A Changing Ireland: Catalysts and Social Revolutions

A Changing Ireland: Catalysts and Social Revolutions

The Republic of Ireland is in the middle of a massive social upheaval that is projected to change the county in an unprecedented way. Ireland is historically and culturally steeped in the Catholic religion, yet the Irish people seem to be finding a more modern interpretation of their faith. In past years the Irish people have not only voted to legalize marriage equality by popular vote, but have also elected an openly gay Prime Minister and repealed their Eighth Amendment: a law defining most cases of abortion illegal. These changes are unprecedented and were thought to never occur in the highly religious country. Some are painting Ireland as the new liberal “darling” of the world. Indeed, it is a marker of the changing social sphere of Ireland that these changes are taking place. Such changes are occuring amidst and in reaction to various scandals within the Catholic Church and increasing economic globalization. To understand the phenomenon and potential future effects it is first important to understand the marker of change that have already taken place.


Repealing the Eighth Amendment

On May 25th, 2018 Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment, or Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, prohibited abortion - the only exception being in cases where the mother’s life was at risk. The amendment did not allow abortion in cases of rape or incest.  The consequence for women looking to bypass this law by purchasing abortion pills online was a 14-year jail sentence. Many women, instead, opted to travel abroad, an option legalized by the Irish legislature in 1992. This law has been described by some as “outsourcing abortion” and placed an economic barrier to entry on women seeking this option. The travel option worked for 168,703 women who traveled to England and Wales from 1980 (prior to the legalization of the travel decision) to 2016. In 2016 alone, 724 women traveled to England or Wales for abortions. This number only includes women who used an Irish address and does not include women who traveled to other nearby countries such as the Netherlands; the true number of Irish women traveling abroad for abortions is likely much higher than the number above. Furthermore, the number of women who bought abortion pills online is unknown. Given these numbers, it is surprising that abortion was not legalized earlier. However, what the numbers do not disclose is the stigma surrounding women seeking abortions. While more women have been speaking out about their experiences and needs in recent years, the public had not reached a consensus prior to the referendum. Ultimately, the vote went 66% in favor of repeal with a 64% voter turnout rate. Many were surprised by the vote as one fifth of voters were undecided in early polls. More surprising, however, is that abortion is now legal in a Catholic country. The vote’s passage is a marker of the radically changing social climate in Ireland. Should the vote have been a few years earlier, it might have resembled the 1983 referendum which struck down abortion rights by a large margin. This change calls in question a number of significant events that helped prepare Ireland for this change.

A number of high profile abortion cases affected the public perception of state-controlled abortion. Two cases in particular were used by the pro-choice movement to highlight the necessity of repeal. The X Case in 1992 was the legal case of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and became pregnant. The girl and her parents applied for her to travel to England to undergo an abortion. The case was appealed to the High Court by the then Attorney General, who intended to ban the child from traveling. Ultimately, the girl was allowed to travel, but not before the case sparked outrage on both sides. A second case symbolically used by the pro-choicers is that of Savita Halappanaver, a woman who asked to terminate her pregnancy when complications arose. The hospital she was a patient at refused to comply and Savita later died from a septic miscarriage.

A  mural  of Savita Halappanavar in Dublin.

A mural of Savita Halappanavar in Dublin.

These cases, amongst many others, rose to the forefront of the movement in recent years. The women affected, and those supporting them, connected with the increasingly supportive public. The movement gained in momentum in recent years, with more women speaking out publicly and through art. The movement also gained from support by newly elected Taoiseach Varadkar, a supporter of the repeal movement.


