Even before it was officially declared that the Irish had voted by a two-thirds majority to throw out a 35-year-old constitutional ban on abortion Saturday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was celebrating the “culmination of a quiet revolution that’s been taking place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years”. Indeed, Ireland, long a stronghold of Catholic conservatism, has been moving leftward on a range of issues for over a quarter century now.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1992; the following year, restrictions on the sale of contraceptives were lifted. Divorce became legal in 1996. In 1992 and 2002, the Irish said yes to abortion if there was risk of the mother committing suicide. In 2015, a gender identity law was passed and, in June 2017, Varadkar, biracial (he is half Indian) and openly gay, became Prime Minister.
Ireland, which threw off Britain’s yoke only in 1922, is still going through the churn that post-colonial societies typically experience as they seek to define their national identities. In the early decades of the Republic, the most influential institution was the Church, which established its own quasi-colonial hold over the state and the people through a conflation of Catholicism with Irish identity. Éamon de Valera, who served multiple terms as President and Taoiseach from 1921-73, was aligned closely with John Charles McQuaid who, as Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, intervened aggressively in matters of law and policymaking. On issues of specific concern to women, the Irish constitution — in the introduction of which de Valera played a prominent role — itself set a deeply conservative tone: it recognised the family as “a moral institution” and “fundamental unit of society”, and said that without the woman’s “life within the home… common good cannot be achieved”.
Contradictions between the worldview of the Church and the ideals of a modern society began to appear with the economic liberalisation of the 1960s, when women in large numbers began to join the workforce. Over the next couple of decades, equal pay was introduced, and Ireland’s traditional large families started to get smaller. An economic downturn in the 1980s triggered a wave of emigration, exposing communities to a range of social and sexual freedoms. The Eighth Amendment of 1983 — repealed by this weekend’s referendum — was in some ways the last stand of conservative opinion, which was to soon come under unprecedented attack as the sexual abuse scandal in the Church exploded.
In an interview to The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Varadkar mentioned the “demise of the Church” as a result of “various scandals…, particularly around child abuse”. People, Varadkar said, “were no longer willing to accept without question the teachings of the Church”. From the 1990s onward, multiple government inquiries had exposed the abuse of tens of thousands of children — a staggeringly large number in a country that in 2005 had a population of less than 4.2 million — by hundreds of Irish priests over decades. In an unprecedented papal letter in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged these “serious mistakes”, and said he was “truly sorry”.