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Protest and Punishment

Gérard Delechelle

Politique et répression

The Abortion Referendum: crisis and dissent in the Irish Republic

Micheal Cronin

Texte intégral


1The 1979 papal visit to Ireland was a triumph. In Dublin alone over a million people, a third of the Republic's population, attended an open-air mass in the Phoenix Park and masses elsewhere attracted exceptionally large crowds. Apart from the enthusiasm it generated, what characterised Pope John Paul II's visit was the moral and doctrinal conservatism of his homilies. Notably in Limerick, he condemned all forms of sexual behaviour that were contrary to the Church's teaching on the matter and he repeatedly denounced abortion as a modern evil.

  • 1 The Irish Times, April 13,1983.

2The success of the visit led to many calls for spiritual renewal in its wake.1 It also encouraged a motley of conservative forces in Ireland who longed for the reassertion of an increasingly eroded Catholic teaching on social matters, above all in the area of sexuality where permissiveness was seen as a major threat to an Irish Catholic ethos and the retention of the Church's influence in society. The focus of this conservative renewal was the issue of abortion.

  • 2 The Irish Times. May 12.1983.

3In the Republic of Ireland under the 1861 'Offences against the Persons Act' anyone procuring an abortion or helping someone to procure an abortion is liable to life imprisonment. The three main political parties, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour, are categorically opposed to abortion under any circumstances. Due to the proximity of England where an estimated 5.000 Irish women have abortions each year,2 Ireland has rarely experienced the horrors of backstreet abortions which were an important factor in the introduction of the 'Abortion Act' in Britain in 1967.

4Apart from the 'Woman's Right to Choose Group' founded in February 1960 and the Democratic Socialist Party (which advocates abortion if justified on medical grounds), both numerically small, there is no major political grouping calling for changes in the 1861 Act. Despite the total absence of any moves to introduce new legislation on abortion, the Irish Catholic Doctors Guild set up the Pro-life Amendment Campaign (hereafter referred to as PLAC) in April 1981. The aim of this campaign was to amend the Constitution in such a way as to protect the life of the unborn child, its exponents claiming that without this constitutional guarantee it would be possible for the Supreme Court to make a decision legalising abortion in Ireland.

  • 3 Cane J., & Gordon M., "The Great Abortion Referendum Saga", pp.19-23, Gralton. October/November 19 (...)
  • 4 Roche M., "The Secrets of Opus Dei".pp.16-36. Magill, May 1983.

5PLAC was a coalition of a number of groups. Its four principal components were a) the 'Irish Catholic Doctors Guild' (founded in the early seventies to stop the "decline in ethical values")3 b) the 'Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child', founded in 1980 by the British parent organisation, c) the "Council for Social Concern" end d) Responsible Society, two ultra-conservative Catholic pressure groups. These were later joined by the Irish Association of Lawyers for the Protection of the Unborn, important in lending credence and respectability to the campaign. PLAC was also to receive the support of two Catholic lay organisations, Opus Dei and the Knights of Columbanus,4 support that was crucial due to the widespread implantation of these two organisations in the Irish professional middle classes.

  • 5 Ibid.
  • 6 The Irish Times. April 13 1983.

6The choice of abortion as a theme when there was no likelihood that it would be legalised was significant. A campaign against divorce, homosexuality, contraception for the unmarried, all illegal in the Republic of Ireland, was far less likely to succeed than one which used abortion and the threat of same as its central theme5 Thus, while wishing to combat the growing liberalism of Irish society, PLAC indirectly acknowledged its advances. The grouping sought to reverse a liberal trend in Irish society which in their view was fatal to traditionalist Catholicism, a trend which had been the result of the popularisation of the ideas of the Second Vatican Council through the media and a desire to lessen religious divisions in the light of their murderous consequences in Northern Ireland, ecumenical overtures leading to the removal from the Constitution in 1972 of the article according a special position to the Catholic Church.6 Already in 1975 the Irish Hierarchy had published a four part pastoral letter entitled 'Human Life is Sacred' which condemned abortion, sterilisation, euthanasia and artificial methods of birth control. Thus PLAC's initiative occurred in the more general context of the concern of the Irish Catholic Hierarchy vis-à-vis the increasing liberalisation of Irish society and the consequent decline in the Hierarchy's influence. The move to amend the Constitution was to have important consequences for the Irish political system. The purpose of this article is to concentrate on two major areas where the amendment made its most significant impact a) the internal politics of Fine Gael and b) the Irish Left.


