The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution was passed in a public referendum forty years ago. As a result of that amendment, any form of abortion in the Irish Republic was henceforth considered to be unconstitutional. In March of 2018, Simon Harris, the minister for health, told Dáil Éireann of the government’s plan to repeal the Eighth. His speech marked the beginning of two rival campaigns that aimed to win the hearts and minds of Irish voters in what became the Thirty-Sixth Amendment referendum.
In the months that followed Harris’s speech, the repeal of the Eighth was debated vigorously on a range of television channels and radio stations and throughout social media. But forty years ago, when the Eighth Amendment was introduced, RTÉ provided the only television service that was available to the majority of Irish viewers; it was the only legal radio broadcaster in the Irish Republic; and social media did not exist. This meant that RTÉ’s coverage of the campaign to amend the Irish Constitution was of particular importance.
Back in 1983, I was working as a producer on Today Tonight, the TV station’s chief current affairs programme. Indeed, this was not only the flagship of current affairs programming on RTÉ, it was also a flagship for the entire station. On some occasions, editions of Today Tonight were broadcast five nights a week and these often rated as the most watched programmes on RTÉ – even knocking Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show off its customary top spot.
One morning in late 1982, I was called into the office of the Today Tonight series editor, Joe Mulholland. Joe was a very demanding editor, but he was also a very astute and intuitive one with a robust sense of humour. His commitment to the programme was total and he expected as much from everyone else in the department. On this occasion, I was told that Joe wanted me to work on RTÉ’s current affairs coverage of the referendum campaign. I was delighted to be given such an important assignment so early in my career, but also a little apprehensive. I realised that any programme about this amendment would be subject to close scrutiny for any signs of bias. For that reason, I could not help but feel that I was about to enter a political minefield.
Although I knew some Irish women who had travelled to England for abortions, I must confess that I had seldom given the issue much thought until then. I suppose it involved a choice that I assumed I would never have to make. It did not take long for me to realise the extent of my presumption and my ignorance. Just a few days after my meeting with Joe, I was sitting in a crowded parish hall in Athlone where the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) was presenting a slide show. The show consisted mainly of graphic photos of foetuses that had been terminated in the late stages of pregnancy. They made abortion clinics look like slaughterhouses.
I remember one horrifying picture of bloodied and dismembered foetuses that had been dumped in a plastic refuse bin. I had never seen such images before, and I was shocked and disturbed by what I saw. I was also concerned by the number of children that had been allowed to attend this event. The local parish priest – an elderly man ‑ was present, but he remained silent throughout the proceedings.
After the slide show was over, there were speeches and questions from the floor. Some of those who spoke were vitriolic in the abuse they heaped on Mary Robinson, who was then a senator for Trinity College. She had been associated with several attempts to legalise contraception in Ireland and was now involved in the Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC), which had been established in 1982 in order to oppose the Eighth. In the eyes of some of those present, that seemed enough to make her Evil Incarnate.
I remember one passionate speaker from the floor who described Irish women seeking abortions as the sort of people that had ‘gold taps in their bathrooms’. These were women, she claimed, who only wanted abortions so that the ‘winter holidays’ they spent on ‘the Canary Islands’ would not be disrupted. I thought this was a strange claim: conjuring up exotic imagery to imply that taking holidays in winter – and abroad – indicated some sort of underlying moral depravity. But her remarks also struck me as revealing ‑ since they seemed to disclose a degree of social or class resentment that had very little to do with unborn children. As the months passed, I felt that the influence of social class was an unacknowledged but significant factor in deciding the outcome of this referendum.
The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) had been launched in 1981 and was composed of thirteen individual groups. They had been brought together at a meeting convened and chaired by John O’Reilly (sometimes also known as Eoghan O Raghallaigh). He was employed as an engineer by Dublin Corporation and had previously been associated with the Knights of Columbanus, a secretive all-male Catholic society that was believed to have some influential figures in its fraternal ranks – including some who held senior positions in RTÉ. The Knights had made a rare public appearance – dressed in their colourful ceremonial robes – when Pope John Paul II visited this country in 1979. The forceful condemnation of abortion that the pope made on that visit may have served to galvanise the Pro-Life movement in Ireland – and that may have helped, in turn, to trigger the amendment referendum.
