Abortion referendum: Historic victory for women’s rights and social progress in Ireland

Crowd welcomes the result, Dublin Castle, Saturday afternoon, May 26 (Irish time)

by Philip Ferguson

“I think for so many people in this country the weekend’s vote was just like an enormous weight being lifted – a ball and chain that dogged us all our adult life being finally gone. And I can’t believe that I’m 50 years of age and it’s taken this long. . .  I think for so many women it represented so much.  It’s almost like society atoning for everything it’s done to women in this country.  Atoning for how we stigmatised women faced with crisis pregnancies, the Magdalene Laundries, the Mother and Baby Homes, the shaming, the forced adoptions, the robbed identities. . .  For me, the biggest sentiment of the Yes vote, the thing that people said the most was, ‘Who am I to judge? It’s not my decision.'”

‘Kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse!’ The making and popularity of the ‘Father Ted’ TV comedy series, made in the mid-1990s, was an indication of changing attitudes towards the Catholic hierarchy.

With these words, spoken this week in the Dublin parliament, independent Marxist TD (MP) Clare Daly, welcomed the massive victory for women’s rights and human progress in the referendum vote last Friday, May 25.  The referendum was on whether or not to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution (the constitution of the southern or 26-County state).  The amendment, which had been passed in 1983 effectively banned abortion in Ireland.

Scale of victory

On May 25 66.4% voted Yes for repeal and just 33.6% voted No.  In numerical terms this was a vote of 1,429, 981 to repeal the anti-abortion amendment and 723,642 to maintain it.

Indicating the sea-change of attitudes among the people in the 26-Counties, this was a massive reversal of the 1983 referendum which had inserted the amendment in the constitution.  Back then 66.9% had voted to ban abortion and just 33.1% had voted against the 8th amendment.  Numerically, the vote was 841,233 to ban abortion and 416,136 against a constitutional ban on abortion.  In other words, the anti-abortion vote has declined by about 120,000 while the vote in support of women’s rights has gone up by over 1,000,000!

The turnout as a percentage of eligible voters was also up by almost a fifth – just 53.67% in 1983 compared with 64.1% last Friday.  This is the third highest turnout, percentage-wise, in a referendum since the adoption of the Constitution in 1937.

Not surprisingly, the Yes vote for repeal last Friday was strongest among young people.  Of the 18-24 year-olds who voted, a massive 87.6% voted Yes for repeal.  Among the 25-34 year-olds the vote was 84.6%.  As in the gay marriage referendum of 2015, many thousands of young Irish went home for a few days specifically to vote; those who returned to vote overwhelmingly voted Yes.  Airport arrivals gates were full of Yes banners and young people in Repeal t-shirts.

Other age groups still voted decisively for repeal, apart from the over-65s where 41.3% voted for repeal, while a majority voted No, favouring maintaining the ban.

Among those calling for a Yes vote was the Mandate trade union, which adorned its Dublin headquarters with a massive ad for a Yes vote

Among the women who voted, 70% ticked Yes for repeal, along with 65% of men.

Of the 40 constituencies, 39 voted Yes.  Only one, Donegal, voted No and that vote was very close – 51.87% for No and 48.13% for Yes.  In every one of the 39 constituencies that voted Yes, the gap was significantly larger.  And while the Yes vote was strongest in the urban areas, especially Dublin, the vote across the counties which are more rural was Yes, apart from Donegal.

The referendum means the Dublin parliament is now free to introduce legislation allowing for the terminations of pregnancies in the south of Ireland.  (If something is in the constitution, the parliament can’t legislate it away; it first has to be removed from the constitution by majority vote in a referendum.  Equally amendments can be added to the constitution, as the 8th was in 1983).

Decline of the authority of Catholic Church

According to polling of Yes voters a particularly important factor in their vote was the publication of stories of the horrors women with unwanted pregnancies had faced over decades: in particular the shame Holy Catholic Official Ireland had visited upon unwed pregnant women, the secrecy, the trips across to England to have abortions.  And, on top of that, the vile treatment the Church meted out to unmarried mothers who decided to go through with the pregnancy – religious orders literally ripped babies away from their mothers, in some cases the babies were ven sold by the Church to ‘good Catholic’ couples in the United States.  ‘Mother-and-Baby’ homes in Ireland carried out systematic and system ritual abuse of the women and the children.

