Alban Maginness: The majority of referendums are about increasing human rights ... not denying them to the vulnerable
SDLP leader's support for a Yes vote puts him in a minority position inside his own party, says Alban Maginness
The result of the May 25 referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution was a defining event in the history of contemporary Ireland. The rejection of the eighth amendment represents the decisive ascendency of an aggressive secularism in Ireland and the rejection of the Christian ethos that has defined Irish culture for nearly 1,500 years.
It is a strange phenomenon that Ireland, at its most advanced economically and educationally, has decided to reject the rich, life-affirming values that historically made Ireland an "Isle of Saints and Scholars" - that is, a place of spirituality and intellectual exploration.
There was little spirituality or intellectual depth shown in consideration of the issues during the campaign for the repeal of the eighth. Despite extensive medical-scientific evidence that demonstrated the sentient nature of the baby in the womb at a very early stage, the physical life of the unborn child was either redefined as a cluster of cells, or as a neutrally defined entity entitled a "foetus".
Once any society begins to undermine the right to life of the unborn then the right to life for others starts to unravel, as has been already experienced in Western Europe. In post-Christian countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, there has been a rapid development of euthanasia, even for minors. Ireland will not remain immune to these so-called "progressive" measures for very long.
The result in the south is unprecedented in any democratic society, where almost two-thirds of the people voted to remove the human right to life of the unborn from the constitution. Most referendums are about expanding human rights, not about stripping away rights already established in law under a country's constitution.
It was also a victory for Leo Varadkar, who will now be tempted to call a general election and consolidate his victory in order to win a fresh mandate for another Fine Gael-led government - this time most likely with Sinn Fein, which also emerged as victor in the referendum.
Sinn Fein, now with a truly partitionist spirit, is chomping at the bit to win high office in the once-despised Leinster House. Despite protests to the contrary, Fine Gael will ultimately accept Sinn Fein as a partner in the Dail in order to provide stable and effective government in "the national interest".
Fianna Fail, the bulk of whose parliamentary members showed integrity and courageously campaigned to retain the eighth, unfortunately will be less successful. Their leader Micheal Martin will, however, have regarded the result as a vindication of his own stance to campaign against the eighth amendment, ludicrously claiming to be pro-life while at the same time advocating that there should be legislation for abortion. His Humpty Dumpty approach to words and their casual meaning is hard to take seriously.
The impact in the north will be profound and, as we have already seen, there has been a tsunami of propaganda to change our own life-affirming law that gives protection to the child in the womb.
The longer the Assembly remains non-functional the greater that pressure will be and the stronger the urge will be for the Westminster Government to legislate directly to extend the 1967 Act, or some variation of it. This would, of course, be against the spirit and letter of the devolution settlement.
Therefore the best protection for the unborn is the restoration of the Assembly, where the likelihood of a substantive change in the law would be more difficult.
The recent decision by the SDLP to reaffirm its long-established pro-life stance is to be welcomed, but to simultaneously grant a licence under the auspices of freedom of conscience to both elected representatives and party members to be pro-abortion "without impediment" creates a confused situation verging on the shambolic. Nonetheless, in the Assembly the bulk of the party would be opposed to any change in the current law.
However, the credibility of the SDLP as a pro-life party is strained by its leader Colum Eastwood putting himself into a minority position within his own party by gratuitously advocating support for the repeal of the eighth amendment in the south and a "fit-for-purpose" abortion law in the north.
He should know very well that hard cases make bad law and this argument has been widely used as a Trojan horse to permit the introduction of wider abortion legislation in other jurisdictions.
Holding such views and being the leader at the same time sits uneasily with the party's commitment to being pro-life.
As Lord David Alton said in Belfast: "It has never been a more dangerous time for the unborn child on the island of Ireland."
Sadly, after the trauma of the referendum, it is hard to disagree.