The pro-choice side is in danger of repeating the early complacency of the marriageequality campaign in their apparent desire to assume an easy win in the referendum, by merely talking to people who think the same as they do, writes Shaun Connolly
Today marriage equality — tomorrow repeal the eighth! That was the rallying cry heard echoing around Dublin Castles’s quadrangle last May as the referendum results rolled through and it seemed Ireland had at last allowed in the future.
To misquote Mary Robinson when she announced the 1990s had finally arrived on her election to the presidency in November 1990, for those in the joyous crowds, it felt like the 21st century began in Ireland that day.
But the correlation between the issues of same-sex marriage and termination choice rights is as misleading as it is patronising. Yes, they are both progressive “social” issues, yes both reforms have been a long time coming, but unlike allowing the life-long love and commitment between two people of the same sex to be officially recognised by the State they support through their taxes, there is no happy ending on abortion law reform. No woman “wants” to have an abortion, but some women in crisis pregnancies need to have one, and that should be their choice.
However, the pro-choice side is in danger of repeating the early complacency of the marriage-equality campaign in their apparent desire to assume an easy win in the referendum which is likely to occur within the next 18 months, by merely talking to people who think the same as they do.
Abortion has been one of the greatest taboos of Irish society and the relentless attempt at guilt-shaming of women who had to make that awful decision so intense that, whatever the polls say, shifting thinking on polling day will be tough. Repealing the eighth will only pass if there is a clear outline of the structure and time limits for terminations in Ireland.
Otherwise the religious right will attempt to hijack and derail the campaign by painting a nightmare scenario of some free-for-all if this “anchor of morality” is removed from the constitution.
The key challenge for the choice side is to set the parameters for the campaign early and have a definite sense of what would come after repeal. If not, then the religious right will seize on the uncertainty and turn their opponents’ weakest spot into their own greatest strength.
While very different issues, there are key lessons the choice campaign can learn from marriage equality.
It wasn’t the grandiose, detached, “tide of history”arguments of the metropolitan elite that won the day, it was the drip-drip impact of naturally intensely private people like Ursula Halligan and Pat Carey who opened up their lives to share the decades of loneliness and regret they felt in a society they believed would shun them if it knew the truth about who they are.
Those were the stories that carried middle Ireland, and the pro-choice campaign must emulate the power of that kind of direct appeal.
At least 150,000 women have travelled abroad for a termination since the eighth amendment was voted through three decades ago. They had 150,000 individual reasons for making that journey and their stories must be heard — whether complacent, sweep-it-under-the-carpet Ireland feels comfortable listening or not.
Because, to follow through to the logical conclusion of the anti-abortion argument, those 150,000 Irish women should have been banned from going abroad to have a termination if such an act offends this country so much. But ban women from being able to make that lonely journey to Birmingham and Liverpool? Then stand back and witness one of the greatest social explosions in Irish history
Without the escape route to England, the argument would be over. Choice would be unstoppable, otherwise the consequences would be untenable.
And the pro-choice side need to be clear that, unlike marriage equality, there will be no leadership from the Taoiseach on this.
The lack of political choice in Ireland means, barring an unforeseen crisis, the next coalition — of whatever shape — will be led (for a max of two years, anyway) by Enda Kenny. Despite his deep reservations, that government will not be able to ignore the demand for a referendum as it has done so far.
Last January, despite the Coalition still having 16 months of its term ahead of it, Mr Kenny told this column the eighth amendment was a matter for the next government. Well, Mr Kenny will be the next government and no longer able to shirk his responsibilities on the issue.
So what has he done to prepare the ground as he insists he will not go into a vote without a clear alternative to the current situation? Having closely observed Mr Kenny as a political correspondent for the past 10 years, I am quite sure the answer to that question is: Absolutely nothing.
And the position of the self-styled alternative taoiseach, Micheál Martin, is an even more pathetic masterclass in political cowardice. When asked about repeal of the eighth, Mr Martin replied in the manner of a surly teenager, not a taoiseach in waiting, by saying: “We’re not going there.”
To which the electorate will, doubtless, reply: “Micheál for Taoiseach? Nah, we’re not going there.”
Of the mainstream parties, only Labour’s Joan Burton has made a clear, principled stand, one way or the other, on the issue, but even she has yet to explain what would follow the referendum vote on the matter her party has promised.
Time is slipping away and the moment of truth is coming.
In many ways this will be the last stand for the religious right in this country. They have been on the retreat for the past 25 years, since the election of Mrs Robinson; since gay and lesbian people were no longer demonised as “criminals” in 1993.
They are not going to surrender their last shred of control over other people — over other people’s bodies — without an almighty fight.
The pro-choice camp must be ready for that and be able to say what will happen next after repeal.
Because, despite what the polls say, as things stand today, if a referendum on repeal were held tomorrow, it could well be lost.
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