This is the seventh in the blog series by Morgan Healey, immediate past President of ALRANZ, who has recently returned to the US. It (usually) aims to bring to life the uniquely absurd state of reproductive rights and justice in the US. But this time, it’s about the also absurd situation in Ireland.
We shall return to our normally scheduled programming, where I unload on reproductive rights and justice in the US, next time.
Instead, this dispatch will focus on my other, other life – the one where I studied women in politics and abortion rights in Ireland (the Republic of Ireland). Specifically, I want to discuss the recent General Election and the impact that could have on the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment (that pernicious law that pretty much outlaws all abortion except where there is a risk to the life of the mother (as distinct from her health), including a threat of suicide). Read Sinead Corcoran’s article for a short history lesson on the 8th Amendment.
I have been unable to help myself. I have been consumed reading articles on the outcome of the 2016 General Election. With the pressure on to repeal the 8th Amendment, the election, which took place on 26 February 2016, could play a substantive role in determining the success of the campaign (or not) for the next five years (that timescale assumes that whatever coalition government is formed goes the full term allowed by the Constitution, which seems unlikely particularly in light of rumors of a ‘grand coalition’ between the two intra-nationalist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil).
The results highlight a different Ireland than the one I left in 2008. The Ireland I left had condensed the number of political parties, with Labour trying to refocus as the predominant ‘left’ party, alongside Sinn Féin, who was regaining a foothold in the South, and the Greens slowly making ground (they were part of the Fianna Fáil led Government in 2007). Independents made up no more than a handful of elected TDs (short for Teachtaí Dála, Irish for Member of Parliament). At this time, there was also little or no conversation about abortion law reform, let alone all out repeal.
I have to say, despite not following the lead up to the election, I was surprised by the outcome. The rise of Fianna Fáil, like a phoenix from the ashes, was particularly disappointing. As a centre right party, and one that has never been overly keen on promoting the rights of women, the possibility that they will once again return to power is disheartening.
With that said, the other option, and major party in Irish politics, Fine Gael, is not much better. With the support of its minority coalition partner, Labour, Fine Gael heralded in some of the worst austerity policies in generations. It would seem that both parties paid a price at the polls for their willingness to acquiesce to EU pressure to hobble the Irish economy.
But the real loser in this year’s election is Labour. The rise of other smaller, liberal parties has siphoned off support, resulting in one of the party’s worst elections in decades. Their loss seems to be at the benefit of parties like Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats (SDs), and the Anti- Austerity Alliance- People Before Profit (AAA-PBP). However, as journalist Vincent Browne points out, none of these lefty parties adequately capitalized on the demise of Labour, allowing opportunism to win the day, to their own detriment (i.e. they did well but could have done better it they had provided a real socialist alternative).
But what I think is the most interesting turn of events is the increased number of Independents, which has risen from around 5 or 6 in 2008 to 23 in 2016 (the same number of Sinn Féin TDs elected). This loosely aligned block of TDs will make up around 13% of the Dáil (the lower house of Parliament). And when you read through their profiles, you see they are an odd mix of eccentric personalities and ex-party members, like ex- Fianna Fáiler Mattie McGrath, the former All Ireland step dancer who broke from the party over stag hunting.
So what does that mean for the 8th Amendment?
What impact the election will have on the 8th Amendment remains to be seen. Talks are currently underway between parties on who will join together to form a new Government. But I think there are two groups of players to consider: politicians, particularly party leaders and the public. What do people think about abortion law reform?
The ‘do nothing’ political approach
Like many issues perceived as ‘controversial’, if we left change up to politicians we would all be dead before anything progressive occurred. Abortion in Ireland is the quintessential example of this; it’s been left to fester for decades in the ‘too hard or too scary’ basket. Looking at the party leaders, particularly of the two larger parties, of which one will be the next Taoiseach (Prime Minister), neither Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin have great track records in the abortion rights arena. Kenny, who is the current Taoiseach, has rigidly held to his proposal to anoint yet another group to debate the merits of reform. He’s calling it a ‘citizen’s assembly’, and I shall refrain from raging about the absurdity of this idea, particularly in light of the poll numbers discussed below. Martin has similar rooted himself in the ‘do nothing’ camp, standing firm that Fianna Fáil will not initiate a referendum on the 8th under his stewardship.
But neither of these men or their parties have sufficient numbers to govern alone (76 is the magic number for a minority Government). Thus, both parties will need to rely on a coalition of Independents or smaller parties to govern or join together. The good news here is that the liberal-ish parties – Sinn Fein (23 TDs), Labour (7 TDs), AAA-PBP (6 TDs), SDs (3 TDs) and Greens (2 TDs) – roughly 25% (41 out of 166) of elected TDs – support some reform of the 8th Amendment and allowing abortion for a wider area of situations. This does not count the progressive Independents like Clare Daly or Mick Wallace.
Refusing to be silenced
More importantly, in my experience, and evidence/analysis supports me here, regardless of who is leading the next Government, the campaign is not going away and there will be sustained pressure on all politicians to act on loosening abortion restrictions. Una Mullally has a very good article on this, suggesting that voters vote for a variety of different reasons (and only 65% of the electorate even bothered to go to the polls this time), but the 2016 results should not be read as a victory for the anti-choice side nor as the end of the campaign to repeal the 8th.
As most pundits and activists assert change is infrequently spearheaded by politicians. Instead progressive reform is driven by movements ceaselessly advocating for change. (See Feminist Ire for more on why the #Repealthe8th will continue.) Eventually politicians wake up and smell the political pressure and act, or are voted out, but few are in the vanguard (there are obvious exception to this, Clare Daly to name but one).
It is important to point out that political complacency and obduracy on abortion contrasts sharply with public opinion. There have been two polls commissioned recently to assess the public’s thoughts on abortion. Politicians might do well to listen.
The first poll was the Irish Times poll, conducted by Ipsos MRBI prior to the election. It showed that 64% of people in Ireland want the 8th Amendment repealed compared with 25% that want it retained and 11% that have no clue. Labour (78%), Sinn Féin (72%) and Independents (67%) voters more strongly support repeal than Fianna Fáil (60%) or Fine Gael (59%) voters, but even these percentages are still high.
The second poll, conducted by Red C on behalf of Amnesty International, shows similar results. Over half of the Irish public believes that expanded abortion access should be a priority for the next Government, and 75% want a referendum on the 8th Amendment. Only 5% of people polled were opposed to abortion in all circumstances. And who do those polled believe are the experts on abortion? Medical professionals and women who have had an abortion, not the media, not the church, and not anti-choice groups.
These are pretty unambiguous figures, and as Colm O’Gorman, head of Amnesty International, stated, it highlights how NOT controversial the issue of abortion is for the Irish public. Who are the people perpetuating a discourse of vitriol and controversy to excuse their inactivity? Politicians.
To quote the amazing Ailbhe Smyth, Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment, “The public want this political cowardice to stop. There is a responsibility on the next Government to show political leadership, and equally there is a responsibility on opposition parties to hold the Government to account”. The movement will not rest until the inhumane and discriminatory Irish abortion laws are overturned. Those elected to the 32nd Dáil have been put on notice.