Ireland was “Shocked, stunned, surprised” at the “unexpected” result of the referendum. Not perhaps by the fact that the Yes camp won but by the margin.
There was no doubt before this campaign began that a majority of people wanted to see the eighth amendment repealed. What created uncertainty about the outcome was whether the public would show some reluctance through the ballot box due to the government proposal to allow abortion to be freely available up to 12 weeks.
Those opposed to the removal of the eighth amendment have always nodded to the fact that they speak for the people of Ireland. Certainly in 1983 that was absolutely true but Ireland today is a world away from the 1980s and Catholic Ireland has been replaced by a society that is much more liberal and ashamed of the experience of women that have had to make the lonely journey to England by boat or plane to have an abortion.
Those societal views do not stop at the border.
The RTÉ exit poll showed that all party supporters voted overwhelmingly for repeal except for Fianna Fáil whose voters opted for No by 50.3% to 49.7%. So Micheál Martin has an electoral base fairly evenly divided on this and this of course remains of some importance as TDs will now have to legislate on reform. Does the Fianna Fáil parliamentary team accept the result and act in accordance with what the public have voted in favour of or do they continue to act in accordance to their views up until this point?
90% of those surveyed by RTÉ said that they would accept the result of the referendum and indeed early indications are that a number of TDs will not oppose the will of the public.
Fianna Fáil Business spokesperson Billy Kelleher said the result was a “catharsis” for women in Ireland, and added “I assume the vast majority [of Fianna Fáil members] would adhere to the views of Irish people”.
Mary-Lou McDonald will now be in a stronger position to change the Sinn Féin policy on abortion next month at the party’s Ard Fheis to ensure it can support the legislation that will come forward in the Dáil. The motion that will go forward to Sinn Féin members recognises that “it is not possible to legislate for abortion in the case of rape in a compassionate way” and addresses an anomaly in Sinn Féin policy that previously left their Committee on the Eighth Amendment members having to abstain on a vote on allowing access to abortion up to 12 weeks.
The issue of women in the north having access to the new service in the south will also become a key debate in the Dáil as it considers the legislation that the Health Minister Simon Harris will introduce in the days ahead.
An NI Life and Times Survey clearly shows that there is a majority in the north in favour of abortion in cases of
- fatal foetal abnormality
- pregnancies as a result of rape or incest
- a threat to a woman’s life
- a serious threat to the woman’s physical or mental health
It also shows that respondents are strongly opposed to these cases being treated as criminal offences.
As with the subject of equal marriage the referendum result in the south will make the lack of reform in the north more pronounced and more unsustainable in the longer term. Already a number of British politicians are highlighting the need for reform in the north. NIO Minister Lord Duncan said that “we should not be relying on a Victorian law. It is time for change.”
We also know that at least 40 out of the Assembly’s 90 MLAs support some form of reform of the north’s abortion law, not far off a majority.
Its been an emotional few days. As the result was announced this evening at Dublin Castle the crowd started to chant ‘Savita’. The ripples from that awful tragedy has helped to overturn the eighth amendment and in the months ahead will continue to be felt both in Dublin and in Belfast.