  • 7 Browne V., "How the Whiz-Kids sold us a Taoiseach". pp.4-16 in Magill, December 1982.
  • 8 The Irish Times. September 27.1982.

7In the November 1982 election Fine Gael won 70 seats as compared to Fianna Fail's 75. Its share of first Preference votes jumped from 1977 to 39.1% in 1982,7 in October 1982 an MRBI poll showed that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were level in terms of voters' preferences for the first time since the latter was founded.8 The improvement in the electoral position of Fine Gael was dramatic but hardly surprising. In late 1982 the majority of the members of Fine Gael were new and over half had been recruited in the past two years.

8This influx of new members had in part resulted from the extensive reorganisation of the party by its General Secretary from 1977 to 1981, Peter Prendergast, and the changes in the party constitution at the 1978 Ard-Fheis masterminded by Jim Dooge. Membership cards were introduced, P.R.O.'s and constituency organisers were appointed to each constituency, lay members were given control of the National. Executive and thus could overrule decisions by the parliamentary party, party officers were democratically elected and had to be re-elected every year. Women and young people were two groups whose support the party actively sought and this resulted in the election of three prominent Women's Rights' activists in the June 1981 electioni: Nuala Fennel, Gemma Hussey and Monica Barnes on the party ticket and the promotion of Young Fine Gael which holds its own separate conferences and elects a representative to the party's National Executive.

9The reorganisation and rejuvenation had one important implication: it brought pressure on the party to liberalize, pressure which met with strong resistance from the conservative wing of the party, represented notably by Oliver J. Flanagan, Tom O'Donnell and Alice Glenn. They favoured loyalty to the tradition of social and political conservatism which had been embodied by the previous party leader Liam Cosgrave, Prime Minister in the 1973-1977 Coalition government. The election of Garret Fitzgerald as leader of the party after the party's defeat in the 1977 general election was seen as a victory for its progressive, liberal wings this wing was known as the 'Just Society Wing' after the title of a pamphlet published by Declan Costelloe in 1964 which called for greater social justice in Irish society. The strategy of attracting young people and women and the decision to weight representation according to population, thus strengthening the urban vote, were seen as moves by Fitzgerald to widen and strengthen the liberal base of the party.

  • 9 Ard Fneis: The Annual Party Conference.
  • 10 Browne V.. "Oliver Flanagan: The Bitterness Erupts", p.7. Magill. May 1983.

10It was the vulnerability of this base and the uncertainty and divisiveness of the liberalisation process in Fine Gael that the Pro-Amendment Campaign was to reveal. At the April 1981 Fine Gael Ard-Fheis9 the vice-President of Fine Gael, Maria Stack, said that she was in favour of abortion under certain circumstances.10 Her remarks provoked a controversy and soon afterwards Fitzgerald met a group of Pro-Life campaigners and pledged his party's support for the constitutional amendment. Before the February 1982 election, Fitzgerald again reiterated his support for the Amendment and in October of that year, after long debate, the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis rejected a motion committing the party to opposition to the Amendment, a month before the second general election in 1982.

  • 11 The Irish Times, February 21.1983.
  • 12 Ibid.

11However, at the Fine Gael Youth Conference in early 1983, Fitzgerald's constitutional amendment was massively rejected and a decision was made to launch a campaign opposing the amendment which would involve street canvassing and leafleting. Meanwhile the wording of the constitutional amendment, which had been approved by the Fianna Fail government during its term of office, was criticised as ambiguous and unsatisfactory by both the Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr. Eamonn Barnes.11 The text of this wording, which was the one eventually passed by the Dail and Senate, was as follows! "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect and so far as is practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right"!12

  • 13 The Irish Times. April 13,1983.