O’Reilly was a very capable strategist and he had played a key role in ensuring that PLAC took advantage of the political instability of the early 1980s – with its succession of short-lived governments ‑ to secure an agreement from both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to hold a referendum on the issue of abortion. It seems that neither political party had needed much persuasion and they both agreed almost at once to the Pro-Lifers’ proposals. Most of the organisations that formed part of PLAC were small and fairly obscure groups – such as the Guild of Catholic Pharmacists, or the St Thomas More Society (which was based in the United States). However, what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in zeal.
It soon became clear that the Irish church hierarchy did not intend to play a prominent part in the campaign. Perhaps the bishops thought that any intervention could prove counterproductive, or, perhaps, they did not feel that their input was necessary when there were enough lay activists who were more than happy to rise to the challenge.
Some of those activists belonged to ultra-conservative Catholic groups – with impressive titles but very small memberships ‑ that were not formally part of PLAC. These affiliated groups included the Irish Family League, the Family Rights Group, the League of Decency and the Irish Housewives’ Union. They were, perhaps, best known to the general public for the letters they wrote regularly to Irish newspapers, lamenting the various ways in which the country had lost its moral compass and was set on a High Road to Hell.
John O’Reilly, like many similar activists, had multiple memberships of several of the interconnected groups that had come together to form PLAC. In his case, these included the Irish Responsible Society – the off-shoot of a British group ‑ and the Council of Social Concern (COSC). The latter had a history of campaigning against non-denominational education in Ireland and was composed of several small factions, such as Pro Fide, Parent Concern and the Christian Political Action Movement. I once filmed an interview with a leading member of the last-named group who was convinced that the design of the US dollar bill provided clear and irrefutable evidence of a world-wide conspiracy by Jews and freemasons.
By 1983, John O’Reilly already had a history of religious-cum-political activism. In 1974, he had instructed his two young daughters, who were then aged nine and ten, to write to the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) in Dublin asking for condoms and spermicides. It was assumed by the IFPA that these letters had come from adults, and the material they had requested and paid for was duly posted to them. O’Reilly then reported this to the Garda and succeeded in having criminal charges brought against the association. The legal action he had initiated was eventually dismissed – his daughters admitted they did not know the meaning of the letters they had signed ‑ but O’Reilly was still able to claim that the IFPA was engaged in the business of selling contraceptives to young children. In 1977, he had edited a collection of essays whose lurid title ‑ Contraception – the Baited Hook – gave some indication of its attitude towards so-called ‘artificial’ means of birth control.
At that time, the free sale and distribution of contraceptives was unlawful in the Irish Republic. Condoms were only legally available to couples who could produce a doctor’s prescription and birth control pills were not issued for the purpose of birth control but (supposedly) for ‘menstrual regulation’. When our first child was born a few years later, my wife and I were presented with several pamphlets about family planning as we left the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street in Dublin. These pamphlets only referred to ‘natural’ forms of contraception – such as the ‘rhythm method’ – and there was no mention of any ‘artificial’ means of birth control, such as condoms, the diaphragm or the contraceptive pill. Indeed, Dr Arthur Barry, a former Master of Holles Street who was active in the Pro-Life campaign, seemed to regard most contraceptives as abortifacients and had once described their use as a form of ‘butchery’.
Nonetheless, by 1983 the Irish laws that restricted the use of ‘artificial’ forms of birth control were infrequently enforced and were routinely ignored by many Irish couples – although, for obvious reasons, that was easier done in towns and cities than in rural Ireland. In 1983, abortion was already outlawed in Ireland ‑ through nineteenth-century British legislation ‑ but O’Reilly and PLAC believed that making it unconstitutional as well as unlawful would not only copper-fasten its illegality – by removing the issue from the vagaries of mundane party politics ‑ but would also ‘serve to halt the permissive tide in other areas’. The ‘other areas’ were identified by O’Reilly as those involving contraception, homosexuality, divorce and ‘illegitimacy’. (The last of these seemed a marked preoccupation of his.)
