Ireland’s Abortion Referendum: a Move to Halal Irish Stew

Sixty six per cent of the Irish people voted in May’s referendum to ‘Repeal the Eighth’. They have emphatically overturned the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution which declares that the life of the unborn child is equal to that of the mother, so outlawing abortion in almost all circumstances. The Catholic Church in Ireland made a point of keeping out of the acrimonious national debate. But the symbolism of this couldn’t be more obvious. Ireland is no longer a Catholic country. And this is crucial, because religious countries stand up for themselves against the enemies at the gate; secular countries let themselves get invaded.

The research on this is quite clear. People in countries that are religious are prepared to make huge sacrifices for the country they see as divinely-ordained while the same time repelling the Devil-inspired invader. When religiousness collapses, ethnocentrism has no religious underpinning and it collapses as well . . . and the floodgates open. May’s vote was as clear as symbol as there could be that the famous Irish craic will be giving way to ghettos and division.

Abortion, far more so than gay marriage, is a ‘Catholic’ issue. Long before gay marriage was even thought of, opposing abortion was a sign of being a committed Catholic. But Ireland’s break-neck secularization means that these devotees are bullied into silence. Ireland’s expatriate young have been flying home just to vote against the Church’s teaching. For them, in particular, Rome is part of the Ireland of the shameful past, not of the vibrant future.  

Since gaining formal independence in 1922, Catholicism has been at the heart of the Irish state. When the Irish guerrilla leaders negotiated a treaty with the British forces, Ulster remained part of the UK precisely because it was around two thirds Protestant. The so-called Free State of Eire — which had a similar relationship with UK as Canada does now — was about 90% Catholic, rising to 95% as Protestants increasingly left. Catholicism was integral to Ireland’s sense of difference from the coloniser and its resentment against it.

No matter how hard they tried, the sixteenth-century Protestant English simply could not persuade the Irish to reject the Pope. At first they left the Irish alone, wanting to avoid any of more the rebellions by the Irish Earls — the clan chiefs, who were regional kings — against English interference. However, in 1605 the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholics tried to overthrow James I with a scheme to blow up parliament during its state opening, forced the English to intervene. In 1607, the Penal Laws, which already existed in mainly Protestant England, were imposed on Catholic Ireland. Catholic nobles, failing to attend Anglican Church, had their lands confiscated and sold to Scottish settlers. Catholics were barred from holding any public office, meaning the country would be run by its tiny Anglican minority, though Catholic churches were barely tolerated. Over the next century, the Catholics often rebelled, most notably in 1641 when declared independence, a situation that was later savagely reversed by Oliver Cromwell.

Well into the nineteenth century, Ireland was ruled by its miniscule ‘Protestant Ascendancy.’ Among numerous other restrictions, Catholics could not hold public office, be MPs, vote, attend university, be lawyers or teachers, inherit an estate (it had to be divided between all the brothers), hold a lease of more than 31 years length, own a weapon, or own an expensive horse. Many of these restrictions were abolished in 1829 but some remained in place until 1920. For these reasons, the struggle of the Irish for independence from the English and Catholicism became fused. In 1971, when contraception was legalised in Ireland, one Irish bishop declared that ‘never before, and certainly not since penal times was the Catholic heritage of Ireland subjected to so many insidious onslaughts on the pretext of conscience, civil rights and women’s liberation.’

So, when the Free State was declared (it was followed by a civil war lost by those who wanted a united Ireland) the Catholic Church was effectively the law. Ireland was a de facto theocracy. Ireland’s constitution of 1937, which was declared after a national referendum, was drawn up by its Prime Minister, Eamon de Valera. However, there was considerable input from the future Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (1895–1973), with the constitution asserting that Ireland was ‘Catholic.’ Indeed, between 1940, when he was enthroned, and his death in 1973, McQuaid pretty much ruled Ireland, which remained neutral in World War II and became a republic in 1949. McQuaid’s vigilante gangs ensured that whatever the law said about freedom of speech and association, the reality was that the Church was untouchable (see John Cooney. (2009). John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland).

As recently as 1983, the Church, fearing Ireland would go the same way as the UK, spearheaded a successful plebiscite to have abortion constitutionally banned in Ireland, requiring a referendum to reverse it. The Eighth Amendment specifically asserted that the right to life of the mother and her unborn child were equal, thus tightening the ban which had always been in place. The Irish sense of identity was that ‘We are poor but at least we obey the Holy Father’. Campaigners’ slogans included, ‘The abortion mills of England grind Irish babies into blood that cries out to heaven for vengeance’. Irish girls had to fly or sail to England for abortions (as they’re also banned in Ulster), with 170,000 of them having done so since 1983  and many more prior to 1983. Or, as the internet arrived, they had to risk 14 years in jail by ordering abortion pills online; 2000 Irish women underwent abortions this way annually.

