The Null Device
Yesterday, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on repealing its near-total ban on abortion. The referendum had been many years in planning: other similar referenda had failed in the past, and most infamously, one in 1983 had enshrined, in the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, the rights of a fertilised embryo as being equal to its mother. There was, of course, a lot of discontentment with such an illiberal state of affairs, but the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanava, a 31-year-old woman who died in agony after being denied an abortion even when her pregnancy was no longer viable, was probably what gave this push its momentum. A referendum was announced, and the campaigns started in earnest. Ireland does not allow absentee voting (otherwise its huge diaspora might sway domestic affairs from abroad), so Irish citizens from as far as Australia and Argentina made their ways back to vote. Religious-Right groups in the US sent shiny-faced volunteers with 100-watt smiles to push the No vote. Google and Facebook clamped down on Cambridge Analytica-style targeted ads, with varying reports of effectiveness.
In the run-up to the vote, all the signs pointed to a victory for the Yes campaign, to end the abortion ban. Though, as the vote loomed, the polls tightened, with some suggesting a narrow victory for Yes, with a large number of undecided voters holding sway. There was talk of large numbers of “shy Nos”, people who believed the abortion of fertilised embryos to be murder but not wishing to state this out loud and be seen as reactionary barbarians. Some said that a surprise No triumph would be Ireland's equivalent of Brexit or Trump, a chance for a silent majority of conservative left-behinds to flip the table and savour the tears of the metropolitan-liberal-elites who, until then, had believed themselves to be presiding over inevitable progress. And, of course, the possibility of the vote being swayed by the reactionary international's dark arts: ghost funding making a mockery of electoral laws, psychographically targeted ads, supposedly autonomous campaigns coördinated with military precision. Would change come, or would it be deferred for another generation? And even if Yes scraped through a narrow victory, that would give conservative legislators the cover to nobble the resulting legislation to the point of ineffectuality.
It turned out one need not have worried: the Yes case has been carried by roughly a ⅔ majority. The first exit poll gave Yes 68% of the vote; the count, with 29 of 40 constituencies declared is within a narrow margin of this. No has conceded the referendum (though of course not the divinely-mandated principle behind their position), and it looks like the 8th amendment will be repealed and laws governing the provision of abortion services, along similar criteria to elsewhere in Europe, will be passed.
(Someone I know once jested, “I'm Irish. I can do anything—except have an abortion.” It looks like she will now have to retire that line.)
This is a major shift, or rather, a sign of a major shift that had been happening for some time now. Ireland having emphatically legalised same-sex marriage a few years ago was another sign of this. The Irish republic that arose after independence, when Catholic nationalists consolidated their power—a dour, authoritarian, priest-ridden backwater, a country that condemned its unmarried mothers to penal institutions, and in which the all-powerful church vetoed the formation of a British-style national health service because secular institutions alleviating the people's misery sounded like Communism—has not existed for some time, replaced by a modern, secular nation, and only now is the extent of the transformation becoming undeniably apparent. And if there were any shy voters, it was not the mythical Silent Majority of reactionary conservatives hankering for the certainties of the good old days, but those remembering all the suffering and misery imposed by laws that have stripped women of autonomy over their bodies, many only realising after the vote that they were in the majority, not just in the entirety of Ireland but even in their own, supposedly conservative, rural province. (And the disappearance of the expected strong rural No vote, counterbalancing liberal Dublin and Cork and pushing the result to a cliffhanger, is one of the stories of the day; while final results are not in yet, exit polls have No with a majority—and a slender one—in only one of the 40 constituencies.) One big take-away may be that the myth we have been conditioned to accept, of the silent majority of public opinion inevitably being viciously reactionary, is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.
The immediate consequences—Ireland's infamously restrictive abortion laws being brought into line with the liberal secular world—are fairly straightforward. What remains to be seen are the secondary effects. The most obvious one will be pressure on Northern Ireland's own draconian abortion laws. Northern Ireland, whilst a province of the UK, is run as a hard-line Protestant sectarian state, established out of fear of the hard-line Catholic sectarian state across the border. Now that that state visibly no longer exists, it will be harder to maintain it as a special case increasingly divergent from both the Republic and the rest of the UK. The evaporating power of Catholic sectarianism in the Republic may also make the formerly unthinkable—reunification—less so (especially when the alternative, reconciling Hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement, appears to be logically impossible). Whether the result carries beyond Ireland is another question: they're talking about legalising abortion in New South Wales now. And while a No victory would have emboldened anti-abortion activists in other countries, it's not clear whether Ireland having voted Yes will have much impact in, say, Poland or Hungary, where proudly illiberal Catholic hypernationalism is on the march.
Beyond reproductive rights, the result may be another milestone on a trading of places, culturally and economically, between Ireland and England. As Britain (though, in reality, largely England-minus-London), led by its xenophobic tabloids, voted to cut itself off from Europe, to expel foreigners and become less liberal, both individuals and businesses have been scoping out locations abroad. (You can't find office space for love or money in Frankfurt these days, and Berlin's gentrification has been accelerated by a flood of Brefugees with MacBooks.) Ireland has been cited by many as a more open alternative to the UK, though there has been a perception that it is both smaller and more parochial. The Irish electorate's recent decisions are likely to put paid to the second objection: the first may last a little longer, but if one remembers what low esteem, say, dining in Britain was held in a few decades ago, or the sleepy, bureaucracy-ridden nature of doing business there, it may not take long for Dublin to displace London altogether.