Po­lit­i­cal paral­y­sis in Lon­don over its di­vorce terms may force us to deal with the last great rem­nant of post-colo­nial de­pen­dency – trav­el­ling for abor­tions

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fin­tan O’Toole

In­de­pen­dence means hav­ing your own state. But it is also a state of mind. There has been an in­de­pen­dent Ir­ish State for nearly a cen­tury, but whether Ire­land has ever been psy­cho­log­i­cally in­de­pen­dent is a whole other mat­ter. It is a ques­tion, as it hap­pens, that hov­ers over two of the big­gest is­sues cur­rently oc­cu­py­ing Ir­ish minds: Brexit and the abor­tion ref­er­en­dum. They may seem to be miles apart but un­der­ly­ing both is the ex­tent to which Ire­land is ready to be psy­cho­log­i­cally in­de­pen­dent from Bri­tain.

If we leave aside the ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions of par­ti­tion and Ir­ish unity, abor­tion is ar­guably the last great rem­nant of post-colo­nial de­pen­dency. Where once the fail­ure of Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence was sym­bol­ised by the em­i­grant cross­ing the Ir­ish Sea on a cat­tle boat to get a job, now it is sym­bol­ised by the Ir­ish woman cross­ing the Ir­ish Sea on a Ryanair flight to ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy. When it comes to abor­tion, both those who want it and those who pur­port to de­spise it thank God for Mother Eng­land. Women de­pend on Eng­land to up­hold their right to choose. Anti-abor­tion­ists de­pend on Eng­land to up­hold their vi­sion of a holy Catholic Ire­land where such abom­i­na­tions are not per­mit­ted.

This is, in­deed, the great irony of the Eighth Amend­ment. Those who pushed for it – and they were ar­guably the most suc­cess­ful pres­sure group in the his­tory of the State – wanted to draw a vivid moral line be­tween holy Ire­land and pa­gan Eng­land. Eng­land had fallen be­fore the forces of the per­mis­sive so­ci­ety and what they called (and still call in their own cir­cles) “the con­tra­cep­tive men­tal­ity”. But Ire­land would not merely re­sist th­ese forces. It would be­come a shin­ing bea­con of sanc­tity, an is­land of hope in a dark­en­ing and god­less world.

In a way, this ges­ture was not all that far from the men­tal­ity of Brexit – a proud is­land na­tion with­draw­ing from a cor­rupted Europe and restor­ing its na­tive pu­rity. It was not so much Irexit as Ire­sexit – an Ir­ish de­par­ture from Euro­pean sex­ual moder­nity. The Con­sti­tu­tion was to be re­shaped as a le­gal chastity belt, lock­ing Ire­land into a per­ma­nent state of anti-con­ti­nen­tal con­ti­nence.

Sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion

The irony is that since the Eighth Amend­ment in fact did noth­ing to stop the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion in Ire­land, it ac­tu­ally ended up ef­fec­tively pass­ing sovereignty over the re­pro­duc­tive rights of Ir­ish women to West­min­ster – to the very pa­gan par­lia­ment that holy Ire­land had been taught to fear and loathe. The Eighth Amend­ment proved – aptly enough – to be preg­nant with fur­ther amend­ments, among them of course the 13th Amend­ment of 1992, en­shrin­ing the right to travel to have an abor­tion. It did not ac­tu­ally say “travel to Eng­land” but that is pretty much what it meant in prac­tice.

It is a strange but telling fact that al­most 200,000 more Ir­ish peo­ple voted in 1992 to guar­an­tee a woman’s right to have an abor­tion in pa­gan Eng­land than voted against her right to have an abor­tion in holy Ire­land in 1983.

This “right to travel” is in ef­fect a con­sti­tu­tional state­ment of de­sired de­pen­dency. It is post-colo­nial with not all that much “post” about it. When it comes to abor­tion, Bri­tain is “the main­land”, Eng­land is the mother coun­try and we are all West Brits. We are out­right sub­jects, re­ceiv­ing laws for which we can­not vote. And this is our choice: Ire­land chooses not to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for its cit­i­zens who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing cri­sis preg­nan­cies.

The Ir­ish abor­tion regime has thus been de­pen­dent on some­thing we have taken for granted: the Com­mon Travel Area (CAT) be­tween the two is­lands. The con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of the CAT is very likely af­ter Brexit – but not cer­tain. The po­lit­i­cal paral­y­sis in Lon­don again raises the spec­tre of Bri­tain be­ing un­able to agree any deal at all with Brus­sels and in­stead stum­bling over the cliff with no para­chute.

In that an­ar­chic sit­u­a­tion, what would hap­pen to the CAT, an ar­range­ment that re­quires the active con­sent of the EU as well as Dublin and Lon­don? And if the CAT were to go, the smooth, silent, largely anony­mous exit strat­egy for Ir­ish abor­tion would sud­denly look a lot more prob­lem­atic. It is a “don’t ask/don’t tell” strat­egy, heav­ily de­pen­dent on the ease of de­par­ture and re­turn. Even if the worst-case sce­nario of mi­gra­tion bar­ri­ers be­tween the two is­lands is un­likely, just to con­tem­plate its pos­si­bil­ity it is to re­alise how much Ire­land’s abor­tion regime has de­pended on the in­dul­gence of our for­mer over­lords.

