It is said all long-running campaigns reach a tipping-point when the aims are accepted by society’s mainstream. For the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, 2016 may have been that year.
Article 40.3.3, inserted as the Eighth Amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1983 , guarantees to protect the right to life of the mother and “as far as practicable” the “equal right to life” of the unborn.
Striking black-and-white sweaters with “Repeal” emblazoned across them, could be seen everywhere from late Spring – even on six TDs in the Dáil chamber in September. An upbeat “Repeal the Eighth” mural by graffiti artist Maser caused a Twitter storm in July.
A month later, the Sydney “Rose” Brianna Parkins momentarily stunned the Rose of Tralee audience in the Dome in Tralee with her on-stage call for repeal of the Eighth – a far cry from the home-spun, traditional Ireland of yore.
Among the most popular hashtags on Twitter were #repealthe8th, #knowyourrepealers and #lovethemboth. Abortion rights, even among those against them, were so trendy this year they were trending.
Some 33 years after it was born, momentum towards repealing the Eighth gathered such pace in 2016, it looks by year’s end to be unstoppable. However, if there is a momentum behind an acceptance that something must change, there is not agreement on what that change should be.
And there been strong voices against repeal. The fact that the only political party - with a prospect of being in Government - that promised an early referendum on the issue, the Labour Party, was all but obliterated in February’s general election should give pause to those believing abortion is top of the agenda for most voters.
From the earliest days of 2016, though, it was concerns for the wellbeing of distressed pregnant women were to the fore.
Incoming Master of the Rotunda Prof Fergal Malone said on January 4th that his patients with a diagnosis of a fatal fetal abnormality (FFA) were “troubled and traumatised” and he wanted the Rotunda to be able to provide “all available services” to them .
In April the President's wife Sabina Higgins said making woman with an FFA diagnosis carry their pregnancies was an "outrage", while in September the National Women's Council said it would campaign for repeal. In November the main trade unions added their voice.
The Government came under pressure from all angles. Cabinet collective responsibility was twice threatened as Independent Ministers sought a free vote on Opposition bills on abortion, in July and October. The cabinet split in July but a second split was averted in October when Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance agreed an amendment blocking a vote.
Several Government Ministers and TDs described the abortion regime as “unacceptable” and “frustrating” during the year.
There were rallies and marches for and against the Eighth, with thousands at a pro-life rally in Dublin in June and an estimated 20,000 at the fifth annual “March for Choice” in September – with solidarity “repeal” rallies across the world.
In January, May, June and November various United Nations bodies castigated Ireland’s continued “violation” of women’s human rights on the abortion issue, while in November the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, on a visit to Dublin said the amendment needed to be “dealt with”.
With thousands of new, young abortion rights activists joining the demand for a referendum to #repealthe8th throughout 2016, the Government’s solution to this most toxic of issues attracted criticism. A Citizens Assembly of 99 citizens coming together to discuss and make recommendations on the issue was branded a “delaying tactic” by many.
By the time of its first full-day meeting on November 26th it had nonetheless received more than 600 submissions. Under the chairmanship of Justice Mary Laffoy, it will meet four more sessions and make recommendations in March 2017. Any referendum is unlikely until 2018.
Polls through 2016 showed a majority in favour of repealing the Eight Amendment, though an IrishTimes/Ipsos MRBI poll in October showed 55 per cent did not want more liberal British-style laws.
The issue is clearly important to voters though many are nervous about what repeal may mean. Their hearts and minds are there for the winning, and losing.