I met O’Reilly one afternoon in the RTÉ canteen to discuss our coverage of the Pro-Life campaign. He came with a couple of PLAC associates, and I was left in no doubt regarding the strength of their convictions or O’Reilly’s determination to win the approaching referendum. I also formed the impression that he was immediately suspicious of me and everything that he thought I represented. That was hardly surprising since he had previously railed against what he considered to be the “liberal media elite” and he clearly regarded me as part of that privileged establishment.
Towards the end of our meeting, I was told that PLAC intended to subject RTÉ’s coverage of their campaign to forensic analysis, and I was warned that they would make sure that my future career in RTÉ would suffer if I were seen (in their eyes) to be unfair to the Pro-Life movement. The name of a senior manager in RTÉ – who was reputed also to be a leading Knight of Columbanus ‑ was mentioned over the canteen table. Afterwards, the researcher who had accompanied me to the meeting suggested that we should make a formal complaint about this apparent threat, but I thought that would be ill-advised. It was, after all, my professional obligation to treat each side of the referendum debate with the same fairness that PLAC was demanding. Any complaint about PLAC’s behaviour might only ensure that no one in that group would speak to me for the remainder of the campaign, and I wanted to make programmes that were credible as well as fair.
In any case, pressure came from those involved on both sides of the amendment debate, and I can remember being confronted by a radical feminist at an Outside Broadcast (OB) from Cork. She was indignant that she had been seated in the audience and not on our panel and was convinced that this was evidence of gender bias on my part. In her own way, she reminded me of the PLAC members I had met in RTÉ’s canteen: like them, she appeared to have made facile and inaccurate assumptions about my background, opinions and objectives. As it happened, the panellists on that particular edition of Today Tonight had been nominated in advance by both PLAC and the AAC and had not been chosen by me. And, on the night of transmission, the TV debate was dominated by the OB audience. Indeed, some audience members later boasted that they had ‘seized control’ of the live broadcast through their frequent interventions. (Whether or not that worked to their advantage in the minds of our viewers is another matter.)
A few years previously, Garret FitzGerald, the leader of Fine Gael, had launched a ‘constitutional crusade’ in which he pledged to remove what he believed were the ‘sectarian’ features of the Irish constitution. The primary purpose of FitzGerald’s initiative was supposedly to make the prospect of joining the Irish Republic more appealing to Ulster’s Protestants. He had even told RTÉ that, if he were a Northern Protestant, he ‘could not see how (he) could be attracted to getting involved with a state that is itself sectarian’. (It does not seem to have occurred to FitzGerald that his use of the term ‘crusade’ might also have been viewed as offensive – or even ‘sectarian’ ‑ by some Irish Muslims.)
The commitment that FitzGerald had made to PLAC – which was included in Fine Gael’s 1982 election manifesto ‑ seemed to take the Republic in precisely the opposite direction to the one that he had promised in his ‘crusade’. That may explain why Barry Desmond, the Labour TD who was minister for health in FitzGerald’s coalition government, refused to introduce the amendment bill. Instead it was Michael Noonan, the Fine Gael minister for justice, who restored it to the Dáil’s order paper. It is true that FitzGerald’s government tried at a late stage to modify and mitigate the proposed phrasing of the Eighth Amendment, but this move was defeated when a number of Fine Gael TDs voted with Fianna Fáil to maintain the wording agreed by Charles J Haughey when he had been taoiseach the previous year.
Protestant churchmen and the Protestant community in general have tended to keep a low profile in the Irish Republic since the foundation of the state. In this case, however, the amendment to the Irish Constitution involved enshrining what was widely regarded as a specifically Roman Catholic view of abortion in a document that was supposed to be shared by all Irish citizens regardless of their religious affiliations. This led several leading figures from the mainstream Protestant churches – such as Victor Griffin, the dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral ‑ to express in public their objections to the proposed amendment.
