It’s the numbers that make the Repeal the Eighth Amendment referendum such a brilliant result. And a result not just for Ireland but one awaited in many other countries.
In the last week or so of the campaign it was widely believed that the result would be close, and I was preparing to write a post that the narrow win would only be another beginning, that the fight to introduce real abortion rights would face the opposition of a ‘pro-life’ movement that would not accept the result.
We would be faced with an opposition prepared to oppose the limited legalisation proposed by the Government and a movement claiming, as it had already done, that the referendum was in some sense rigged, that they had been ‘silenced’, that the result was not fair and not therefore accepted.
None of that now has any credibility. Not just in Dublin; not just in urban Ireland; not just among the young; not just among the middle classes and not just among women. The majority in all areas, except in one constituency, and among all age groups, except the eldest, not just women but also men, voted YES to repeal.
There was some concern that those most committed were those zealots inspired by the Catholic Church, all the more determined, as they witness the credibility of their church rotting in front of their eyes.
But it was the YES voters who made sure the turnout was so large, and it was those who witnessed the experience of Savita Halappanaver and were appalled; who appreciated the experience of the thousands of women forced to travel for an abortion – it was they who turned out and determined the result.
It was the YES voters, the young Irish women travelling from Britain, Europe, Australia, Japan and Brazil just to vote, who demonstrated the passion that impressed most.
I was in Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo at the start of the week and the majority of posters were calling for No. Yet in all the areas I visited the majority voted Yes.
The TV pundits are saying the ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ voters, who were expected to be NO voters, would make the result closer, but it was the ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ YES voters who won it, and they won’t be so shy and quite in future. It’s those who had the courage to speak out who will have given many of these voters the confidence to vote YES.
Thirty-five years ago, the electorate voted two to one to put a constitutional ban on already-illegal abortion into the State’s constitution. But that was before the exposure of the Church’s litany of abuse of women and children and before the X case and that of Savita Halappanaver, and before many women gained the confidence to tell the truth that abortion was already a choice of many Irish women and weren’t prepared to accept any stigma for that choice.
In 2018 a majority of two-to-one voted to repeal the amendment put in place in 1983 and it is being said that a revolution has taken place in the views of many Irish people – a revolution that has developed over the past years, not weeks or months.
Exit polls record that the majority had decided how to vote before the campaign and that the question of choice was what made up their mind. This, along with the stronger support among the young, means this victory is not going to be reversed.
But this does not mean that I was wholly mistaken in saying that a new fight would just be beginning.
The reactionaries will not be able to prevent the Government’s legislation passing, although we must be ever-vigilant. The real fight will be to make access to abortion a reality and not just a legal right and practical difficulty.
This will require not just opposition to ‘pro-life’ intimidation, but also a strenuous fight to make the medical profession responsive to women’s needs and a political campaign to make the state provide the health services women need to turn their often-fine words into reality.
Leo Varadkar basked in the reflected glory of a YES victory and went off on a Fine Gael party political broadcast for a moment in his speech after the result, but the record of the Irish state in providing health services for its people is not one to be particularly proud of.
We are still a long way from a society where women can decide whether to have children based on a free choice in which they are neither compelled by economic and social circumstance nor the diktats of misogynist religion and its state helpers. Such a society requires an altogether more wide-ranging struggle, but the YES vote has brought that society closer and the real obstacles to it more clearly into view.