MY FIRST Clare Echo column began with the words “Where Clare leads, Ireland follows”.
Last Saturday, that mantra held true as the county’s voters pointed the way for Ireland with a resounding Yes vote. Where as many thought the proposal to repeal the 8th amendment would win, no-one saw the scale of that win coming. With a higher turnout than that in the Marriage Equality referendum three years ago, a 2-to-1 majority saw fit to overhaul our 35-year-old constitutional ban on abortion. Only two ballot boxes in all of Clare returned a No vote. The adage of Clare being a conservative county is truly dead and buried.
In all, 54,576 Clare people cast a ballot of the 83,225 eligible. This gives us a turnout of 65.58%, more than 5% higher than the last referendum. The 63.1% Yes vote in the Banner county was in line with 66.4% nationwide. It draws a close to a bitter campaign that saw some of the worst Trumpian style tactics brought to Ireland for the first time. Thankfully, the Irish electorate rose above such sly campaigning from certain No advocate groups that tried to muddy the waters and spread misinformation from the get-go. What was clear is the fact that the Yes side brought voices from across the political spectrum to their side, but it was largely a civic society campaign as opposed to a political one.
Of Clare’s 33 elected politicians, the overwhelming majority stayed silent about the referendum in public. Only a handful spoke out advocating either side in the debate, however, some of them, particularly from the County Council ranks were supporting a No vote. Those who openly supported a Yes vote included Timmy Dooley TD (FF), Dr. Michael Harty TD (IND) and Senator Martin Conway (FG). Each of these either made public calls for a Yes vote and/ or got up and active about securing one. They were found to be the three most in tune with their electorate on this issue and not afraid to stand on the side of liberalising our abortion laws when many would have told them they were committing political suicide. Fine Gael Minister Pat Breen had stated he would vote Yes with the Government position but that he did not fully support the underlying legislation. His party colleague, Joe Carey’s silence throughout the campaign was utterly deafening. This may have been a difficult issue for a lot of people to come to a personal decision over but in the end 54,576 Clare people did. They ought to know how their elected representatives in the national legislative branch of Government thinks about the issue too. There were activists from other parties as well who worked their socks of for a Yes including Labour’s Seamus Ryan and Sinn Féin’s Noleen Moran. Cllr. Mike McKee (SF) and Cllr. Johnny Flynn (FG) were also advocating a Yes vote online in the immediate run up to the referendum.
Most people will not be basing their votes in the next election solely on the outcome of this poll but, the timing of that election will decide what prominence the issue has on voting intentions. An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, have promised that legislation will be enacted by the end of the year. The Fianna Fáil leader, Michéal Martin has called for a special sitting of the Oireahctas over the summer to deal with the issue. It’s clear that the major parties want to get on with the process and get the legislation in place so that it doesn’t come up on the doors at election time. There remain significant questions though that need answering first. How will it be funded? Will the GPs administer the service as planned and will they need additional funding? How much will the contract between the State and the pharmaceutical companies for abortion pills be worth? How will the administration of the service work between public and private patients? These sound like scary questions to still have after the campaign is over, but the reality is, these were questions that were never going to be realistically asked until the 8th amendment was repealed. It’s up to the Oireachtas and the Government to answer them now.
During the campaign, many new voters joined the register and cast a ballot for the first time. Many people involved in Clare Together for Yes became politically active for the first time. I hope, for the sake of democracy, that these are habits that they keep up. With LGBT rights and abortion referenda now won, the question is posed, “what will the next referendum be”? Certainly, a tidy up of article 41.2.1, describing a woman’s natural place as ‘in the home’, is on the cards, as are many other supposed dead ringer referenda. There’s always the possibility that Brexit may throw up the need for a referendum depending on the content of any treaty with the UK. Then again, another potentially Brexit related referendum would be one on a United Ireland. There’ll be plenty of people saying that such thoughts are “too soon” and such a poll would be destined to fail. However, were these not the reasons we were left waiting so long on a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment? Stranger things have happened.