Their voices seemed to be raised more in sorrow than anger, but they spoke out in stronger terms than we were accustomed to hearing from them. Indeed I can recall Joe Mulholland complaining that Protestants were being over-represented in our coverage of the Eighth. He cited one leading member of the AAC whom he thought had been featured too frequently. When it was pointed out to him that the woman in question was actually a Catholic, Joe’s ironic response was ‘Well, she looks like a Protestant!’
The Methodist church – one of the smaller reformed denominations in Ireland ‑ was especially forthright in its opposition to the Eighth, arguing that ‘one part of Ireland’ was being asked ‘to define itself as a closed society on conservative Roman Catholic lines’. Ironically, among the few Protestants that shared a similar Pro-Life perspective to the Catholic church were the biblical fundamentalists of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian church – but, then, they also believed that the pope was the Whore of Babylon.
I spent the beginning of 1983 travelling around Ireland with our reporter, Margaret O’Callaghan. We criss-crossed the country as we followed both the PLAC and AAC campaigns. Before long, the debate between them had become rancorous and bitter. Both sides seemed convinced of their own moral rectitude, and they were both prone to intolerance of any other viewpoint. Both sides also had strengths and weaknesses in the campaigns they ran. There appeared, for example, to be a shortage of media-savvy women in the Pro-Life ranks who could act as spokespeople. As a result, PLAC tended to overuse some of their female members. The principal one of these was Dr Julia Vaughan, who had been chairman (sic) of the Irish Catholic Doctors’ Guild and an Assistant Master (sic) of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street. She was also a former nun and was palpably sincere in her religious and moral beliefs. However, Dr Vaughan seemed most uncomfortable when addressing anything to do with sexual matters, and that led a few journalists to appear to bait her by asking explicit questions about human reproduction.
The AAC, on the other hand, tended to nominate a succession of bright young lawyers to appear on TV. Many of the reservations they expressed about the implications of the amendment were subsequently vindicated. But they often expressed those concerns in legalistic terms that did not seem to connect with the wider Irish public. Although the Eighth Amendment had legal consequences, it also involved ethical and emotional issues and for many Irish voters those were of greater importance than statutory law. Those representing the AAC often appeared to have come from the same affluent suburbs of ‘South County Dublin’ and to have recently graduated from the same university debating societies. In the following years, some of these young lawyers – such as Adrian Hardiman and John McMenamin – became leading figures in the Irish judiciary, but in 1983 they sometimes appeared to be preaching to the converted.
The Pro-Lifers seemed much better organised. They were well-funded from within Ireland ‑ where their chief fundraiser was Senator Des Hanafin, who had previously performed the same service for Fianna Fáil. They also received funds and practical advice from sympathisers in the USA. The Pro-Lifers were well-prepared to answer difficult questions; they drew support from a broad demographic base within Ireland; and they found it easier than the AAC to appeal to the emotions of the electorate. Even the terms ‘Pro’ and ‘Anti’, by which the two campaigns identified themselves, carried positive and negative connotations that worked to the advantage of the Pro-Lifers. They were also highly committed to their cause. Indeed, many of them were like John O’Reilly and saw the Eighth Amendment campaign as part of a larger project that could save Ireland from the introduction of divorce and the legalisation of homosexuality.
In 1983, many Irish people held conservative views on such issues, and I was not surprised when PLAC won a comprehensive victory in the referendum. Only five constituencies – out of forty-one – rejected the Eighth and they were all well-heeled urban suburbs on the east coast. This resounding defeat came as a profound shock to some supporters of the AAC. I remember attending a luncheon a few weeks after the referendum count and talking to one prominent female journalist. She spoke not only of her intense dismay but also of her bewilderment at the result. She claimed that she didn’t know a single person who had voted in favour of the Eighth: I was tempted to tell her that she really should get out more.
