Ireland’s abortion victory: women’s lives, the liberal agenda and the radical left

Issue: 160

Marnie Holborow

Few in Ireland would have imagined, even a couple of years ago, that a vote to liberalise abortion would be so decisively won. The referendum on 25 May that repealed the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution which made abortion illegal, was a watershed event in southern Irish politics. The amendment forced women needing abortions to access them, in secret and unsupported, either across the Irish Sea or online, in a so-called “Irish solution to an Irish problem”. This hypocrisy could continue for over three decades because governments were too fearful of unravelling it.1

The Irish ruling class were quick to give their own explanation for the about-turn of the Yes vote. “Ireland is playing catch-up after decades of delay, in the way of the Western world” is how the conservative Irish Independent expressed it.2 The theme of gradual progress, reassuring perhaps for those seeking to ride out the change, jars strangely in today’s world of political uncertainty. It also tells us little about the nature of social upheaval or the role of political actors—both rulers and ruled—in it.

The passing of Repeal, far from being a social inevitability, was the result of a strong, political movement that demanded an end to the repression of women’s rights. The movement mobilised thousands and forced social change onto the agenda. This was not the repairing of some out-of-line Irish “backwardness”, even if the abortion laws in Ireland were particularly severe. The Yes vote chimed with a rising tide of movements across the world against the persistence of women’s oppression. The striking case was Donald Trump’s United States, where the women’s marches were very large, but it was no different in Italy, Spain, Poland and Argentina. These huge demonstrations, from which the Repeal activists drew inspiration, denounced violence against women, sexual harassment, rape and the taking away of abortion rights. They were ample evidence that neoliberal capitalism, whatever the claims of liberals from Hillary Clinton to Emmanuel Macron, holds no forward march to gender equality and that in many ways the many material and ideological blocks to women’s freedom are more firmly in place than ever.

The socialist politics of the radical left played a strong role in the Repeal campaign. Its influence will continue to be needed to secure further victories in the struggle for full social rights for women and to demonstrate the necessity for revolutionary system change to achieve them.


The referendum result blew away several myths. Despite the media’s claim that abortion was a fraught and divisive issue, the Yes side won with a strong majority, 66 percent to 35 percent, three percentage points more than the Yes vote in the same-sex marriage referendum whose victory had already exceeded ­expectations in 2015.

The Irish urban-rural divide, so often held up in the media as a political fact, crumbled. It is true that the Dublin area led the surge for Repeal, its eleven constituencies returning an average of 75 percent of votes in favour. But smaller towns also voted overwhelmingly Yes (65 percent) as did the more rural counties (60 percent). Donegal was the only exception, with a small majority (52 percent) voting No. On the other hand, Roscommon, which had been the only constituency to reject same-sex marriage in the 2015 referendum, this time voted Yes by a decisive 66 percent.3 Things had certainly changed. In the 1995 vote to legalise divorce, which narrowly won, the vote was starkly divided. In Dublin a comfortable majority were in favour, whereas the constituencies of Cork, Louth and Carlow-Killenny, for example, voted against; in 2018, all three of these returned over 60 percent in favour of Repeal.4

Received wisdom had it that social issues appealed mainly in the leafy suburbs, yet Dublin voted Yes almost equally across social classes. The highest Yes vote in the country was Dublin Bay South with 78 percent for Repeal—a constituency whose working class and middle class areas both returned very high Yes votes. Exit polls also confirmed that young people voted overwhelmingly Yes—87 percent of those aged between 18 and 24—but that Repeal was supported across most age groups.5

Furthermore, this was not only a “woman’s issue”: 70 percent of women voted in favour of Repeal, but so did 65 percent of men.6 This would indicate that the right to abortion was understood as a political question, about the sort of society people wanted. The electorate had been denied a say on abortion for 30 years and its overwhelming rejection of the status quo was also, implicitly, a denunciation of the political establishment’s cruel indifference to the denial of women’s rights.

At 65 percent, the turnout was the third-highest ever for a referendum in Ireland—four percentage points higher than the same-sex marriage referendum. There was an unprecedented surge of voter registration before the vote, and many of those registering were young people.7 Emigrants, forced away over the years of austerity, travelled home in their thousands to vote, from as far away as Latin America and Asia, and at considerable expense. One online crowdfunding platform said that the Irish Home to Vote campaign for the referendum was one of the biggest it had seen in Europe.8 A young woman who flew home from Germany captured the mood: “I’m flying home for not even 24 hours to vote for this… This is the most important referendum we may ever face. Of course, I was coming home”.9

The Yes vote showed that Irish people’s “natural conservatism” was an empty caricature spun by those in power. And not for the first time. Following the banking collapse the mainstream parties, including the Labour Party, never tired of repeating that the Irish were far less radical than the Greeks. The mass movement against water charges proved otherwise. So too, before the referendum, it was said the Irish were not ready for the liberalisation of abortion. Even when in 2017 the Citizens’ Assembly (a committee set up to look at possible reform of the abortion laws) recommended Repeal and for a much more liberal abortion regime than expected, it was to be a step too far for “middle Ireland”. The conservative naysayers were again proved wrong. Big social changes, despite the efforts of those in power to thwart them, can and do happen. This was a lesson learnt by large numbers of people involved in Ireland’s two different mass movements, against water charges and for Repeal.

Church and state

The Repeal victory can be explained, in part, by a rising anger against the crimes of the Catholic church.