Indeed, one of the most dramatic changes in Ireland since the social reactionaries got the 8th Amendment passed in 1983 is the Catholic Church’s loss of moral authority.  Once upon a time the bishops just had to shake their croziers and most people – certainly most politicians – fell into line.  However several decades of exposure of corruption and the most appalling child abuse, along with the virtual enslavement of thousands of young women, has largely undermined the Church’s ability to lay down the law to the rest of society.  Church attendance has dropped hugely and a country which used to export large numbers of priests and nuns now has to important clergy.

Having won battle after battle over decades, the Church finally found itself starting to lose important fights in the 1990s.  Homosexuality was legalised, divorce was passed in a referendum, and then it was made legal to disseminate information on abortion.

In 2015 it became clear just how much standing the bishops had lost when the electorate voted overwhelmingly – 62% to 38% – in favour of the right of same-sex couples to marry.  Even prominent Catholics announced their support for this right and a new organisation of clergy, composing about a third of the priests in the country, told people to vote however they wanted not how the bishops told them.

The new law and the right to choose

The taoiseach (prime minister) has said that legislation will be introduced by the end of the year, most likely allowing terminations up to 12 weeks with some allowance for later terminations.  This would be well short of legislating for abortion as a woman’s right to choose – a situation which can only be achieived on the basis of ‘as early as possible, as late as necessary’.  However it is a massive advance on the current situation where abortion is essentially banned altogether and where, several years ago, a woman died because doctors would not remove a foetus infected by sepsis (and which was dying) which was spreading to the mother.  That woman was Savita Halappanavar.  Her parents were among those calling for a Yes vote.

Speaking from their home in India, Savita’s parents thanked the people for voting Yes, said they were “very, very happy”, and that the struggle to end the ban on abortion had been very very hard.

The fight for women’s access to abortion services in Ireland has been a long and hard one, begun by small groups of left-wing women (and men) back in the 1970s.  One of these activists, Anne Conway of Socialist Democracy, declared on May 27: “Stunning Victory. We were vindicated, the Irish people are with us. We’ll win the Right to Choose.”

Indeed, support for the right to choose position has grown massively.  The official “Together for Yes” campaign discouraged on-the-ground activists, most of whom support a right to choose position, from mentioning this position or talking about women’s right to bodily autonomy, while canvassing for a Yes vote.  But this limiting of the message was designed to keep things within bounds that were acceptable to establishment politicians.  RTE polling showed that 62% of voters – and 84% of Yes voters – thought that the right to choose was the key issue.

Despite the self-limiting approach of part of the campaign leadership, one of the most impressive and important aspects of the referendum was the formation of Yes campaign groups right across the 26-County state.  New layers of young people entered political struggle for the first time; for others it was their next political experience after the 2015 marriage referendum.  Every part of the south of Ireland had vigorous, enthusiastic campaigning groups which were more than a match for the Church hierarchy, right-wing money (from wealthy social reactionaries in the United States as well as Ireland) and the persistent lying and dirty tricks of the No campaign.  Towards the end of the campaign, the No side even put out a booklet that was specifically designed to look like an official government publication with lies about what would happen in the event of a triumph for the Yes vote.

Not just the massive Yes vote among younger people, but their active involvement in the campaign, indicates that the Catholic Church hierarchy has well and truly lost this (and the previous) generation.  People want a better and a freer Ireland, young people especially.  The reactionary Catholic confessional state shaped originally by both Fine Gael (well, its ancestor Cumann na nGaedheal) and Fianna Fail is dead and in the grave.  As a Dublin friend of mine noted on Saturday, the people have concreted over de Valera and Archbishop McDaid’s Ireland.  (McDaid was a particularly reactionary Catholic figure who wielded immense power for decades, especially when Fianna Fail was in government, as it usually was.  De Valera was the most important political figure in Ireland from 1918 until his death in 1973.)


It is also now very, very clear that the south of Ireland is far more progressive in terms of laws than the north where there is still no gay marriage and there is no availability of abortion.  Despite pretending to be ‘British’, the northern protestant/loyalist elements have always been hostile to liberal legislation passed at Westminster being activated in “Northern Ireland”.  Apparently banning abortion and gay marriage is more important than their much-vaunted (although entirely artificial) Britishness.