In this light, the co­in­ci­dence of the ref­er­en­dum on the Eighth this month with the grow­ing cri­sis in the lead-up to the Brexit sum­mit in June is apt. If the Eighth is re­moved from the Con­sti­tu­tion, it will be an im­por­tant mo­ment in the shift away from Ir­ish psy­cho­log­i­cal de­pen­dency on Eng­land. That shift has never been more im­por­tant. Brexit is go­ing to de­mand a pro­found re-imag­in­ing of Ire­land’s place in the world, a fi­nal reck­on­ing with the idea that that place is not merely as an is­land off Bri­tain. It is as a Euro­pean na­tion.

Get­ting over a colo­nial mind-set is a long process. You have to stop see­ing your­self as just the ob­verse of what­ever you imag­ine your op­pres­sor to be. In our case, that means hav­ing to get rid once and for all of the ridicu­lous di­chotomy of pa­gan Eng­land and holy Ire­land. Eng­land’s abor­tion clin­ics are not dark satanic mills and the Ire­land that sends women to them is not a bea­con of sa­cred light. Both car­i­ca­tures are child­ish fan­tasies un­fit for a grown-up na­tion.

Tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity

And you have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for your­self. Ire­land makes bad choices all the time but when we chose to be an in­de­pen­dent state we lost the right to com­fort our­selves by blam­ing them on the Brits. What we do is done by sinn féin – we our­selves. Our moth­ers and sis­ters, wives and girl­friends, friends and work­mates, our fe­male fel­low cit­i­zens, are sinn féin too and they don’t cease to be “our­selves” when they make choices about their preg­nan­cies. At the mo­ment, when they face those dilem­mas, we make them for­eign­ers. They stop be­ing Ir­ish cit­i­zens and be­come sub­jects of Her Bri­tan­nic Majesty.

An in­de­pen­dent coun­try can’t go on do­ing this for­ever. The habits of de­pen­dency have to be bro­ken some time. The English com­fort blan­ket is be­ing torn off by Brexit. The eva­sions and am­bi­gu­i­ties that al­lowed Ire­land a very de­pen­dent kind of in­de­pen­dence are no longer go­ing to be avail­able. Eng­land is choos­ing its own er­ratic path to­wards an un­know­able des­ti­na­tion. Ire­land is not go­ing to fol­low. But hav­ing no­body to fol­low is go­ing to be psy­cho­log­i­cally hard.

Yet it will be just that lit­tle bit eas­ier if we have shown our­selves ca­pa­ble of break­ing our de­pen­dency on Eng­land at some of the most dif­fi­cult, com­plex and in­ti­mate mo­ments of our lives. We can bury once and for all the lu­di­crous no­tion that we are lit­er­ally holier-than-thou. We can lay to rest the habit of waft­ing re­al­i­ties we do not wish to face across the Ir­ish Sea for the English to deal with. Th­ese two moves would send us out into the tur­bu­lent post-Brexit world a lit­tle surer of who we re­ally are and a lit­tle more con­fi­dent that we can make our own way.

‘‘ The eva­sions and am­bi­gu­i­ties that al­lowed Ire­land a very de­pen­dent kind of in­de­pen­dence are no longer go­ing to be avail­able

The ref­er­en­dum on May 25th will ask peo­ple their views on whether the Eighth Amend­ment should re­main in the Con­sti­tu­tion, or whether it should be re­moved to al­low for the “reg­u­la­tion of the ter­mi­na­tion of preg­nancy”.

At present, Ar­ti­cle 40.3.3. – in­tro­duced by the Eighth Amend­ment in 1983 – gives the un­born and the mother an equal right to life.

The Ref­er­en­dum Com­mis­sion has stressed this is the only de­ci­sion peo­ple will be asked to make. How­ever, much of the de­bate dur­ing the cam­paign has fo­cused on the leg­is­la­tion that may fol­low a re­peal vote.

If peo­ple vote Yes on May 25th, the law will re­main the Pro­tec­tion of Life dur­ing Preg­nancy Act, which al­lows for ter­mi­na­tions when a mother’s life is at risk, in­clud­ing from sui­cide. That will re­main the law un­til any new leg­is­la­tion is passed.

The Gov­ern­ment has pro­posed leg­is­la­tion al­low­ing for ac­cess to ter­mi­na­tions in cer­tain cir­cum­stances in the event of a vote to re­peal the Eighth Amend­ment. It has pro­duced a “gen­eral scheme” of a Bill. This is an out­line of a Bill, which would be­come the “Heads of a Bill”, which would be de­bated by the Dáil, Seanad and com­mit­tee. If passed, the leg­is­la­tion would be ac­com­pa­nied by Med­i­cal Coun­cil guide­lines.

The gen­eral scheme con­tains 22 head­ings – some of which are the sub­ject of pub­lic de­bate be­tween Yes and No sides over what they will mean in prac­tice. Be­low, we look at the con­tentious sec­tions and the claims and coun­ter­claims about each one.


Heathrow Air­port, Lon­don: the 13th ■ Amend­ment of 1992 did not specif­i­cally en­shrine the “right travel to Eng­land” but that is what it has come to mean in prac­tice.

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