35 years after the so-called ‘Pro-Life’ 8thAmendment was inserted into the Irish Constitution following one of the most socially divisive chapters in the history of the State, Irish voters, in overwhelming numbers, have now voted to expunge this deeply damaging clause rooted in theocratic thinking. The contrasts between the 1983 and 2018 campaigns say much about the fundamental change and evolution of Irish society in the intervening period.
The ’83 referendum campaign was played out against the backdrop of a suffocating social conservatism where political leaders often tried to outdo each other in what can be termed ‘halo politics’. There were of course some notable exceptions including Mary Robinson, Noel Browne and a number of other progressive campaigners, but they were decidedly in the minority in the Ireland of that time.
It was the year when the violent killers of gay man Declan Flynn were given suspended sentences in a judgement that provided a very disturbing insight into the institutionalised homophobia of ‘Official Ireland’. 1983 was also the year when the Supreme Court dismissed David Norris’ appeal against the laws criminalising homosexuality. In upholding a deeply offensive colonial era law that labelled gay people as criminals, Chief Justice Tom O’Higgins spoke of the ‘Christian nature of the State’. Meanwhile abortion and divorce were banned, children born to single mothers were legally categorised as ‘illegitimate’, contraception was almost entirely prohibited and men could legally rape their wives as part of the marriage contract.
For a vocal hard catholic right lobby, Ireland was not quite conservative and reactionary enough and there was a determination to define us as even more of a European outlier bravely standing alone and resisting the secularising trends that began to emerge across the western world in the 1970’s. Thus, even though abortion was already illegal in the State, these right-wing activists dreamt up what would become known as the ‘Pro Life’ amendment. The whole exercise was never of course primarily about abortion or ‘protecting the unborn’ but to re-enforce a distinctly catholic, conservative version of Ireland and embed a clearly sectarian clause in the most important document in the State. After a noxious campaign dominated by an almost evangelical religious fervour, Ireland’s religious right got their way when the measure was approved in a September 1983 referendum by a 2 to 1 margin.
All the fears and warnings of the anti-amendment minority would eventually come to pass in the form of an alphabet soup of tragic cases. By 2018, we were, thankfully, a much changed country. Three years previously the Irish people voted enthusiastically in favour of marriage equality for same-sex couples. But Abortion was seen as the thorniest of all social issues. On this occasion however, the new and emerging Ireland asserted itself much more forcefully, and while this year’s referendum campaign was certainly difficult and emotional at times, it was a much more informed affair than 1983. Not only did voters emphatically reject the narrow and hypocritical conservatism so dominant in 1983 but we also showed ourselves to be much more robust in the face of attempts by shadowy right-wing interests to subvert our democracy in the way they had with the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the US.
On 25thMay 2018, Irish voters called time on the grim legacy of the 8thAmendment by voting in overwhelming numbers to remove it from the Constitution. It was not simply a mandate for our legislators to act but indeed an instruction to do so. Crucially too, the vote was a clear endorsement of a woman’s right to choose and not simply confined to accessing abortion services in what have been termed ‘hard cases’. The draft legislation outlining what would replace the 8thAmendment was published by government well in advance of the vote and has abortion on request up to 12 weeks at its heart. The referendum Exit Poll also highlighted this fact, with a strong majority of voters saying that support for the right to choose was the single biggest factor in driving their Yes vote. We now look forward to the enactment of the people’s will and the putting in place of an abortion regime in line with the vast majority of other European countries.
LGBT+ voices also played a prominent role in the successful referendum and it is not difficult to see why 91% of our community revealed in a GCN poll during the campaign that they were voting Yes. For the vast majority of our community, the parallels between the marriage equality referendum and the Repeal vote were all too obvious. As a highly engaged and politically savvy voting bloc, LGBT+ voters were very conscious of the fact that the same forces responsible for the 8thand who now sought its retention were also to the fore in opposing LGBT rights. LGBT+ people instinctively know who our allies are and it most certainly wasn’t those campaigning to retain a constitutional clause that has long served as the jewel in the crown for social and religious conservatives also opposed to LGBT+ equality and progressive change more generally.
Our overwhelming support for the ‘Together For Yes’ campaign also drew on a rich legacy of close cooperation between the LGBT+ and women’s rights movements. As far back as the early 1970s, a nascent LGBT+ rights campaign aligned itself with the much larger feminist movement and the two groups should be seen as the most natural of allies, not least when you consider that homophobia is in many ways an off-shoot of misogyny and toxic notions around how masculinity should be constructed. Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the Repeal movement, Ailbhe Smyth, served for many years as Chair of the National LGBT Federation (NXF) – publishers of GCN – and the organisation, then known as the NGF, was a member of the Anti-Amendment Campaign in 1983.
The repeal of the 8thAmendment is first and foremost a victory for female equality and bodily autonomy. But it also represents what has probably been the most emphatic endorsement yet by the Irish people of a modern, progressive and secular Republic where a clear separation of church & state exists. For far too long, those of us calling for a significant liberalisation of Irish society have been met with claims that the much venerated ‘Middle Ireland’ would not stand for such sweeping changes. We now know this is in fact a myth and that whether the issue concerns marriage equality or reproductive rights, the Irish public has been far ahead of legislators for quite some time now. The political foot-dragging and all too prevalent tendency to resist taking a stance on fundamentally important issues must now end. Cynicism and opportunistic posturing needs to be replaced with a serious commitment to reform so that we can get on with moulding a society befitting a genuine Republic.
There is no doubt that the outcome of the abortion referendum has created huge momentum, especially concerning wider issues touching upon separation of church and state. Education Equality has emerged as the most prominent of these issues and the campaign for an end to religious control of our schools will now accelerate. Equally important is the need for comprehensive, factual, LGBT+ inclusive Sex Education to be made compulsory in every school and regardless of ‘ethos’. Under the current system, our state funded schools are allowed to censor LGBT+ issues and anything else that is deemed not in keeping with what is a very broad definition of ‘ethos’. This has never been acceptable and the rights of students, including those who identity as LGBT+, must now take priority over an archaic and outdated patronage system.
While our Constitution is now thankfully free of the dogmatic 8thAmendment, much of it still reflects the theocratic nature of the State that was so evident at the time of its inception. We need a secular Constitution for a secular Republic and that should include a fundamental change of the Preamble which pledges fidelity to a Christian entity, in addition to addressing issues such as Blasphemy, the ‘Woman in the Home’ article and religious oaths for office-holders.
For most LGBT+ people, our campaign for equality is inextricably linked to broader socially progressive movements. That was never more obvious than during the hugely successful effort to repeal the 8th. We now need to continue in the same spirit as attention turns to other pressing issues where similar progressive change is required.
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