However, in the 1990s, the formerly poverty-stricken country got rich, becoming known as the ‘Celtic Tiger. As it did so, the Church could more safely be criticised or ignored. In 1997, just over 50% of Irish people voted to overturn the constitutional ban on divorce, with 63% having voted to keep the ban just nine years before.

And around this time, the Church’s past abuses back when Ireland was poor but devout started to come to light:  Unwed young mothers had been effectively imprisoned in Nunnery-run mother-and-baby homes (Magdalene Laundries) where they could work away their sins and be physically and psychologically abused; their babies were forcibly taken away from them and adopted, sometimes by infertile Catholic couples in the USA. Sometimes the records were destroyed so they could never see their children again. In some cases, the children were separated from the mothers and would duly die, failing to get the nutrients with which breast milk would provide them. In one such sister-run home in Tuam, it was found in 2013 that 796 children, aged between 10 minutes and 9 years, had simply been buried in the home’s sewers between 1925 and 1960. In almost all cases, their deaths were never formally recorded. They were bastards; stained by the sinfulness of their conception.

The incredible reverence accorded to priests meant that the Church was a safe haven for paedophiles. The extent of the sexual and physical abuse of young boys in Ireland’s boarding schools and children’s homes simply beggars belief. Father Brendan Smyth raped at least 20 children between 1949 and 1989. The Church had investigated him years earlier and never told the police, allowing him to abuse anew. Father Sean Fortune (1954–1999) had abused around 30 boys in his career. It was revealed in 2002 that whenever allegations were made they were hushed up and Father Fortune was moved to a different parish. In the same year a Dublin Cardinal was accused of turning a blind eye to clerical child abuse on his watch. A commission in 2009 heard testimony from around 2000 people who’d been abused by priests in Irish children’s home. Ireland began to fall out of love with the Catholic Church.

And as this happened, Savita Halappanavar, a pretty 31-year-old Indian dentist living in Galway, went to hospital, on 21st October 2012, having an agonizing miscarriage. Requesting an abortion, a doctor told her, ‘This is Ireland.’ Unable to act, due to the fetus’s life being constitutionally just as valid as the mother’s, the doctors were helpless; afraid they would risk life imprisonment if the fetus was killed to save the mother. Savita developed sepsis and died on 28th October.

The tragic death of this photogenic symbol of ‘modern Ireland’ became a totem for those who wanted to reject the Ireland of the past, reject the Catholic church, reject Irish nationalism, and so legalise abortion. For them, Ireland was a backward country and the twin forces of the Church and Irish nationalism had slain this beautiful image of Ireland’s future. And with it’s new, young, liberal, homosexual Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, himself half-Indian, this issue was to be put to the people. The Irish lower house, the Dail, voted for the referendum by 97 votes to 25, with all major parties officially favouring the referendum. One Sinn Fein (socialist-nationalist) legislator who voted against the referendum was suspended by her party. However, 21 members of Fianna Fáil, populist conservatives who lead the official Opposition to the liberal-conservative Fianna Gael, voted against the referendum. The government deliberately held the vote in May so that students would not be on holiday yet, meaning they could be more effectively mobilized.

Anti-Abortion campaigners felt under huge social pressure to keep their heads down. Facebook, Google and Twitter acted to shut down adverts which tried to persuade people to vote to keep the abortion ban, Twitter began hiding ‘disruptive’ tweets and Irish politicians condemned that, in essence, the anti-Abortion campaign had the intelligence to take full advantage of social media. Restricted on social media and facing an anti-Abortion press, the No campaign even resorted to putting a large ‘No’ sign on a mountain.  

But the Irish Zeitgeist was against these dissenters. The plebiscite seems to have overwhelmingly overturned ‘the Eighth,’ meaning that Ireland will soon legalise abortion. In doing so, this small country, of just 4.7 million, seems to have emphatically rejected an institution which has held it together in the face of aggressors for centuries. Clearly, some terrible things have happened under the rule of that institution. We can only wait and see what will happen under the new ‘Modern Ascendancy.’ If the latest research is correct, it will be a turning point towards an Ireland where Irish stew is increasingly Halal.

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