A STEP TOO FAR?
Ireland is set to vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment. It’s a measure of how far opinion has shifted on the issue that the relevant Parliamentary Committee has included among its fourteen recommendations a proposal that would permit abortion on demand below twelve weeks. The Cabinet is currently considering, and the Dail debating, the Committee’s report and recommendations. It has been a tortuous journey thus far , reflecting the highly emotive nature of the issues involved for what is still an overwhelmingly Christian country (78 % Catholic plus 5% other Christian). The Committee’s consideration of the issue followed from the deliberations and report last June of a Citizens Assembly which had examined the issue exhaustively.
There is still a distance to travel. First the referendum itself, with the options a simple yes or no on repeal, the more fraught path of replacing the existing article with a wording capable of satisfying enough voters and pressure groups to win, or a wording that would simply mandate the Oireachtas (in practice the Dail) to legislate as it saw fit . Assuming a vote for change, further heated debate can be expected in the Dail on any enabling legislation.
While the polls have shown a marked shift in public attitudes to abortion, the Taoiseach recently sounded a note of caution that the twelve weeks suggestion may prove “a step too far” for the majority of the public, adding that it was further than he himself would have anticipated a year or so ago. Fianna Fail as a party remain in favour of retaining the Eighth, though as I write leader Michael Martin has declared in favour of the twelve weeks proposal and emphasised that his party’s TDs will have a free vote on the issue. Whether the referendum will take place as early as May/June as initially signalled will depend on how the political debate goes, with the prospects in the autumn of a possible Presidential election campaign (failing an agreed candidate) and of a visit by the Pope further factors to reckon with.
The gloves are already coming off. Abortion is an issue which stirs strong emotions at either end of the spectrum, even though at this point in time there appears considerable public support for change, faced with the reality of a constant stream of Irish women ( several thousand annually) travelling to Britain to secure an abortion. It is an issue on which Varadkar must tread warily, given the minority position of his government and the precariousness of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail which keeps him in power. With recent opinion polls demonstrating a positive “bounce” for the Taoiseach and Fine Gael for the handling of the first stage of Brexit, there have been mutterings from Fianna Fail about pulling the plug if the current Fine Gael lead persists or increases. A setback in a referendum on such an emotive issue as abortion could prove seriously damaging to the Taoiseach’s prospects for re-election.
Another issue which may prove “a step too far” is the proposed referendum on voting rights for Non-Residents in Presidential elections which has been pencilled in for 2019. Currently Article 12.2.1 of the Constitution states “The President shall be elected by direct vote of the people.” 12.2.2 states “Every citizen who has the right to vote at an election for members of Dail Eireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President.”
The referendum proposal is the latest development in the official reaching out by the authorities here to the Irish Diaspora which has been a feature of policy in this century. A Task Force on Policy towards Emigrants reported in 2002, following which an Irish Abroad Unit was established in the Department of Foreign Affairs with me as its first Director.
The Unit now administers an Emigrant Support Programme which, since 2004 has assisted 530 organisations in 34 countries, spending over €158 million in the process. The Programme provides financial support to front line advisory services and community care organisations catering for Irish emigrants, focussing on the more vulnerable, marginalised and elderly. In addition the Programme has invested in a range of cultural, community and heritage projects among Irish communities overseas.
Official outreach has broadened and deepened in recent years with the nomination of a Minister for the Diaspora, the holding of two Global Irish Civic Forums and the acknowledgement of the Diaspora’s importance through the nomination of Chicago restaurateur Billy Lawless to Ireland’s Senate.
Relations with the Diaspora were given an additional impetus by the surge in emigration after the economic collapse of 2008 which has seen upwards of 250,000 Irish people forced to emigrate. This latest group, better educated and better qualified than earlier Irish emigrants, has maintained close contact with and interest in developments in Ireland through modern communications, the Internet and the social media. Many of these regard their emigration as temporary and have been agitating to have their interests taken into account by and within the Irish political process. A potent argument advanced is that many policies enacted in Ireland have a direct impact on temporary emigrants and their ability to return home in terms e.g. of social welfare entitlements and educational opportunities (and costs).
Lobby groups have pressed for the right of those abroad (there are estimates of one in six Irish born citizens residing outside the state) to vote in Irish elections, citing the practice in most European countries and other liberal democracies. There has been little public debate on the issue so far and that not necessarily very profound, with one (opposing) refrain citing the reverse of the 18th Century American Colonists’ slogan of “No Taxation without Representation” – i.e. if you want to vote, pay Irish taxes. The more considered reservation would be the concern that circumstances might occur in which an outside group not bound by any consequences could influence political decisions and policies within Ireland.
The Government has proceeded cautiously thus far. The Constitutional Convention in 2013 voted well over 70% in favour of permitting non-residents to vote in Presidential elections. An examination at official level of the issues and practicalities involved followed. These included whether all Irish citizens should be eligible or whether the franchise should be restricted to those born in Ireland or recently emigrated, as well as the logistics of where, when, and how non-residents would vote. An options paper in March 2017 is well worth studying. On 14 November Diaspora Minister Cannon told the Seanad that a referendum was envisaged for mid-2019, describing the initiative as a “very tangible expression of our commitment to ongoing engagement with the global Irish”.
A lively debate promises, though hardly on the scale of that on abortion. The Lobby wants more. Those in favour see it as a right of citizenship and one similar to that enjoyed by most expat citizens of liberal democratic states. Those against see it as the thin end of a wedge that could eventually end in non-residents voting in all Irish elections. There’s no talk of this at present but debates can often become side-tracked and issues distorted. And who can tell what result a referendum will produce.