Hopefully the changes in the south will have a real impact on more open-minded Protestants and others who have been loyalists up until now in the north, and they will start to see they have more in common with the mass of the people in the south than with their own current misleaders.

Hopefully, the energy from this campaign will continue both on the issue of women’s right to choose and around intensifying the struggle to prise the claws of the Catholic Church out of public health and public education altogether.  And to take up the range of pressing economic issues such as the massive need for public housing.

Among the wide range of forces that mobilised in the Yes campaign was the socialist-republican organisation Eirigi.  Below is the statement they released after the result:

“With all votes counted, and results tallied it is clear that the people have rejected the status quo, they have rejected the scaremongering and dirty tactics of the ‘NO’ campaign. But more importantly they have rejected the influence that the Church has in our everyday lives.

“Those who voted for the repeal of the backwards 8th Amendment are on the right side of history, they have corrected a very old wrong. Through the efforts of numerous political parties, charities, trade unions, activists and ordinary citizens; through the United platform of Together For Yes, we have won. We have won at the expense of those seeking to stifle the march of social progress.

“We in Éirígí are proud to have played our part in the campaign, and in ultimately repealing the 8th. The women and men in our organisation have worked tirelessly in pursuit in achieving today’s fantastic result.

“From Galway to Dublin, Athlone to Wexford our activists have helped canvass and leaflet tens of thousands of homes and individuals, we’ve hung up hundreds of posters, as well as playing a part in the conversation on achieving the repeal of the 8th.

“This campaign has galvanised the youth of this State, it has shown them that participation in a homogeneous, grassroots movement, encompassing a wide variety of different organisations can reap serious results.

“We hope the people who were active in this successful campaign will now refocus their energies towards other issues that affect every single one of us. We must now tackle these issues with the hard work, enthusiasm and optimism shown during this campaign. Issues such as housing, healthcare, natural resources, capitalism, imperialism and the unification of our island must now take precedence.

“The next few months will be crucial in securing what we, and many more like us have campaigned for so passionately over the last number of years, that is the right to ‘FREE, SAFE and LEGAL all-Ireland abortion services’’. And also access to free contraception and quality sex education.

“We have won a great victory, a victory sure to consign the toxic influence of the religious right-wing on this State’s citizens to the dustbin of history; as well as exposing the mutually beneficial relationship between Church and State for what it was and what it is.

“This victory is the last nail in the coffin of ‘Old Ireland’, and just the first step on the path to a secular, 32 County Socialist Republic. We in Éirígí will play our part in achieving this reality, we hope you will join us in achieving this reality too.”

Read the Redline interview with Cat Inglis of Eirigi on the referendum, here.


  1. One of the interesting post-referendum developments is the ructions in Fianna Fail. For folks not familiar with Irish politics, Fianna Fail was the dominant party in southern irish politics from 1932-2011 and was actually in power a majority of that time. Although when it was founded in the mid-1920s it was attacked by the Catholic hierarchy as ‘communistic’, its dominant figure for almost 50 years was the socially reactionary Catholic nationalist Eamon de Valera, who served many years as prime minister and many years subsequently as president. In power in the 1930s, de Valera quickly made peace with the Catholic hierarchy and opposed Catholic moral teaching through the state.

    In the 1980s, FF was closely aligned with the Catholic right in support of the 8th amendment and in preventing divorce being legislated for.

    In the referendum a majority of FF members of parliament and the senate opposed repeal of the 8th amendment, however the party leader, Micheal Martin, supported a Yes vote. Some Fianna Fail parliamentarians announced their intentions to try to frustrate the referendum outcome by adding restrictive amendments to new legislation which will make access to abortion available. Martin appears to have laid down the law that this is not acceptable and talked of imposing the whip on the issue. A decade or two ago this situation in Fianna Fail would have been unimaginable – the party would have thoroughly lined up with the Catholic Church.

    That Fianna Fail, under Martin, broke with the Church over gay marriage in 2015 – Fianna Fail called for a Yes vote for same-sex marriage rights – and that Martin supported the repeal of the 8th amendment and is now demanding that his caucus not attempt to frustrate the will of the people over abortion indicates how dramatic the shift is in public opinion. Not only have the Church lost the hearts and minds of the vast majority of young peeople, the Catholic hierarchy is now losing its political wing.

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