12Fitzgerald in April 1983 claimed that there were "fatal defects" in the F.F. wording and that to accept it would certainly have been politically easier and more expedient but "grossly irresponsible and morally unacceptable".13 His main objection was that the 1861 Act was variously interpreted in eases of ectopic pregnancy and cancer of the womb to save the lives of the women involved. The legal grounds for doing this were uncertain, however, and could be challenged in the courts. If the Fianna Fail wording was passed and approved at a referendum, parliament could no longer intervene to save the lives of women in these cases by amending the 1861 Act. Fitzgerald later declared his own personal opposition to the Amendment but by that stage his reputation as a liberal leader had been considerably weakened. His indecisiveness and contradictory stances demonstrated both the strength of the conservative forces in the party and the fragility of a liberalism which, while constituting the main attraction of the party for the new younger members, remains somewhat incoherent and lacks the assurance necessary to actively transform the organisation into a party more Social-Democratic than Christian-Democratic in outlook.

  • 14 The Irish Times. April 4, 1983.
  • 15 The Irish Times. April 11,1983.

13Another crucial area of Fine Gael policy which was a victim of the amendment campaign was Garret Fitzgerald's 'Constitutional Crusade'. The aim of this crusade was to change those articles in the Irish Constitution which were deemed to be repugnant to the Unionist population of Northern Ireland, notably articles 2 and 3 where the Republic claims sovereignty over the six counties presently under British jurisdiction. More generally, the purpose of the project was to create a pluralist secular society which would not be beholden to the teachings and beliefs of one church, namely the Catholic Church. This it was felt would encourage Ulster Protestants to consider more favourably the notion of a united Ireland. However, Fitzgerald's backing for the PLAC initiative on three separate occasions soon discredited his 'Crusade' which, with its attempt to resolve the Northern question and to create a more liberal climate in the Republic, was central to party policy (though not all party members were as enthusiastic as Fitzgerald about the idea). The amendment was condemned by the Church of Ireland Primate Dr. Armstrong, who claimed that it involved the imposition of the moral theology of one church upon all the people and undermined Garret Fitzgerald's constitutional crusade.14 The Methodist Church, too, was swift to denounce the amendment as sectarian. Another important source of criticism was the influental New Ireland Group, a group of anti-partitionist Northern Protestants whose chairman, John Robb, is a senator in the Irish Senate. They condemned the amendment as an obstacle to reunification and as sectarian.15 Thus PLAC at once seemed to confirm the worst fears of Northern Protestants about the confessional nature of the Southern state and made largely redundant Fine Gael's tentative moves towards secularism and pluralism.

  • 16 Ibid
  • 17 Ibid.

14Though the Irish Catholic Hierarchy was slow to react. when it did, it did so firmly. Both the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Dermot Ryan, and the Bishop of Kerry, Dr. Kevin McNamara, defended the amendment as non-sectarian, arguing that the right to life of the unborn child transcended all religious differences.16 In Dublin, a pastoral letter written by Dr. Dermot Ryan, called on people to vote for the PLAC amendment. The letter was read out at all masses and contrary to usual practice priests were given strict instructions not to comment on the letter's contents. In rural areas where the Parish Priest still has a great deal of prestige and influence» the Hierarchy's support for the PLAC amendment was crucial and this was reflected in voting patterns in the amendment. Church support considerably strengthened the conservative wing of Fine Gael17 and correspondingly weakened its liberal wing, with the exception of Young Fine Gael who Continued, despite Church cesure, to actively oppose the amendment.

15In April 1982 five Women's Right to Choose Group members wrote to various individuals and organisations inviting them to a meeting in a Dublin hotel, with the aim of launching a campaign against the amendment. The response to the meeting was enthusiastic and in June 1982 the Anti-Amendment Campaign was set up (hereafter referred to as the AAC).


