8th Amendment referendum
Catholic Church knocked down by repeal vote - but the Irish state dodges the bullet
1 June 2018
The success of the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution and legislate for abortion reform produced a deafening hurrah that should echo to all corners of the planet. The result is a body blow to the Catholic Church and to the reactionary church-state counter-revolution established following the Irish Civil War.
As with the marriage equality referendum of 2015, the vote on article eight reflected widespread outrage at the many historical crimes of the Church against Irish women and the Irish working class and the role of the state in enabling those crimes and protecting the church when they were exposed. The mass graves of the Mother and Baby Homes, the kidnapping and torture of the Magdalene Laundries, the servitude of the Industrial Schools and the widespread physical and sexual abuse are remembered with rage and contempt.
The marriage equality referendum was a slap in the teeth for the Church but, while they were to the fore in all forms of sexual repression outside of their own criminal acts against children, it was not the repression of the LGBT community that was their central activity, but the repression of women and the poor. The repeal of the 8th is a punch in the guts that has knocked the Church down and is the biggest blow they have suffered since the foundation of the state. However we are still far from a knockout punch that will deliver a secular society in Ireland.
It is worth reviewing how we arrived at the referendum. The Fine Gael government, unwilling to deal with an abortion referendum, kicked the can down the road by setting up an assembly of 100 citizens chosen at random to consider the question. Much to the government's astonishment, a majority of the Citizens Assembly came out in favour of liberalisation, with many expressing support for the right to choose.
That report opened up the present situation. On the one hand you had a spontaneous mobilization in support of women and against church dictats and on the other an alliance of church and state scrambling for balance and ways to protect their position. The intensity of feeling was best expressed by the influx of émigrés to cast their vote and magnified by a number of attempts to legislate within the current constitution –attempts that always ended in scandal, death or the carving up of women. The repressive Catholic Ireland exported its youth to other lands and they were home to have their revenge.
The government produced heads of agreement that outlined a potential liberalisation scenario but did not prepare legislation, parking the issue until the referendum was held. The struggle we are in is between a spontaneous mobilisation and an alliance of the Church and State – one which is in retreat but which is highly organised, very aware of its class interest and has the discipline to stage a strategic retreat that will preserve as much as possible in the hope of better days to come.
None of the major parties were willing to confront the new public mood and politicians with a lifetime of opposition to abortion rights came out in favour of repeal of the 8th amendment. The Church brought the opposition into the schools (facing significant opposition from some parents and children) and had them address church congregations but did not lead a mobilization itself. The battle to save the 8th fell to the auxiliaries of the Catholic right, with the establishment either neutral or already conceding the ground. These right-wingers were so extreme, with their bloody foetus photographs and denunciation of reformers as murderers, that they almost certainly swelled the vote for repeal.
The vast majority of activists, almost without discussion, settled on a single issue - repeal - and organised in a loose coalition as was the case with equal marriage and the water charges campaign. The campaign ended in a landslide for repeal.
However the narrowing of the issue simply to repeal left the political parties free to avoid a deeper examination of their attitude to women’s rights overall. The political system has been thrown into confusion without a more general clarification.
The size of the rejection of the Church is simply stunning. Ninety percent of the youth, graduates of an education system that the Church controls, reject them not only on this issue but across the board in rejection of their general dogma. On the other hand the church-state alliance has a strong hand. David Begg, a former leader of the Irish trade unions, was thrown in front of RTE cameras to call for a no vote in place of the trade union campaign calling for yes. Begg’s strand of fervent Catholicism is shared by many in the leadership of RTE, education, health, the police, and many other sectors. Members of organizations such as Opus Dei and the Knights of Columbanus act as the eyes and ears of the church and intervene on its behalf. These Catholic societies operate in a state with limited democracy. Local government finance is controlled by unelected city managers who move back and forward between councils, semi-state bodies and privatised industries.
In any case the overall economy still operates under the regulations set by the Troika of EU, ECB and IMF. A key battleground now is health. The main maternity hospital is in the hands of the Church and last year the government handed over the new maternity hospital to St Vincent’s Hospital Group. The new governing board will be require to uphold the] ”values and vision” of the religious order behind St Vincent’s. That order is the Sisters of Charity, the order behind Magdalene Laundries and the industrial schools, the order that fought against compensation for their victims and the order that has still paid little in recompense. The government does not have the finance to run a health service because of levels of sovereign debt and is in any case prevented by EU rules from putting in the necessary funds. Privatisation will continue apace and the Church, now standing behind private companies, will play a big role in providing resources in return for applying its dogma either openly or behind the scenes.
However the political landscape has changed. As a result of the referendum the reformist socialist groups have done well. Basing the campaign in constituency areas has made their candidates more visible. However, given that the “united” left ran separate campaigns, the prospects of a new party seem slim. It is worth mentioning as a new factor the emergence of new republican voices, especially the group eirigi, who came out wholeheartedly for the right to choose. A recognition of the dependent nature of the Irish state and the role of imperialism is an important element in longer term struggles for women’s and democratic rights.
On the right, the Labour party have seen a recovery following widespread rejection of their role in the last coalition government and their drive to jail water charge protestors. Fianna Fail, the traditional nationalist populist party, despite quick footwork by Micheál Martin, came out badly following a rebellion by rural TDs. A slow recovery in their fortunes has been thrown back to the advantage of Sinn Fein, who managed to put themselves to the fore on repeal without anyone knowing what their position on the current proposals now is. At the moment they support only the most restrictive conditions for abortion and have to decide on the proposal for a 12 week window. However the major winners are the right-wing Fine Gael party. They had already embarked on an Obama style strategy with the election of Leo Varadkar, a gay man of Indian descent, positioning themselves as on the economic right but socially liberal. Simon Harris, the Fine Gael health minister, is now being presented as the hero of the campaign despite yet another health scandal where women are dying because a policy of health outsourcing led to a failure of cervical screening and being the minister responsible for the handover of the new maternity hospital to the church. Another minister has just announced a new scandal involving false adoption papers arising from the past church market in handing over children of unmarried mothers to the faithful able to make a substantial donation.
