic but fortunately vanishingly rare minority, cases of fatal foetal abnormality, whereby a baby is unlikely to survive birth. And the even more tragic case of Savita Halappanavar, the Indian woman who died, as her father says ‘because of this abortion law’ but in fact because it took five days for a hospital to diagnose fatal sepsis. There was one mention of the genuinely significant group, women who take abortifacients procured online (an unknown number); they have never been prosecuted under the existing law, nor doctors who deal with potential after-effects. Never, in short, has such a mighty wedge followed such a very thin end.

As for the size of the majority, there is no doubt it was hefty, but there remain genuine concerns about the validity of some votes, notably young people registered at home and at university voting twice, plus some of the Home To Vote contingent who shouldn’t have been voting at all. An investigation by the NewsTalk radio station in 2016 suggested that there may be 488,000 unaccountable voters on the register. The appetite for investigating this potential abuse? Zero.

The result of this vote is, of course, that the pressure is now on Northern Irish politicians to follow the Republic, an interesting inversion of the old unionist trope that Home Rule is Rome Rule; indeed Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein leader, cheerfully suggested that women may be travelling from north to south to procure abortions. Rarely have I been so grateful for the robust and intransigent character of the DUP; hang on in there Arlene.

The real losers in this aren’t the plucky infantry of the No side, who have done their best to frame this campaign in a positive, life affirming way. It is the foetus, that unseen, unacknowledged and shortly to be unprotected player in Irish society. The victory is over them. Celebrating, are you?


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