Taoiseach Varadkar

In 2017 Ireland elected its first openly gay Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.  Taoiseach Varadkar (as traditionally titled in the Irish language) is both Ireland’s and the world’s first gay world leader, marking an enormous change in global and Irish sociopolitical psyche.  Varadkar is widely recognized as the embodiment of the liberalization of the country. He openly supported the repealing of the Eighth Amendment long before the recent referendum. As a trained physician, he stated that the Irish should “trust and respect women to make the right choices and decision about their own healthcare.” Varadkar was formerly the health minister and  supported repealing the eighth amendment during his duration in the office. He spoke out on two cases in particular that changed his mind on the Eighth Amendment. One such case involved an asylum seeker who, when she traveled to England for an abortion, was denied access to the country. The woman had no other options and became suicidal; Varadkar recognized that in cases like this, the constitution was failing women.

Following the referendum vote, Varadkar celebrated by saying “what we have seen today really is a culmination of a quiet revolution that’s been taking place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years.” He continued by saying that “this has been a great exercise in democracy, and the people have spoken, and the people have said: We want a modern Constitution for a modern country.” Indeed, the Irish people have been proving time and time again that they want a more modern and progressive country. Changes began in the country in the 1990s, when divorce was legalized and homosexuality was decriminalized. On May 22nd 2015 Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular referendum. With global attention honed on Ireland, Varadkar was elected just two years later by Fine Gael (the majority party) to become the first openly gay world leader, and last month, just one year later, the Eighth Amendment was repealed. A number of factors contributed to this surprising timeline including the disillusionment amongst the Irish people with the Catholic Church.


Declining Religion

Ireland is a historically Catholic country, with the church considered a pillar of the nation. Some have related the Church's influence to that of England prior to Irish Independence. The Irish, however, attend mass in steeply declining numbers. In 1980, 85% of the population attended weekly mass. Today just 30% of the Irish population attend mass regularly. While 74% of voters in the referendum still identify as Catholic, 27% attend just a few times a year and 29% hardly ever go to mass. The Church, it seems, is no longer a cornerstone of Irish society.

A number of factors led to this decline, one being the number of church scandals uncovered in recent times. Across the world, religious and nonreligious individuals were shocked at the volume and nature of child abuse cases. Ireland, with its intimate connection to the church, was particularly taken back. In Ireland 90% of state funded primary schools are controlled by the church and in 2009 a study found that tens of thousands of children were abused in school. This number is especially alarming in comparison to the 4.5 million population. It is evident that Ireland has been quietly suffering at the hands of the church for many years.

In a more public offense, Bishop Eamonn Casey was found to have fathered an 18-year-old son with Annie Murphy. The Bishop was once a prominent member of the Catholic Church in Ireland and his betrayal of his faith, in addition payments made to the mother from his diocesan accounts, shocked to the country. Situations like this, alongside past instances of abuse and public shaming, helped the Irish public to move away from the Church’s doctrines in their own thinking and beliefs. Bishop O’Reilly stated that “[Ireland has] the reality that many are now cultural Catholics” and that there is a “new reality in Ireland where the Church is no longer the dominant voice in society.” It is true that Ireland today no longer follows the Church as it once did.

Professor McElroy of Trinity College Dublin described the effect of the repeal vote on the Roman Catholic hierarchy as the “final nail in the coffin.” This is evident both in the recent referendum and in political leanings which are increasingly liberal. Former Deputy Prime Minister and Professor Gilmore said that Ireland is changing due to the influence of “a more open and growing economy; the diminishing influence of the Catholic Church, partly as a result of the sex abuse scandals; [and] growing support for the Liberal Agenda” amongst other factors.


Ireland’s Future

Recent legislative changes reveal that Ireland’s social sphere is changing. The significant legal changes on a relatively short timeline are evidence of a meaningful social change. The Catholic Church’s influence is lessening both because of various scandals and decreasing popular participation. The Irish people are less focused on religion to find guidance and are increasingly interested in personal stories of those affected by laws written for an age that has long past. The repeal movement found great success in using the stories of women wronged by past laws to change the hearts and minds of the voters. Indeed, similar methods worked in legalizing same-sex marriage. Considering the remarkable social leaps that Ireland has taken, and the success rate of newfound methods of campaigning for change, it will be interesting to see what comes next for Ireland.

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