The scene shifts
The scene now shifts to the Dail and to new legislation. Already the government is less enthusiastic, saying that they will now begin to draw up new legislation and that it might not be ready this year. Did they not know that there was a referendum? They do have heads of agreement on which legislation will be based, but these are quite limited. Given the size of the vote it seems impossible that the 12-week window for abortion will be sabotaged, but access involves permission by a GP and after twelve weeks the proposals are very restrictive and involve a high degree of clerical control inside the hospitals. The proposed bill is also likely to include a freedom of conscience clause for the medical profession. The issue now moves to very hostile territory. In parliament there are few genuine defenders of women’s rights. Sections of the medical profession have been liberated by the referendum, including many GPs and obstetricians, but they will still be operating in an environment largely controlled by the Church. The referendum is a great gain, but there is much to do in securing rights and in turning the spotlight on clerical control in the health sector and in education. During the referendum the repeal movement was at every stage involved in the issues that would face women. In the meetings, on the doorsteps and in training sessions the duration of the initial abortion window, the nature of the legislation and the proposed restrictions were discussed continuously. This will prove extremely valuable in further struggles. However the overall movement was based only on the policy of repeal, so the task of building a further resistance is before us.
The focus will now move North, a centre of reaction on this issue as on many others. Not only is abortion illegal in almost any circumstances, members of the state forces, encouraged by the DUP, have brought charges against women for buying abortifacients online. There will be tremendous pressure for change but the DUP will not bend. Sinn Fein are happy to glow in a progressive shine from the South but will not want to antagonise their more conservative rural supporters in the North. Michelle O’Neill has announced a policy that remained limited to hard cases and is still awaiting endorsement of the 12 week window proposed in the South. In the absence of an administration Westminster holds the reins of power but Teresa May will protect the DUP and the Tory right while holding to the pretence that the North is still a going concern and refusing to accept that it is directly ruled by Westminster. A new campaign would have to face up to the lack of democratic credentials in the northern system. Up and running, a sectarian veto in the Assembly would hold the right to choose at bay even if a majority supported it. Without an Assembly we are at the mercy of a colonial administration that will not even admit that there is a period of direct rule and that they have absolute responsibility for democratic rights. Appeals to May’s claim to feminist credentials have failed, so further movement would need a labour mobilisation on the issue and this would be far more likely if there was an organised campaign involving all the forces for women’s rights in both parts of Ireland.
A major long-term effect of the Irish referendum vote will be on the global stage. A tide of reaction, led by the US evangelicals, has led to restrictions on women's rights. The fall of Ireland, the jewel in the crown of Catholic reaction, will pause the offensive and encourage a fightback by pro-choice forces.
Leftists have not been slow to claim the power of constituency lobbying in winning the referendum majority. Yet 75% of voters say that they had made their mind up before the referendum was called and only 12% said they decided during the campaign. At the end of the day change has come about because the Irish economy and society have changed. A confessional society designed to rule impoverished small farmers is not suited to the globalised economy of today. Transnational companies have many faults, but asking the local priest to bless their enterprise is not usually one of them. Today's Ireland still exports its youth, but twice now the émigrés have returned to vote and have their revenge.
The methods of organisation adopted over the past decade in Ireland, after many failures, have had a spectacular victory. Yet they have been crippled by many weaknesses. The appearance of David Begg on RTE to advocate no led to widespread complaint, yet Begg was the architect of a policy of social partnership that saw the trade union leadership join in supporting the banking guarantee and accepting a decade of austerity – an austerity that had, by the trade unions own admission, a savage effect on woman worker‘s wages and saw health and social services aimed at women decimated. Throughout that period he faced almost no criticism as many activists accepted the argument that a broad front to ameliorate aspects of the austerity involved avoiding challenge to the union leaders.
Respect the referendum!
Now that strategy has a victory, but it has also reached a limit. Repeal has been established, but that means the end of the single-issue campaign. The confessional state will push back and we need to preserve the mobilisation. The immediate aim should be to bring together activists around the themes: “Respect the referendum! Support the right to choose! A new movement advocating democratic rights for women must itself be democratic and allow women to build democratic structures and decide their own fate. Immediate tasks will involve winning the battle in the North while preventing delay and dilution of the referendum call in the South. We should also recognise that the almost universal rejection of the status quo by youth does not stop at women’s rights. The suffering of the austerity decade ran deep and there is a deep anger at an economic model that leaves so many in poverty.
Social change has brought political change and capitalist society is adapting. Marxists argue that that adaptation will stop short of a full right to choose, that the final liberation of women is tied up with the overall liberation of the working class and that here and now it involves building a party that represents the working class.
However before attempting further tasks we should spare a thought for the generations of victims: The dead babies stuffed in sewers. The young mothers in servitude, the boy brutalised in the industrial schools. The victims of clerical rape and the pregnant women in hospital: those mutilated by surgical procedures dictated by religious dogma and pregnant women who suddenly realize that their life counts for nothing in the case of an emergency.
We should savour a moment
of unalloyed joy. St. Patrick has taken a terrible belt on the mitre. He
will be many a day recovering.