Like many political observers I was more than a little apprehensive about the outcome of last Friday’s referendum on repealing Article Eight of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the constitutional clause severely restricting the availability of medically-approved abortions in Ireland. In the end I and many others needn’t have worried as the Yes vote far surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic polls. It turned out that the much-debated “silent pro-life” majority was in fact a pro-choice one; much of which seems to have decided its vote some time ago, frequently on the basis of personal experiences or knowledge. Which gives added weight to the argument that the number of women from this island nation who have travelled overseas to access abortion services in other states is far greater than the statistics suggest (over 170,000 to the United Kingdom alone, since 1980).
Putting the relief at a positive outcome in the plebiscite to one side, there is a great deal of irony in the fact that some of the most socially liberal amendments to the constitution that we have seen in modern times have been initiated by governments led by Fine Gael, the country’s most conservative national party. These include the introduction of divorce in 1995, the provision for equal marriage in 2015 and the now expected passing of legislation on domestic abortion services in 2018. Of course, one could argue that such matters are of particular interest to those in FG’s upper middle-class urban base and that the “Blueshirts” were catering to the needs or concerns of their most important electoral demographic. However this came at the risk of irking or angering more traditional voters in their shrinking “big farmer” and “mercantile” rural base. As well as discouraging vote transfers from socially illiberal supporters of other parties in those same constituencies, a crucial point of concern in a proportional electoral system.
Nevertheless, the paradox for those of us on the political and republican left remains disconcertingly obvious. Some of the most important reforms in Irish society that we have witnessed over the last three or four decades have stemmed from the mainstream ideological right on the island. Yet, the latter tendency continues to be hostile to other issues generally associated with progressiveness, to the very great detriment of the country’s socio-economic and cultural development. Or at least, as social-democrats and democratic-socialists would have it.
Naturally, one could argue that Fine Gael can implement pluralist causes in government because others – primarily activists with a broadly liberal bent – have done the hard work for them. This enables the conservative party to then step in, to take up the near-finished product and benefit from years of far from popular labour by other groups and organisations. And that if progressive parties were elected into power in the first place, progressive policies would be brought to the fore. But that is to ignore FG’s own risks in taking up and running with initially controversial or divisive subjects. And we should be in no doubt that a move towards the legalisation of abortion via the repeal of the Eight was undoubtedly a risky political venture, even if it now seems less so with the benefit of hindsight.
If Fine Gael and gene-pool independents can tap into the growing “liberal impulse” among modern Irish voters on the one hand, while providing clearly ineffective economic and community stewardship on the other, then the Left is doing something very wrong indeed. When all the back-slapping over the successful repeal of the Eight Amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann is over, some thoughtful soul-searching is required among those on the Left and the adherents of progressive republicanism. Which is a category which includes far more individuals and organisations than just Sinn Féin.