1983: The past is another country

Source: Irish Independent, 17th Dec., John Meagher

It’s been 34 years since the Eighth Amendment was introduced and, as its repeal becomes more likely than ever, the conservative Ireland of that time feels like another country

To her supporters, Alice Glenn was one of the most formidable politicians of her era, but to the liberal wing of Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael in the 1980s, she was a harbinger of doom.

Her most famous pronouncement during the acrimonious divorce referendum campaign of 1986 was to liken women who voted in favour of divorce to “a turkey voting for Christmas” and her opposition to abortion – in all its forms – was deep-seated and unshakable.

Her’s was a familiar face to television viewers over the bitter summer of 1983 when the pro-choice and pro-life proponents clashed – and the then Dublin Central TD was always up for the fight. On one memorable debate, she squared up to future president Mary Robinson, then a Labour senator.

Glenn – who died one day short of her 90th birthday six years ago today – would certainly have felt outraged by Wednesday’s overwhelming decision by the Oireachtas committee to vote in favour of removing the Eighth Amendment and to recommend that abortion be permitted for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy “without restriction”.

Her response would probably have been more quotable than that of David Quinn, the pro-life campaigner and founder of the conservative think tank, the Iona Institute, when he tweeted that December 13, 2017 would be remembered as “a deeply shameful day”.

It’s a date that marks the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end, for Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion laws – and one that comes in the wake of extensive Citizens’ Assembly meetings – and it may have felt like a pipe dream for those who campaigned against the Eighth 34 years ago.

The Ireland of 1983 was so different to today that it feels like another country. The Catholic Church seemed to be as powerful as it had been for most of the 20th century – the catalogue of clerical sex abuse that would taint its standing among the public would not be in the public domain until the early 1990s, and it had been just four years since the country had seemingly turned out en masse to welcome Pope John Paul II on his three-day tour of Ireland.

Divorce would not be legalised for a further 12 years and only then by the slenderest of margins in a referendum. The 5,000-odd spoiled votes could have made a difference.

Divorce was roundly defeated in 1986, and the 1995 referendum would be remembered for the emotion that ran high on both sides, not least in the ‘Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy’ billboards issued by the No Divorce Campaign.

Contraception was very difficult to come by in 1983 and the Family Planning Act, which was enacted two years later, would only cater for married couples. Condoms would not be widely on sale until the early 1990s, and many today still remember the kerfuffle that greeted the now defunct Virgin Megastore record shop when it started freely selling condoms.

Being gay in the Ireland of 1983 was a tough station for many. Homosexuality would not be decriminalised for a further 10 years – and even the most optimistic could hardly imagine that gay marriage would one day enjoy equality in Irish law.

The previous year, a young man, Declan Flynn, was beaten to death in Dublin’s Fairview Park. A well-known cruising spot at the time, he had been deliberately set upon by five young men, including a 14-year-old boy.

In March 1983, the case came before the court. Justice Sean Gannon gave the attackers suspended sentences for manslaughter and allowed them to walk free. “This,” he said, “could never be regarded as murder.” David Norris, then the country’s most high-profile gay rights activist warned that the ruling could “be interpreted as a licence to kill”.

It led to the start of the annual Pride march, which rose from a tiny procession of a 100 or so people to one of the country’s biggest festivals in 2017.

It’s hardly surprising that when the referendum was held that September that 62pc voted to introduce the Eighth Amendment to the constitution – to essentially ‘future-proof’ Ireland’s anti-abortion laws which date from 1861.

Unlike the abortion referenda in other countries at the time, Ireland’s was unusual in that it had its origins in the ‘No’ side. There had been concerns that due to the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and the activism of people like Nell McCafferty and Mary Robinson, that abortion would be legalised here.

Ailbhe Smyth was one of those who campaigned against the introduction of the Eighth Amendment. “The Ireland of the early 80s was an extremely difficult place in which to be a young women. It touches a raw nerve to look back at that time because we were disadvantaged in so many ways and not just about abortion.”

She felt Ireland’s conservatism weigh down on her. Her short marriage had ended and she felt looked down upon as a single woman when her child was subsequently born. “That was in 1977 and children outside of wedlock then were thought of as illegitimate,” she says. “It was a country where sex just wasn’t talked about. It was almost seen as something to be ashamed of.”

Looking back, Smyth believes it was remarkable that in such a restrictive era – long before the galvanising qualities of social media and when traditional media was deeply conservative – that 38pc of people voted against the referendum. “It showed that there were a lot of people who did not share the deep-rooted conservatism of the time. “Things have changed so much in the past three decades, but at the time, there was no doubt that church and state were hand in glove. I had been to UCD and even it was a bastion of conservatism,” she says.

“It felt that in many aspects of Irish life at the time, there were attempts to stamp on the head of the women’s movement – and that persisted for much of the 80s. It wasn’t really until the early 1990s that I felt comfortable enough to come out and, initially, that was just to other gay people.”

The fact that gay marriage would be endorsed by 62pc of the population in a future referendum would have been unthinkable in the Ireland of Alice Glenn, but her pro-life successors insist that the abortion referendum – likely to be held in May or June next year – may not yield the result that many anticipate.

“It is a great thing that the public will have the final say on the Eighth Amendment,” says Cora Sherlock of the Pro-Life Campaign, “because what the [Oireachtas] committee have done is they have shown a really frightening disregard for the rights of unborn children. I believe that everybody should be very concerned about the way they have ignored the humanity of an unborn child.

“[Due to] the imbalance on the committee, the public hasn’t had the chance to hear the reality of what abortion means in other countries and how it affects society. For example, in the UK where one in every five pregnancies now ends in abortion. So I am confident that once the public gets to hear that information that they will vote against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.”

But the opinion polls appear to tell a different story – and illustrate how different the Ireland of 2017 is compared to the year of the Eighth Amendment.

An Irish Times/Ipos MRBI poll in May found that 73pc of respondents agreed with abortion up to 12 weeks’ gestation and a Behaviour and Attitudes survey on behalf of the Sunday Times showed that 75pc of respondents believed that abortion should be permitted in cases of fatal foetal anomaly.