16The Left was slow to react, partly because at first PLAC relied mainly on its middle-class members, drawn from the liberal professions, for its propaganda purposes, thus allowing the debate to seem remote and technical; in addition there was also a division in the Women's Movement between those who favoured opposing PLAC on a pro-abortion basis ('The Woman's Right to Choose' position) and those who felt that abortion was too extreme and divisive an issue in Ireland and that the amendment should be opposed on other grounds. This led to a split at the Woman's Right to Choose Group's conference in December 1981.

  • 18 "The Proinsias de Rossa Interview", p.13. Gralton October/November 1983.

17The Left responded in various ways to the AAC and the nature of this response in many instances pointed both to the general character of the Left and the particularities of the individual parties. What has often characterised the Left in Ireland is its economism and its tendency to relegate women's issues to a secondary position, issues are considered from various points of view but not from the way in which they specifically affect women. The situation is changing, however, with the setting up of a Women's Council in the Labour Party and women's groups in the Democratic Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Ireland. Oh the other hand, the attitude of the Workers' Party to the amendment was revealing. The party described the Pro-Amendment campaign as sectarian and divisive, as a threat from the New Right. Interestingly it did not treat the campaign as an attack on women's rights/to be rejected on feminist grounds. The party refused to join the AAC although individual members were active in it This refusal to join the AAC was justified by one of the party's parliamentary members, Proinsias de Rossa. In the following terms. "I think it is reasonable to run campaigns as the workers Party because We consider that we are seriously setting about to build a mass working-class party. We are looking to get people to join us on the basis of a clearly thought out political and economic position"18 His remarks are significant in so far as they show the extent to which the Workers Party seeks to displace the Labour Party as the, dominant party on the Irish Lefts the strategy being principally to sponsor campaigns and initiatives (e.g. the 'Jobs for All' campaign) which are identified with the workers party and with that party alone and hence recruiting, members and support in the process specifically for the party. This in part also explains why it was reluctant to form a coalition in 1982 with the other Left non-Labour Party T. D. s Jim, Kemmy and Tony Gregory. The centralist nature of the party organisation facilitates the task of separate identification on various issues, members not being allowed or encouraged, as in other Left parties, to pursue individual initiatives which would endanger party unity.

  • 19 Brennan P., "The Fall and Fall of Labour", p.15. Gralton. April/May 1982.
  • 20 Cane J., "The Numbers Game"Gralton April/May 1982,p.11.
  • 21 Peillon. M. Contemporary Irish society: An Introduction. p. 118, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1982.

18The Labour Party, somewhat characteristically, in contrast to the Workers Party, allowed their, members to decide which position they would adopt vis-à-vis the amendment. The Labour Women's Council affiliated itself to the AAC and its representative on the Administrative Council of the party, Jean Tansey, was a member of the AAC's Steering Committee. Throughout 1982 and 1983, various Labour Party T.D.'s declared their opposition to the amendment and these included four ministers, Dick Spring, Tanaiste and Minister, for the Environment (Spring is leader of the Labour Party). Barry. Desmond, Minister, for Health, Ruairi Quinn, Minister of State for the Environment and Frank Cluskey, Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism. (Cluskey, a former leader of the Labour Party, after initially welcoming the PLAC proposal came out against it soon after). Others, such as Frank Prendergast, supported the amendments. Again the Labour Party proved to be divided and vacillating on a move which it might conceivably have forcefully opposed with tighter party organisation and a more coherent and consistent approach to its alternative social project for Irish society. The Labour Party vote has dropped from 17% of the total vote in 1969 to 9% in 1982, in the same period its vote in Dublin, the country's largest urban centre, has dropped from 93,000 to 50,000.19 What is more alarming for the Labour Party is that in four constituencies, Cork East, Waterford, Dublin North West and Dublin West, Workers' Party candidates are polling higher than their Labour counterparts. These are all urban constituencies, vital sources of Labour Party support. In constituencies where the Labour Party and the Workers' Party have both run candidates, the Workers' Party's percentage share of the combined Labour Party-Workers' Party vote has risen from 24% in 1973 to 39% in 1982.20 Thus, for the first time in the party's history, Labour's dominant position is being threatened by another Left-Wing party, which explains why issues such as the amendment are crucial for the party. Seeming weakness or confusion on these issues further reduces the credibility of a party whose alliance with the conservative Fine, Gael has, in the eyes of some, seriously compromised its claim to being a genuinely socialist party.21 The tendency for the party's policies to be reactive more often than initiatory (though Spring's moves in favour of divorce legislation are an exception), as was the case, during the amendment debate,, further strengthens the impression that now the party is no longer capable of effecting radical change in society an impression which has-been translated into growing electoral support for the Workers' Party.