In the aftermath of their victory, some Pro-Lifers seemed convinced that they were on the verge of further breakthroughs. John O’Reilly believed that the referendum result offered the forces of radical conservatism, with which he was aligned, a golden opportunity to press home their advantage. At first, such confidence seemed to be justified. Soon after the Eighth had been passed, SPUC initiated legal proceedings against two pregnancy advisory services in Dublin. Two years later, SPUC won their case in Ireland’s Supreme Court and that ruling was later ratified by a European Court. In 1986, the forces of conservative Catholicism in Ireland won another real and symbolic victory when the Tenth Amendment referendum – which would have allowed for the introduction of divorce to Ireland ‑ was decisively defeated.
In comparison with the abortion referendum, there were some obvious differences in the way the debate about divorce was handled by RTÉ. In 1983, the Late Late Show – RTÉ’s premier entertainment programme ‑ had been deemed an ‘inappropriate’ forum by the RTÉ Authority for an open debate on abortion, and the station’s coverage was largely confined to its current affairs and news departments. But in the following year the Late Late was allowed to stage a substantial discussion about divorce ‑ with several priests and conservative Catholics on one side of the debate, and some of those who felt trapped in unhappy marriages on the other.
The same programme also included the final of Ireland’s National Song Contest, in which the Irish entry in that year’s Eurovision was to be decided. Periodically, Gay Byrne would interrupt the heated dispute about divorce to introduce one of the Song Contest’s finalists. ‘It’s time,’ he would say, ‘for another musical item.’ Once the song was over, he would pick up where he had left off: ‘You wanted to say something, Father Noonan.’ At the end of the show, the results of the National Song Contest’s vote were announced ‑ the winner was Linda Martin, with all-too appropriate lyrics about a broken romance – but the Irish public would have to wait a few more years to cast their votes on divorce. (And Linda Martin would have to wait even longer ‑ until 1992 ‑ before winning the Eurovision Contest.)
It was a measure of Gay’s skill and authority as a broadcaster that the radical juxtaposition of items and themes on that show did not strike more of its viewers as incongruous. The juxtaposition may even have suggested that discussion about divorce had entered the mainstream of life in Ireland, and we were approaching a time when Irish men and women would not need to go abroad to obtain the services they were denied at home. That impression seemed confirmed at the start of the Tenth referendum campaigns, when opinion polls gave a commanding lead to those in favour of legalising divorce.
What made the subsequent rejection of divorce in the Tenth Amendment referendum so remarkable is the way in which the opinions recorded in polls at the start of the campaigns were reversed in the actual vote. This time, the role that SPUC had played in 1983 was taken by another organisation: this one was called Family Solidarity. Although the name differed, Family Solidarity contained many of those who had been active in PLAC or SPUC or COSC, or in one of their affiliated groups. Once again John O’Reilly was at the centre of the campaign, and he helped to ensure that the Tenth Amendment campaign was run with the same degree of focus and discipline that he had brought to the Eighth.
Two years after the Tenth Amendment had been rejected, O’Reilly outlined the strategy that he proposed should be followed in future. He believed that the Knights of Columbanus would provide a ‘network of people’ that ‘could do wonders quietly without coming out openly as Knights’. In his view, ‘an organization or a group is never more powerful than when it influences events without itself being regarded as the initiator’. O’Reilly seemed to follow his own advice and seldom appeared in public: indeed, he was once dubbed the ‘Greta Garbo of the Pro-Life Movement’ because of the low profile that he maintained as he worked behind the scenes. However, I must acknowledge that O’Reilly agreed to be interviewed on camera by Margaret O’Callaghan for our coverage of the Eighth campaign – and, afterwards, he did not complain about how it had been edited.
He was later characterised in a book by Emily O’Reilly – a former colleague of mine in Today Tonight and, since 2013, the European Ombudsman (sic) – as a ‘Mastermind of the Right’. Her book (which was written in the early 1990s) still makes pertinent and insightful reading but perhaps she tends to overestimate John O’Reilly’s personal ability to determine future events in Ireland. Because, if the Pro-Lifers won the battle for the Eighth, then, in several respects, they have lost the subsequent war. John O’Reilly may have hoped that the Eighth Amendment was only the start of an ideological offensive that would gather further momentum. But, as it turned out, the Pro-Lifers were essentially fighting a rearguard action and, in the decades that followed the passing of the Eighth, some of the inherent flaws in that amendment were cruelly exposed.
