Even better than expected
The left has been timorous when it comes to fighting for abortion rights. Now it should go onto the offensive and demand a secular constitution, along with the confiscation of church wealth, writes Eddie Ford
As expected, the Republic of Ireland voted on May 25 to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution which outlawed abortion. But what was not so widely predicted was the margin of victory: 66.4% to 33.6% - a “landslide” that saw only Donegal vote to retain the amendment by 51.9% to 48.11. This is only to be welcomed, of course.
Now the Oireachtas (parliament) has to pass a law repealing the country’s statutory ban, which exists separately from the constitution, and set up a new legal system for abortion. Leo Varadkar, the prime minister who campaigned vigorously to scrap the amendment, has already released a draft bill that would remove all restrictions on abortions for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy - but afterwards it will only be permitted under very specific circumstances (if the woman’s health were in serious danger, for example), which actually brings Irish law roughly in line with regulations across the European Union.
In other words, it will be a medical-led service, but with GPs, obstetricians and gynaecologists having the right to “conscientiously object” to providing terminations. Simon Harris, the minister for health, has pledged to allow for doctors to object in a similar clause available in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.2 Anyhow, Varadkar hopes to pass the new law by the end of the year and it is almost inconceivable that the Oireachtas would chuck out the draft bill and vote to retain the eighth amendment - first passed in 1983, then amended in 1992 to allow Irish women to travel abroad for an abortion. The relevant section, which declares that “the state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn”, will be replaced by the following text: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”
Of course, abortion will remain illegal until the Oireachtas passes the draft legislation and ‘pro-lifers’ will not give up the battle - no way.
For all the obvious restrictions that will continue despite the referendum and the proposed new law, the decriminalisation of abortion will bring more fundamental change to Irish society and politics. Between 1980 and 2016, approximately 170,000 Irish women travelled to Britain (and, in smaller numbers, to other EU countries) to get an abortion - a fairly staggering statistic, when you consider that the country’s total population today is a little under five million.
Far more importantly still, however, the referendum result represents a further loosening of the deadly grip of the Catholic church - which ever since partition and the formation of the ‘free state’ in 1922 has exerted a corrupting influence over the state, doing its utmost to keep society mired in backwardness and fear. First there was the election to president in 1990 of an openly secular liberal lawyer, Mary Robinson, then five years later there was the referendum that removed the constitutional prohibition on divorce - even if it just scraped through by 50.3% to 49.7%. Next, three years ago, we had the referendum on same-sex marriage that was approved by 62.0%. And now the abortion referendum, which hopefully is another nail in the coffin of the church’s hold over the state - thoroughly discredited by decades of scandals involving sexual abuse and illegal adoptions - including the sale of a baby to an American couple.3
Indeed, the list of those organisations and parties that endorsed a ‘no’ vote during the referendum tells you almost all you need to know about the nature of that campaign and the politics behind it: Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, the Orange Order … the bringing together of almost all denominations on a common reactionary platform. As for the Church of Ireland, it tried - albeit not particularly successfully - to sit on the fence by calling for the Oireachtas to be given responsibility for abortion legislation, but opposing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.
On the other side, so to speak, was Sinn Féin, the Communist Party of Ireland, Green Party, Labour Party, Solidarity-People Before Profit, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, etc. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael refused to adopt a formal party position on the grounds that its members should exercise a “freedom of conscience vote”. In fact, 31 of Fianna Fáil’s TDs and senators posed for a photograph showing their opposition to repealing the eighth - over half of the parliamentary party. Nonetheless, leader Micheál Martin prominently supported ‘yes’ and, along with Sinn Féin leader and Dublin Central TD Mary Lou McDonald, was one of the two speakers for the campaign in the final televised debate before the vote. Senior Fine Gael members came out early for ‘yes’ and the party collectively threw its weight behind Together for Yes rather than putting up its own posters and other propaganda material.
Sinn Féin’s stance on the referendum is particularly interesting, as it is entirely inconsistent - if not downright contradictory. Though it supported repealing the eighth amendment, party policy as currently constituted does not actually support the decriminalisation of abortion and remains formally opposed to terminations up to 12 weeks. Traditionally, as some of our readers will know, SF has resisted all notions of extending legalised abortion to Northern Ireland - Martin McGuinness declaring at various times that “Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion” and boasting how the party has successfully resisted “any attempt to bring the British 1967 Abortion Act to the north”. Apparently, this was because SF is motivated by “what we believe is good for our people” - though obviously they were not so concerned about what was “good” for the many hundreds of women who, like women from the south, travel abroad for abortions. But, being an “unashamedly populist” organisation, to use the words of leading party strategist and ideologue Eoin Ó Broin in 2014, it saw which way the wind was blowing and backed the ‘yes’ campaign.
Of course, this means that the party’s stance is now totally untenable and - hardly surprisingly - McDonald has said she will bring a new party policy to an ard fheis (conference) in June. This would allow for access to abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, in line with the referendum result and the new legislative proposals put forward by the government.4 There needs to be “unity” in abortion laws across the whole island of Ireland, she has argued, saying the party’s position on this issue is “evolving”.
The result has had an immediate impact on British politics - leaving Theresa May in a very awkward position and adding to her already burgeoning Brexit woes. The change in Irish law will soon leave Northern Ireland as the only part of either the UK or Ireland where abortion is illegal unless there is a serious risk to a woman’s life or health - the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied to the statelet.