19The organisational structure, with its central steering committee and local activist groups, is one which closely, resembled that of the H-BLOCK support groups in 1981 and the Anti-Nuclear groups, in 1978-79 (opposed to the building of a nuclear power plant at Canrsore Point in County Wex-ford). This entailed a considerable amount of freedom of action, as there was little centralised control. This lack of control meant that various campaigns permitted individuals and groups,, from different political backgrounds to work together.

  • 22 Boucher D., "The Party's Over". pp. l4-16, Gralton, August/September 1982.
  • 23 "Youth Problems", p. 3. Strumpet, January 1981.
  • 24 "Is there Life after the Amendment?". pp. 16-18, Gralton. October/November. 1983.

20The structure is significant for three reasons. (1) It points to the (relative to other Western European countries) marginal position of the Irish Left, which needs structures and campaigns that will attract as many potential supporters' as possible. (2) It indicates the relative weakness of the party tradition in the Irish Left (this is changing to some extent of course with the Workers' Party), which has a tendency to favour single-issue campaigns where the danger of splits is less present than in political parties where structures are tighter and more centralised. The numerical weakness of the Left explains the fear of splits and division and the memory of the fate of certain political parties such as the Socialist Labour party, which were the victims of numerous internal divisions.22 (3) It demonstrates the disaffection felt by many young people with the traditional Left parties, a particularly striking example of this was the strength of the Youth Against Η-Block group with its predominantly Working class membership.23 However, the notion of a broad-based campaign has not always met with unanimous agreement on the Left24 It is felt that the distinctly socialist contribution to these campaigns is obscured in attempts to gain liberal, middle-class support and that the Left is being used to strengthen the credo of Irish middle-class liberalism which, in areas such as economic policy, is considered by certain sections of the Irish Left to be profoundly reactionary. The almost complete suppression of the Woman's Right to Choose position in the final two months of the campaign and the heavy reliance in AAC propaganda literature on the statements of legal, medical and theological experts father than on the reported experience of working-class women in general, was seen by critics of the broad-based campaign as symptomatic of its inherent weakness.


  • 25 The Irish Times, September 8,1983.
  • 26 Ιbid.

21On September 7th 1983, the eight amendment to the Irish Constitution was approved at a referendum by 841,233 votes for to 416,136 against. There are a number of consequences for women as a result of this amendment. It will now be possible to take legal action against a) women who use certain common forms of contraception such as I.U.O.'s, progesterone-only pills and certain newer types of ordinary pill; b) women who go to England to have abortions,· c) doctors who abort a foetus to save a woman's life; d) pregnancy counselling services which give advice on abortion facilities in England. Thus the amendment referendum constituted a serious setback for Women's Rights in the Irish Republic. On the other hand, however, one of the most interesting statistics was the number of abstentions: 1,101,282.25 It is reasonable to assume that many of those who abstained were more opposed than favourable to the PLAC amendment, as those who felt the amendment was necessary would presumably have voted to ensure it was approved. More importantly, almost one and a Half million Irish voters refused to do what the Irish Catholic Hierarchy told them to do, namely to go out and vote for the PLAC amendment. Thus, while the Church and the conservative lay organisations eventually got the amendment they sought, the victory was scarcely comforting. A large section of Irish society had effectively refused to accept Church directives on an issue of private morality. Another fact that was to emerge from the referendum voting statistics was the urban/rural divide; the most consistently high opposition to the amendment occurred in the large urban centres, while the opposite was the case in rural areas,26 Lack of AAC presence, the prestige of the clergy the conservatism of provincial newspapers were contributory factors to the rural vote which both indicated the tenacity of traditional beliefs and values in the Irish countryside and the serious lack of dialogue (often stemming from an absence of understanding or sympathy) between progressive groups in urban centres and rural organisations such as the powerful farming bodies.

