35 years ago a small interest group of committed political religious activists took advantage of a period of instability in Irish politics to push for an amendment to the Irish constitution declaring, “the state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”. It was an amendment that tried to copper-fasten in the constitution an outright ban on abortion, one that would give rise to many difficult cases over the years, culminating in the death of a woman, Savita Halappanavar, in a hospital in Galway in 2012.
At the time of its passing, the Irish Labour Party opposed the amendment, with our members and parliamentarians taking an active role in the anti-amendment campaign. 35 years later the Irish people voted 66.4% in favour of a direct reversal of the 1983 legislation, to remove the 8th amendment and replace it with a clause allowing parliament to legislate for the termination of pregnancy.
How did one of the most conservative countries in western Europe go from having one of the most restrictive abortion regimes to legalising the provision of abortion by popular vote, and what lessons can the struggling progressive parties of Ireland take from this campaign on how to connect with the public?
Prior to calling the vote, a process used to good effect for the marriage equality referendum in 2015 was utilised once again to consider the issue of abortion and the 8th amendment. 100 citizens, randomly selected as a representative sample of the country, sat over five weeks to consider submissions and listen to experts in this area with the aim of coming up with recommendations. To the surprise of many, the citizens recommended that abortion should be available in a wide range of circumstances. Following this a joint committee of both houses of parliament considered the recommendations of the assembly, again hearing from legal and medical experts from both sides of the debate. They recommended a 12 week limit with no restriction and provision for termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities or risk to life and health of the mother beyond that period. In the context of Irish abortion law it was a radical proposal.
Irish campaigners were terrified that the abortion referendum could see a replay of the Brexit or Trump campaign, with the fears of the electorate exploited in the most cynical of ways. For both sides in this battle, over the most contentious of issues, neither side could afford to lose. The stage was set for one of the most intensive referendum campaigns the country has seen.
Almost as soon as the short campaign kicked off, the pro-life No campaign hit the ground running with posters on lampposts of babies in utero, with taglines such as ‘License to Kill’. These were emotive, impactful and they fired up the pro-life base. The No campaign, aided by a significant digital presence, tried to run a-US style campaign based on emotion, fear-mongering, targeted misinformation and personal attacks on medical personnel who were supporting Repeal.
Their emotive posters were backed by a strong digital campaign, targeting undecideds. Ireland’s electoral laws have strict rules on foreign donations and identification of the campaign group who produce election material. However, the laws around election campaigning haven’t caught up with the digital age and there was a concern that outside parties were paying for pro-life posts to be boosted online in a bid to influence voters. During the campaign a group called Transparent Referendum were monitoring online ads and identified that some of these were being paid for from outside Ireland. Stung by the criticism of their role in both the US Presidential election and Brexit, Facebook decided to ban ads paid for outside Ireland and Google took the further step of banning all ads related to the referendum on their platforms.
On the other side, a collection of civic society groups and political parties came together under the banner of Together For Yes, to campaign for a vote in favour of repealing the 8th amendment and legalising abortion. They crafted their message around the three C’s: care, compassion and change. They built grassroots groups, enabling teams of volunteers and politicians from across the political divide worked together, knocking on thousands of doors to speak to people directly about the issue. The campaign was centred on personal stories of women who have experienced crisis pregnancy, with forums such as the Facebook group, In Her Shoes, allowing women to share deeply personal experiences. The campaign also relied heavily on doctors who work on the front line of the Irish maternity service, the majority of whom were in favour of repealing. It was a campaign that spoke directly to the voters in a moderate respectful tone.
What lessons can we, as progressives, learn from the result of the Irish referendum in an era of shock reactionary election results?
Firstly, the electorate respond well when they see parties reaching across the political divide in order to progress change. You can tackle contentious, divisive issues if you refuse to engage in Punch-and-Judy style politics. The result wasn’t just down to eight weeks of hard campaigning, but the product of taking voters on a journey, through the citizens’ assembly, and the parliamentary committee, conducted in public, which laid the groundwork by informing the electorate of the complex issues surrounding the vote. Speaking to people on the doors you saw voters were taking their time to balance the different sides of the arguments to come to their decision.
Second, I think the referendum provides an interesting insight into a new way of doing politics. The movement to repeal the 8th amendment was led by women and that female way of working, inclusively and cooperatively, worked. People felt they had a role in the outcome and it engaged many citizens directly in the political system for the first time. Many campaigners said to me it was refreshing to see people from different parties working together to deliver a result they cared about.
Politics should not be just a vote every few years at election time. If we want people to engage with the system we have to involve them in the system. If we leave them on the outside, they become disengaged and receptive to divisive, populist arguments. The Irish referendum proves that when you involve voters in the process they respond thoughtfully and compassionately. A lesson for us in a world of Brexit and Trump.