In 1991, a fourteen-year-old girl – known only as ‘X’ ‑ was raped by an adult neighbour. She became pregnant and her family planned to take her to England for an abortion. They wanted to submit material evidence in the future prosecution of the rapist and asked the Garda if they could bring the remains of the aborted foetus back to Ireland. The Garda felt obliged to look for guidance from the Attorney General, and he sought and obtained an injunction to prevent ‘X’ from leaving this country. That ruling was reversed by Ireland’s Supreme Court and the rapist was subsequently prosecuted and convicted. (He was later found guilty of a further rape that took place after his release from prison.) In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, three referendums relating to abortion were held simultaneously in November of 1992. Two of these ‑ the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments ‑ were passed and this resulted in the constitutional ban on abortion losing some, but not all, of its original strictures.
Then, in 2012, a young woman called Savita Halappanavar died after her request for an abortion was turned down at a Galway hospital. Although she was having a miscarriage, the Eighth Amendment was considered to have made it illegal for any doctor to perform such a procedure if the foetal heart were still beating. Savita’s request was turned down and she died later of acute sepsis. Pro-Lifers have consistently denied that there is a valid causal link between her death and the refusal to terminate her pregnancy. However, Savita’s death led to a wave of public protests against the continuing effects of the Eighth Amendment. Neither Savita nor her husband were Catholics, and it seemed to many that her death was the result of the imposition of Catholic religious dogma on everyone in Ireland, whatever their beliefs.
All of this gave the Repealers in 2018 an emotional heft that the AAC had lacked in 1983. By 2018, the Pro-Lifers had also lost a good deal of their influence in and leverage over the main political parties. Indeed, if anything, the parties most closely associated with the Eighth Amendment – in particular, Fianna Fáil – were suffering in electoral terms for their past connection with the Pro-Life movement. But that did not mean that the Pro-Lifers had lost all of their political clout. For several years, they had published lists of those politicians who could be considered ‘sound’ on the abortion issue ‑ as well as those who could not. For self-evident reasons, this had alarmed those politicians who feared that public censure by the Pro-Life movement might even cost them their Dáil seats. That was the political context in which a new ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ was established.
The members of this assembly were not elected by the Irish public but were selected on what was apparently a random basis. The first task they had been given by the Dáil was to make recommendations about the future of the Eighth Amendment. The Pro-Lifers believed that the assembly was being used by politicians to evade their responsibilities and as a means of introducing constitutional change without having to take any real political risks. However, there was little they could do ‑ except present their own submissions. In the end, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended the repeal of the Eighth – just as the Pro-Lifers had anticipated. That proposal was accepted by the Dáil in principle and the date for a new constitutional referendum was set for May 2018.
Once the campaigns got under way, it soon became clear that the Repealers were much better organised in 2018 than the AAC had been thirty-five years previously. It could even be argued that the Repealers fought the 2018 campaign along somewhat similar – though opposing ‑ lines to those that the Pro-Lifers had followed in 1983. However, in the intervening decades, there had been major advances in communications technology, and the Repealers seemed able to make much more extensive and effective use of social media than their Pro-Life opponents. By then, John O’Reilly’s notion of conservative Catholics exerting hidden ‘influence’ through discreet phone calls made to and from the Knights of Columbanus had come to seem hopelessly archaic. At the same time, the role of social ‘influencers’ had assumed a new and very different character ‑ and not only in Ireland.
In 2018, the Pro-Lifers even seemed to have some difficulties in mobilising their grass-roots support for door-to-door canvassing – one of their principal strengths in 1983. By 2018, some of the groups in PLAC that I had encountered during the Eighth campaign – such as the Guild of Catholic Nurses and the Catholic Young Men’s Society – had also experienced dramatic falls in their memberships. Other groups that had been affiliated to PLAC – such as the League of Decency, Parent Concern and the Irish Family League – seemed to have disappeared entirely from public view.
