Is it too soon to refer to Ireland as “Secular Ireland”?

We’ve often heard Ireland referred to as “Catholic Ireland” or “Conservative Ireland”, is it time those terms were replaced with “Secular Ireland”?

The partition of Ireland caused the creation of two states ruled by unaccountable religious fundamentalists of different creeds. The events of the last few days may have ensured the destruction of one of them, but there’s still work to do. A new Ireland is coming.

Ireland is still reeling from the result of the most divisive referendum in the Republic’s recent history and which saw a landslide victory for the Yes side that not even the most optimistic of the Yes campaign could have imagined. Having been out knocking doors for the Together for Yes campaign in my native Donegal – the only constituency to vote no – I certainly didn’t envisage victory in this manner.

But a landslide victory is exactly what happened as 2 out of 3 people in Ireland who voted favoured the repealing of the 8th Amendment of the Irish constitution.

The silent No vote, anticipated by many commentators, never materialised and instead a silent Yes vote saw progressives romp to victory. In this landmark occasion in Ireland’s history the republic could be seen to mature, choose compassion over shame and responsibility over ignorance.

But remarkably it was only 35 years ago that Ireland voted overwhelmingly with the wishes of the Catholic Church and to amend the constitution to insert the subsection recognising the equal life of the pregnant woman and the unborn.

Ironically the margin for success in that referendum was similar to the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment and this continues a trend that sees the rejection of the once powerful Catholic Church grow more vociferous. For example:

  • In 1995, the people voted by the narrowest of margins against the wishes of the Church in the divorce referendum.
  • In 2015, they did so again, as 62% of people voted in favour of same-sex marriage.
  • Now, with 66% voting to repeal the 8th amendment, the margin continues to grow.

People over 65 being the only age group to vote no in the recent referendum is also evidence of the diminishing influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Therefore, if “Catholic Ireland” or “Conservative Ireland” isn’t dead, it is certainly on life support. Anyone watching the RTE News at 6 yesterday will have been struck by the Angelus being followed immediately by footage of celebratory Yes campaigners at Dublin castle. With cathartic tears of joy streaming down the face of one celebrant being interviewed, the juxtaposition of the old and the new Ireland was striking.

The impact of the referendum result will be felt in the North as well. The pro-choice movement will be emboldened by events south of the border and will rightly expect the same support from progressives in the South as they offered them. Sinn Féin’s stance also seems cemented with the referendum’s success and the party’s rise in opinion polls. Internal reluctance by some members to support the party’s new pro-choice position won’t halt the party’s progression on this issue.

Although the Republic’s same-sex marriage referendum didn’t have the desired effect in terms of influencing policy in the North, the region’s position as a conservative outlier from both the mainland United Kingdom and the rest of Ireland on important social issues must surely be untenable.

Recent polls have consistently shown support for both same-sex marriage and reform of abortion laws in Northern Ireland, and therefore it could be argued that change is being restricted not because of democratic will but by sheer intransigence. However that issue gets resolved, whether it be the reinstating of devolved government or direct rule, one has to imagine change and a convergence with the Republic on these issues coming eventually.

Therefore, is it too soon to refer to Ireland as “Secular Ireland”? With Stormont at an impasse and segregated schools in the North, blasphemy laws and Catholic control of schools and hospitals in the Republic, perhaps it is too soon but a new Ireland is certainly on the horizon. That we can be sure.

Richard Gallagher is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. He also holds an MA from The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. He has previously contributed to The Conversation, Taste of Cinema and Wise Up: Irish and Politically Incorrect. Born in Donegal, he has been living in Belfast for the last seven years. You can follow him on Twitter @RichGallagher1.