Ireland is voting in a historic referendum today. Thousands are mobilising to repeal the 8th Amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann. The illegality of abortion is enshrined in the Irish constitution, but this vote could remove that.
Such an occasion would have been almost inconceivable only ten years ago. Although the country is still far from secular, with the Catholic Church’s influence and ownership permeating some of Ireland’s most important institutions, over the last decade Ireland has been undergoing seismic cultural shifts, and is shaking off the image of illiberal conservatism.
Ireland is undergoing a process of liberalisation faster than any in Europe right now. Look at the marriage referendum in 2015. Ireland was a country in which gay marriage was not only illegal but where gayness itself was something of a taboo, only talked about in hushed tones in corners of Dublin pubs. Just three years ago gay marriage was voted in on an emphatic majority of 62.1%.
Then Leo Varadkar became Ireland’s Taoiseach in June 2017. Ireland stands out as perhaps the only Western white country with a young, non-white and openly gay leader. Considering gay marriage was only legalised in 2015, and only really talked about for less than 10 years before this, his assumption of office embodies the speed of change.
Why has it happened? The democratisation of air travel with companies such as Ireland’s Ryanair has led to a massive increase in young Irish people travelling the world. Twenty years ago only 12 million journeys began with a flight out of Dublin airport. Now it is nearly 30 million. They travel cheaply and access far flung parts of the globe, bringing back with them previously foreign ideals. These have now taken centre stage as the well travelled young grow up and dominate national life.
The influx of the world’s largest tech companies, thanks to tax advantages, has had the effect of globalising a small island too. With Facebook and Google choosing Ireland as the place for their European Headquarters, our largest companies are no longer the likes of Guinness.
The abandonment of the country’s previous introspection and replacement with an outward looking global narrative has re-invigorated the economy in a way that only makes sense with reference to the changing social topography.
The Church is in decline. Weekly mass attendance in Ireland was put at just below 20% in 2011, compared to nearly 60% in 1998. In November 2016 the Association of Catholic Priests revealed that since 1995 the number of active Catholic priests had dropped by 43%. A nation is shaking off religious shackles in favour of previous alien ideologies of openness and social tolerance.
All of this amounts to an Irish cultural revolution.
When divorce was legalised in Ireland in 1995 by no more than 10,000 votes, none of this seemed possible. The divorce bill was a step in the liberal direction, but it was hardly a resounding acceptance of modernity. Now, the almost unprecedented abortion referendum might just pass.
However, abortion is different to the rest of the liberal agenda that has swept the nation. It has been a recurring contentious issue for the country, not unlike the role of the European Union in Britain. The constitution has been amended multiple times, with the infamous X Case, where in 1992 the supreme court ruled in favour of a girl seeking an abortion due to risk of suicide, and Savita Halappanavar who died in 2012 due to a septic miscarriage after being denied an abortion.
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It’s a difficult, visceral conversation, and the issue is sometimes too personal. Every time abortion has been addressed on a national scale it’s centred around these personal, emotive cases.
Abortion is part of this trend of rapid liberalisation in Ireland, but it is difficult subject. Every country has its crosses to bear, and abortion for Ireland does not fit so neatly into a chronicle of progress. This may be a watershed moment for Irish society, but abortion will continue to divide a country that was very recently illiberal and introspective.