But the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up May’s minority government, was quick to state that the abortion vote in Ireland will have “no impact” on Northern Ireland - the ban will continue. With almost indecent haste, the British government rushed to back up the DUP’s position on the grounds that the UK government has agreed it will not normally legislate on matters that are the responsibility of devolved administrations without their consent - abortion being one of those issues in Northern Ireland. No direct rule from Westminster.
The only problem, being, of course, that Northern Ireland has been without a government since January 2017 after the power-sharing deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed. Breedagh Hughes, Northern Ireland’s regional director for the Royal College of Midwives, acerbically complained that no-one was speaking up for the “pro-choice majority” in Northern Ireland and the only way to give them a voice was through a referendum in the Six Counties too. “We have 12 Democratic Unionist MPs whose views do not reflect the majority opinion on the abortion question,” Hughes said. “We have Sinn Féin MPs who don’t take their seats at Westminster. We don’t have a functioning local assembly which could take this issue on again.”
May is now under increasing pressure to row back from her initial position - including from some within her own cabinet uneasy at the DUP’s stonewalling and the current law in Northern Ireland. About 160 MPs have backed a cross-party letter, championed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy, saying the government should legislate to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. Creasy has proposed amendments to a forthcoming Domestic Violence Bill, which in theory would provide a legislative mechanism to do precisely that. If there was a free vote in parliament on this matter, it would surely be overwhelmingly passed.
At this stage it is not clear which way the prime minister will jump, but it is hard to imagine her alienating her DUP allies - a risky path that could possibly end up with her losing her job or even triggering a new general election. The nightmare scenario. At the weekend, the prime minister’s spokesman merely reiterated that abortion law was a devolved matter. But, since the government thinks the UK parliament should not be legislating on this matter on its own because of devolution, the spokesman did not rule out the possibility that the government could tell its MPs to vote against any amendments calling for liberalisation of the abortion laws or a referendum.
Leo Varadkar, naturally enough, described the referendum result as “the culmination of a quiet revolution that’s taken place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years” - the people “have said we want a modern constitution for a modern country” and “that we trust women and we respect them to make the right decision and the right choices about their own healthcare”. Whilst there are elements of truth to this statement, there is also a lot of humbug. At the end of the day, Catholic church aside, abolition of the abortion ban was the mainstream position - not an anti-establishment stance, as he implied.
The Irish establishment as a whole, however, has not made a made a break with the Catholic church. Rather it has distanced itself - it had no choice if it wanted to retain some sort of credibility; anything else would have been suicidal. Varadkar, for all his wide smiles and modernist sheen, is an opportunist who has slickly used the language of the pro-choice movement to cast himself as a progressive and boost his own popularity. As for Micheál Martin, he may have gone out on a limb to support ‘yes’ this time round, but he was the instigator of the 1992 referendum to tighten the eighth amendment. There have clearly been a number of ‘road to Damascus’ conversions by various members of the establishment - all totally sincere, it goes without saying.
Therefore the referendum victory, important as it obviously is, should not be exaggerated. After all, Ireland has an openly gay prime minister, but he is a strong supporter of neoliberalism - hardly a radical. As we have seen many times with regard to anti-racism, gay rights and other issues, the establishment can quickly move to colonise territory previously thought to be the preserve of the left.
Alas, as this publication has chronicled in some detail over the years, the Irish left has a long and wretched history of tailism and studied ‘moderation’ - especially when it comes to abortion. The Brit left almost looks like steely-eyed Bolsheviks by comparison. Taking one example out of many, the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland stood three of its members as People Before Profit candidates in the May 24 2007 general election. However, our SWP comrades argued that they did not want to put off ‘pro-lifers’ from joining the PBPA by making abortion rights a policy - how principled! Rather predictably, the SWP in Ireland eventually gave up the ghost, changing its name to Socialist Workers Network and virtually dissolving itself into People Before Profit - start with a whimper, end with a whimper. The Socialist Party of Ireland too was very reluctant to mention abortion rights in its election manifestos, presumably as it did not want to upset backward workers with such ‘premature’ ideas - here was the SP displaying its usual sterling leadership qualities.
On the other hand, communists do not prevaricate or equivocate on this question. We in the CPGB demand that abortion must be available ‘as soon as possible, as late as necessary’. Women alone should decide their fate, not the state or church - or doctors, for that matter. But our demands go way beyond that. At the moment we have a monstrous situation in Ireland where the Catholic church has a near complete stranglehold over primary education, with 92.7% of schools under their control (only 1% are run by organisations not affiliated to any particular religion or denomination). The situation with secondary schools is not much better - voluntary schools have long dominated secondary education, most of them owned by the Catholic church.
Naturally, communists demand complete separate of church and state, no privileging of one faith over another or those of no faith. This means scrapping those parts of the Irish constitution which enshrine a “special position” for the Catholic church.5 We therefore demand the confiscation of church schools, landed estates, hospitals, clinics, residential homes, office buildings, everything not directly associated with acts of worship. According to the 2009 Ryan report into child abuse the Catholic church in Ireland sits on assets worth nearly €4billion, wealth that has been accumulated through exploitation and oppression over the generations.