In reality, the whole country had changed greatly with the passage of time. In 1990, Mary Robinson – the bête noire of many Pro-Lifers in 1983 – had been elected as Ireland’s first woman president. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993 and divorce was legalised in Ireland in 1996 by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. (Senator Des Hanafin took legal action in a last-ditch attempt to have the result of that public vote overturned, but he lost his case.) Then, in 2015, Ireland became the world’s first country to vote in favour of same-sex marriage through a public referendum. Against that background of significant social change, the Irish public voted by a thumping majority to repeal the Eighth in 2018. In the Thirty-Sixth Amendment referendum, just one constituency voted against repeal ‑ and that was only by a small margin.
Depending on one’s perspective, the thirty-five years that had passed since the Eighth Amendment was introduced had either saved thousands of unborn Irish children from extinction – or had compelled thousands of Irish women to seek abortions abroad or to give birth in Ireland against their own wishes or medical interests. From either viewpoint, the Eighth Amendment had marked a critical point in Ireland’s recent social history.
By 2018, the near monopoly of the airwaves that RTÉ had enjoyed thirty-five years previously had become a thing of the past. There were now scores of alternatives to the national broadcaster on television and radio ‑ and, of course, there were also many different forms of social media. By 2018, it had become hard for the younger generations of Irish men and women even to conceive of the dominant position in broadcasting that RTÉ had once held.
The German critic Walter Benjamin, imagined History as an angel that is blown into the future by the relentless storm of humanity’s wars, famines and plagues. Due to the ferocity of that storm, the angel cannot move its wings and is always driven backwards ‑ with its eyes and face turned to the past and its back to the future. Where human eyes can discern a chain connecting different historic events, the angel can only see a single unbroken catastrophe. This may be regarded as the bleakest of dystopian visions. But Benjamin’s thesis can support an alternative reading: one which accepts that History is not a sentient force: it cannot foresee the shape of things to come and does not possess either a benign or a malignant nature. There can certainly be long-term historical trends, but their progression is often uneven, chaotic and unpredictable. It also seems doubtful (to say the least) that History operates on anyone’s ‘side’ – whatever activists of all sorts might like to believe. In that context, there may have been unforeseen and enduring effects of the 1983 campaigns.
For much of that year, Ireland was convulsed by a furious debate, some of which focused on the most intimate details of sexual relations. For many Irish people, this had previously been forbidden and unexplored territory, but, throughout 1983, we were given a crash course in the mechanics of human reproduction.
That crash course in sex education was reinforced by the growing impact of AIDS throughout the 1980s. Although the first case in Ireland had been diagnosed in 1982, it was not until some years later that Irish governments began seriously to address the scale and nature of the epidemic. In 1987, a kind of threshold was crossed on RTÉ when Gay Byrne displayed a condom to the audience of the Late Late Show and ran a film item about its use. That film might once have led to a chorus of public outrage and a flood of complaints. But by 1987, when Gay asked his PA to ‘roll it there, Roisin’ while still holding the condom, the immediate response of the studio audience was only to laugh.
In the long run, the national debate that the Eighth Amendment campaigns generated may have helped to transform Ireland by making the country a good deal more open to the public discussion of sexual and gender issues. That might explain why close to 90 per cent of those in the 18-34 age group – all born after the Eighth was passed ‑ voted in favour of repealing that amendment. By 2018, the future that Pro-Life activists had feared in 1983 had become a reality – and, perhaps, the Pro-Lifers had even helped, in a dialectical sense, to create the sort of secular society in Ireland that they had wanted so much to prevent.
David Blake Knox’s last book, on the abduction and killing of the German businessman Thomas Niedermayer, is about to be reissued by New Island in a new edition. It will be accompanied by a major television documentary which has been made for RTÉ, the BBC, ARTE and Screen Ireland.