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No New Ireland for women seeking to have an abortion

By Fionola Meredith

Published 29/05/2015

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

What a difference a day can make. Overnight Ire-land turned from a small, obscure country struggling to deal with its sin-haunted past, to a flaming global beacon of social enlightenment and equality. And all because gay people now have the right to say "I do".

Look, I'm happy that the Republic has embraced marriage equality so wholeheartedly. If I'd had a vote it would have been a definite yes. That's despite the highly illiberal approach, at times, of the supposedly liberal Yes campaign, and the hyper-emotionalism, and the sappy talk of voting for love, when it was really a battle for equal rights (I'm confident gay couples would have loved each other just as much had the vote gone the other way). Let's face it, though, the grim, hectoring joylessness of the No side, peddling paranoid claims that mothers would henceforth be an endangered species, was never going to swing it.

But I don't buy any of the wild assertions that Ireland is now a progressive paradise at the very forefront of worldwide social change. Both at home and abroad a great number of people have lost the run of themselves in the post-referendum hysteria.

"It's an incredible affirmation of a new Ireland," said Rory O'Neill, aka Miss Panti Bliss, Ireland's best-known drag queen and LGBT campaigner. Reaching back to 1916 for inspiration, the Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor said Ireland was now a kinder, fairer place. He greeted the result as "a victory for humane citizenship and societal empathy, an old idea in Ireland, stretching back to our founding revolution, the centenary of which is to be commemorated next year". Kathryn Reilly of Sinn Fein, Ireland's youngest senator, said that "it shows Ireland has become a very progressive and inclusive society… I think we are very much up there with the liberal progressive societies of the world".

Conor O'Clery, for CNN, said that "Ireland has today a strong sense that, at long last, it has consigned to history a dark past - a past which produced cruel institutions for unmarried mothers… which allowed a powerful Church to cover up clerical crimes, and which stigmatised those who yearned for the love that dared not speak its name". The Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper, said the result was seen as "a social revolution that has revealed 21st century Ireland as a model of inclusivity and tolerance". Remarkably, it even claimed that many Irish emigrants "for the first time view their new countries of residence as less liberal than their homeland. Many will now look forward to returning to live in a more open, tolerant Ireland".

To all of the above, I say one word. Abortion. It may be getting ready to ring out the gay wedding bells, but Ireland remains a country that seeks to force women to bear children they do not wish to carry, even in the case of rape or fatal foetal abnormality. This is monstrous. I don't know how anyone in their right mind could describe such a State as humane or empathetic or progressive or liberal.

"Are we going to say to our own people that they aren't equal?" asked Taoiseach Enda Kenny in advance of the marriage referendum. Yes, you are, Enda. You're saying it every day to the women with crisis pregnancies who have to flee the country to get help. For them Ireland's dark past is not consigned to history. They are living in it right now. Many thousands of Irish women have been forced to travel abroad for terminations since your government came to power four years ago.

In fairness, lots of people see the need for urgent change. Soon after the marriage equality result was announced social media was a-buzz with calls to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution, which bans abortion. But there's no government appetite for a referendum on a woman's right to exert control over her own body, because it's not a feel-good cause like marriage equality, where we all have a big jolly party at the end and everyone bursts into happy tears. It won't win the same headlines around the world praising Ireland for being a fair, compassionate and tolerant nation. So the dark past will continue to prevail, only now it's in an atmosphere of liberal self-congratulation.

Up here in the north we're used to being described as the last bastion of discrimination. Fair enough. The label fits. But are they really so much more enlightened in the south?

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