The Irish referendum, an exercise in deliberative democracy

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and others about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Ivana Bacik, an Irish Labour Party Senator and campaigner for abortion rights, in the aftermath of the historic May 2018 vote that repealed the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution. Passed in 1983, this constitutional amendment had recognised equal rights to life to an ‘unborn’ and a pregnant woman, banning abortion under any circumstances.

1. Were you surprised by the scale of the vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment? What do you think the result says about changing attitudes and opinions in Ireland?

The scale of the vote in favour of repeal reflected what we were hearing on the doors during our months of canvassing before the referendum. The growing public awareness of the immense harm and hardship caused by the eighth amendment became increasingly apparent to me over the campaign. That awareness explains the immensely significant referendum vote in support of reform on 25 May. It shows that as a society we recognise the need for our democratically elected legislators to introduce an appropriate legal framework for the regulation of lawful termination of pregnancy.

Over the years, public opinion had shifted towards supporting repeal of the constitutional ban and for legal abortion to take place in Ireland. This change was also influenced by a number of international law cases in which the Irish state was found to have breached women’s human rights by forcing them to carry pregnancies to term even in cases where they knew their babies would not be born alive.

Following the public disclosure of the death in a Galway Hospital of Savita Halappanavar in late 2012, the contentious Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill of 2013 finally legislated for the X Case, allowing for terminations in limited circumstances where a woman's life was at risk. The positive experience of the marriage equality referendum in 2015 showed that Irish people were capable of great compassion and showed how successful a civil society campaign for social change can be. Then, in April 2017, the Citizens' Assembly voted 64 per cent to recommend that the termination of pregnancy without restriction should be lawful. In late 2017, the Joint Oireachtas (the Irish Legislature) Committee on the Eighth Amendment found cross-political support for holding a referendum and legislating for terminations at up to 12 weeks. The mandate for change arising from these public and parliamentary processes showed a huge willingness to accept the reality of abortion in a modern Ireland.

Like so many Yes campaigners, I was overjoyed when I saw the Irish Times and RTÉ exit polls on the night of the vote. I was pleasantly surprised by the consistency of the Yes vote across Ireland. Commentators were quick to characterise the Yes vote as being young and urban, but the outcome showed that in fact, men and women, both urban and rural and of all age groups except from over 65s, voted for repeal. This resounding endorsement across all demographics gives great reassurance that the Irish people are ready for change. The Behaviour & Attitudes exit poll, commissioned by RTÉ, which surveyed 3,779 voters, found that the overriding influencing factor for voters was a woman's right to choose, at 62 per cent – 57 per cent for men and 66 per cent for women. This says a huge amount about the respect for women's health in Irish society. The same poll found that 24 per cent of those who voted Yes had changed their mind over the last five years, which would reflect the national experience of change during recent years.

2. Can you tell us more about the Citizens’ Assembly process by which the repeal proposal came about, and the strengths, weaknesses and lessons of the process?

The Citizens' Assembly is a body comprising a Chairperson and 99 citizens, randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate, established to consider some of the most important issues facing Ireland’s future. The Assembly deliberates on the topics outlined in the resolution approving its establishment, and any other matters that may be referred to it. Their conclusions on each topic form the basis of individual reports and recommendations that are submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives.

Since October 2016, the Assembly has met on a regular basis under the chairmanship of the Honourable Mary Laffoy. The Assembly is an exercise in deliberative democracy, as was the Constitutional Convention, held in 2013, which among other topics voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. The Assembly applies six key principles to its work: openness, fairness, equality of the voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality. The process has two main strengths: first, the random selection of participants, which ensures that they are representative of Irish society; and second, the use of expert witnesses, including from the legal and medical profession, which ensures that participants deliberate on the evidence before them. The process has shown how much citizens engage with the facts and are willing to learn. With a topic as sensitive as abortion, the public benefitted hugely, not just from the Citizens' Assembly, but from the subsequent process of deliberation at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

3. More broadly, what do you think are the opportunities and risks involved in direct approaches to democracy, given recent referendum results in other contexts? How can these risks be avoided?

The eighth amendment was introduced in 1983 by way of a referendum, due to effective pressure from so-called ‘pro-life’ campaigners. Therefore, the only way to remove the amendment from the Constitution was by way of another referendum. The successful campaign this year shows how important it is to have a considered campaign which really engages with citizens. Due to the importance of the Constitution, and the sovereignty of the people, Ireland has a long record of holding referendums and this has contributed to widespread public engagement and interest with the topics under debate. While the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 could make countries wary of holding referendums, the experience in Ireland shows how important it is to have an open and transparent process leading to such a vote, which gives voters the chance to engage fully with the implications of the vote. Perhaps if a similar deliberative democracy process had been undertaken in the UK, the result of the Brexit vote would have been different.

4. What were the key tactics employed by the Yes campaign, and what do you think was most responsible for its success?

The main message of the Yes side was that sometimes a private matter needs public support, and this really resonated with voters. A number of brave individuals and couples told their own stories of having to travel for terminations and this struck a chord as well. From the very start, the Yes campaign ensured to engage with undecided voters, those who were unsure of how to vote but recognised that some change was needed. For many years, opinion polls had indicated very high support for a right to abortion in limited circumstances, such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest, or a risk to the health of the woman. The message to these voters was that no change whatsoever was possible without repeal of the eighth amendment. The focus of the Yes campaign was very clear: that Irish women are having abortions in their thousands each year, either travelling to the UK for terminations, or taking unregulated abortion pills here in Ireland. A vote to repeal allows us to address this reality and treat women compassionately with the care they need at a time of crisis. The campaign also engaged with male voters successfully. Turnout was particularly high: 64.13 per cent. Among voters aged 18 to 24 years, the Yes vote was overwhelming, at 87.6 per cent, an indication of how successfully the Yes side engaged with young voters through social media platforms. Another key tactic of the Yes side was having many well-respected doctors, and particularly obstetricians, as spokespeople for the campaign. 

5. What needs to happen next to advance women’s rights in Ireland, and what role should Irish civil society play in this?

The next thing that needs to happen is to ensure that the proposed legislation to provide for the termination of pregnancy is enacted by the end of the year, and that free contraception is introduced with it. Aside from the area of reproductive rights, the next step in reforming our Constitution will be to amend Article 41.2, which places women in the home, so that instead we respect the role of carers, male or female. At the present time, older women are suffering a loss in their pensions due to lost earnings imposed on them by the marriage bar on employment, which only ended in 1973. Separately, many older vulnerable women who were incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries up until the early 1990s are only now receiving redress and justice; it is important that this group of women gain the respect they deserve. There are plenty of other reforms needed regarding migrant and traveller women, who suffer a double discrimination. The gender pay gap is another area that is currently being addressed, after I introduced a Private Members Bill to bring in mandatory reporting of the pay gap in companies. The National Women's Council, which played a pivotal role in the Together for Yes campaign, has a key role to play in advancing these reforms too.

Civic space in Ireland is rated as ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Senator Ivana Bacik through her website or Facebook page, or follow @ivanabacik on Twitter

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