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Belfast Telegraph logo
18 December 2017

The issue of the border will pale in comparison to the fraught abortion debate in the Republic

Sinn Fein faces a split in its ranks over right to life versus right to choose, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

The Dail will see the Republic’s political leaders wrestle with the issue of abortion
The Dail will see the Republic’s political leaders wrestle with the issue of abortion

As if there wasn't enough to worry about with dire forebodings and angry divisions over Brexit, massive rows about abortion will be a major distraction on our island for the first few months of next year.

I should declare my position. 

I've been fretting about abortion for my whole adult life: I hate it but I know I'd be incapable of insisting, for instance, that a rape victim bear the rapist's child. 

I think a lot of Irish people feel similarly conflicted.

If you think a referendum in the Republic has no implications for Northern Ireland, then think about the farcical kerfuffle in Tyrone that is republicanism at its weirdest and is giving Sinn Fein a taste of things to come. 

But first the facts.

Almost certainly there will soon be a referendum in the Republic over a proposal to replace Article 40.33.3 - aka the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution.

It was passed in 1983 after a period when, for electoral reasons, the leaders of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour had been bounced by the pro-life lobby into agreeing to amend the constitution to prevent any danger of a judicial ruling allowing abortion.

In the middle of a rancorous debate there was little consideration given to the inherent contradictions in the agreed form of words and the problems it could pose for medics while providing fertile ground for lawyers.

In the words of that honest man, Charlie Flanagan of Fine Gael, it was a "real and enduring mistake".

This is what in a moment of absent-mindedness 67% of the voters agreed to: "The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." 

It might have seemed fine in theory as a reflection of a largely pro-life society, but its inherent ambiguities led to further amendments and an increasing clamour from pro-choice groups for liberalisation of abortion law to represent changes in public opinion.

In an increasingly open and secular society, exporting social problems to Britain is less tolerated, and there was much discussion of the thousands of women who go to Britain to seek abortions they are forbidden at home. 

A randomly-selected Citizens Assembly voted in June for the replacement of the eighth amendment by a provision allowing the Oireachtas (parliament) to legislate on abortion and recommended that terminations be allowed without restriction up to the 12th week of pregnancy, for various other reasons (including socio-economic) up to the 22nd, and in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, up to birth. 

An Oireachtas sub-committee did not go that far, but it has endorsed most of the assembly's recommendations, including the unrestricted period of 12 weeks. 

The battle lines have already been drawn, and every political party recognises it has a split membership on the issue.

Rural, older and religious types tend to have very different views to the young, urban and secular. 

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are dealing with this by allowing their TDs to have votes of conscience.

That is not Sinn Fein's way - it requires everyone to toe the party line. Embarrassingly, because it is bound by ard fheis policies, it finds that some Fianna Fail TDs have already shown themselves more liberal than the self-styled progressive Sinn Fein party.

It will be facing challenges from its left as well as its right.

Now to Tyrone, where the county president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), independent republican activist Gerry McGeough, who was elected to the job when he was not long out of jail for attempting in 1981 to murder Sammy Brush of the DUP, has demanded officers sign a "pro-life charter" against abortion. 

Although there are Sinn Fein supporters among the Tyrone AOH membership, Mr McGeough long ago split with what he calls "nouveau Sinn Fein" over its conversion to social liberalism. 

He will not have taken kindly to Gerry Adams's recent declaration that he was in favour of a woman's right to choose. 

The abortion wars are just beginning, and they'll be waged all over Ireland. 

Brexit could look like light relief.


Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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