22Politically, the constitutional referendum served to highlight the divisions within, Fine Gael, the major partner in the present ruling coalition in Ireland. Its attempts, to liberalise are fraught both with internal difficulties and with resistance from traditional forces in society. However, a closer analysis of the referendum results does show the existence of a liberal urban electorate whose sympathies Fine Gael will presumably attempt to exploit.

  • 27 Kerrigan G., A Grand Catholic Mother. p.25, Gralton. October/November. 1983.

23Somewhat ironically, the Irish Left benefits from single, issue campaigns such as the amendment, campaign. Firstly it allows it to form alliances in various broad-based campaigns with what it considers to be progressive sections of the middle class (even if this is at times problematic), thus widening the potential public for campaigns on other social issues such as divorce and contraception. Secondly, the political consensus Which previously existed on a number of matters particularly concerning private morality, is slowly, disappearing, as the amendment campaign demonstrated, and giving way to a political realignment which would favour albeit hesitantly, the move towards the secularisation and modernisation of Irish society and consequently it its argued, socialist politics. Thirdly, due to the hegemony of the two main conservative parties. Fianna Fail and Fine, Gael. which get 84,6% of the total vote in the Irish Republic. it is through campaigns such as the AAC that the Left has most political impact both in terms of publicity and of the tensions it creates in the main parties (particularly Fine Gael). Which may in the long run weaken them and favour the Left/Right polarisation characteristic of other European democracies. Perhaps all parties concerned in the abortion referendum may finally have sympathised with the wry remark of one political commentator when he said, with regard to the Left and the amendment, "All in all, one step forward, one step backward and a step sideways".27



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Mitchell Α., Labour in Irish Politics, Dublin. Irish University Press, 1978.

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1 The Irish Times, April 13,1983.

2 The Irish Times. May 12.1983.

3 Cane J., & Gordon M., "The Great Abortion Referendum Saga", pp.19-23, Gralton. October/November 1983.

4 Roche M., "The Secrets of Opus Dei".pp.16-36. Magill, May 1983.

5 Ibid.

6 The Irish Times. April 13 1983.

7 Browne V., "How the Whiz-Kids sold us a Taoiseach". pp.4-16 in Magill, December 1982.

8 The Irish Times. September 27.1982.

9 Ard Fneis: The Annual Party Conference.

10 Browne V.. "Oliver Flanagan: The Bitterness Erupts", p.7. Magill. May 1983.

11 The Irish Times, February 21.1983.

12 Ibid.

13 The Irish Times. April 13,1983.

14 The Irish Times. April 4, 1983.

15 The Irish Times. April 11,1983.

16 Ibid

17 Ibid.

18 "The Proinsias de Rossa Interview", p.13. Gralton October/November 1983.

19 Brennan P., "The Fall and Fall of Labour", p.15. Gralton. April/May 1982.

20 Cane J., "The Numbers Game"Gralton April/May 1982,p.11.

21 Peillon. M. Contemporary Irish society: An Introduction. p. 118, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1982.

22 Boucher D., "The Party's Over". pp. l4-16, Gralton, August/September 1982.

23 "Youth Problems", p. 3. Strumpet, January 1981.

24 "Is there Life after the Amendment?". pp. 16-18, Gralton. October/November. 1983.

25 The Irish Times, September 8,1983.

26 Ιbid.

27 Kerrigan G., A Grand Catholic Mother. p.25, Gralton. October/November. 1983.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1984

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