The church overlapped with the Irish state in ways that can only be understood from history. The mass and armed struggles that threw out British colonial rule on one part of the island followed by a near revolution in the 1920s made the new Irish ruling class only too aware that radicalism lay close to the surface. The Catholic church, a symbol against oppression under British rule, carried popular sympathy. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both promoted the idea that Irish society was uniquely conservative and uniquely Catholic, in order to navigate their way through the period of economic deprivation and political instability that followed the civil war.10

Partnership with the Catholic church was a highly effective strategy for ruling class hegemony. The fusion of class interests and morality created an Irish variant of what Antonio Gramsci called an “ethical state”, one which would “raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level” but whose purpose was to meet the needs of the ruling class.11 In Ireland in the 1920s and the 1930s, this church-state union with its special mix of coercion and consent enacted a counter-revolution in all but name. It introduced censorship, clamped down on dance halls, imposed a Catholic selection regime for state jobs and banished, as an “undesirable alien”, socialist Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman ever deported from Ireland.12

Struggling with serious monetary constraints and government debt, the new state also drew on the material wealth and resources of the church. Catholic social service provision in Ireland exceeded anything provided by any other non-state organisation in the Western world in the 20th century.13 The state gave the church a free hand to run hospitals and schools which became hubs of religious enforcement and indoctrination. Church control of education reproduced and reinforced class divisions and, with the priority of safeguarding the faith, allowed little room for free creative or intellectual development.14 All attempts to increase state support in health or welfare were opposed by the church claiming it would undermine the family and women’s role as mothers.

The state also handed over to the religious orders the institutional care of children, thereby allowing, from the 1930s up to the 1980s, the sexual and physical abuse of thousands of boys and girls. In 1950, the church ran no less than 51 “industrial” schools in which, in one of the darkest chapters in Irish history, 6,000 children were held in virtual slavery.15 The Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports show the extent of abuse in the church-run, state-funded Magdalene Laundries, described by Amnesty International as torture.16 In the infamous Tuam mother and baby home, dead babies were dumped in a septic tank.17 The details of these cruelties were aired many times on national television as more people spoke out about their experiences of abuse. Only more shocking was the “indemnity deal”, signed between the state and the church in 2002, which let the church off extremely lightly.18 All this was uppermost in people’s minds during the referendum campaign, when the No side tried to say abortion was murder.

Protestant orphanages, both sides of the border, were also places of terrible physical and sexual abuse, a fact that was covered up by the Northern state but, as Niall Meehan has shown, also by the protestant-leaning supposedly liberal Irish Times newspaper in the South.19 The carnival of reaction both sides of the border triggered by partition, as foreseen earlier by James Connolly, is nowhere more evident than in this mass, hidden abuse of women and children in the religious-run institutions. It has come back to haunt both states today.

The Catholic church’s decline in Southern Ireland has been rapid. Even though 78 percent of the population of the Republic still officially identify as Catholic, mass attendance rates in Ireland have plummeted. One estimate in 2016 suggested a weekly attendance rate of 36 percent, compared with 78 percent in 1992.20 Weekly attendance levels in Dublin are at 20-22 percent of the population, and as low as 2-3 percent in some working class parishes, now “a religious rust belt of half-empty churches”.21 There are now about 80 men training to become priests at the national seminary of Maynooth, a drop of 60 percent since 1990.22 Despite the church’s decline, and to the outrage of many of those in the Repeal campaign, 92 percent of state-funded primary schools are still under its patronage. The religious orders also own several maternity hospitals where medical procedures that conflict with the teachings of the Catholic church are not carried out. At the hospital in Galway, in 2012, where an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, was left to die, her husband tells of how when they asked multiple times for a medical termination, the hospital told them, “this is a Catholic country”.23

This was the immediate backdrop to public debate about whether to keep the church’s teaching on abortion in the constitution. The referendum result, as Primate of all Ireland Eamon Martin put it, “hit us between the eyes” because the church remained blind to its demise.24 For example, the Bishop of Elphin, the day after the referendum, blithely called on Catholics who voted Yes in the abortion referendum to consider coming to confession, adding that those who did would be treated like any other penitent.25

The Pope’s visit to Ireland in August, after the referendum, was designed to rally the faithful, patch over the cracks around gays and abortion and diffuse the anger around child abuse. Instead, it exposed the scale of the crisis the church was facing. Lacklustre crowds, of less than a third of the number expected, turned out for his visit. Everywhere the Pope was met with anger over the church’s cover-up of child abuse. Thousands gathered at an alternative Stand for Truth event in Dublin; victims of abuse spoke out calling for action from the church. Shouts of disapproval could even be heard along the route of the Pope’s cavalcade. On the day of the visit, a People Before Profit meeting, in Dublin City Centre, on the separation of church and state attracted 200 people. This certainly was not 1979, when the Pope in “the most catholic country in the world” drew a crowd of over 2 million. Ironically, Ireland in 2018 became the place where, under the international spotlight, the crimes of the Catholic church were unrelentingly exposed.

Women’s working lives

Church rule has weakened not only because of the scandals but because people’s lives have changed. Urbanisation in Ireland has steadily risen. In 1966, farmers made up 31 percent of the working population; today they are 5 percent.26 Saggart, once a village in South County Dublin, has seen its population increase by almost half in just five years.27 The latest Central Statistics Office figures show that now almost two-thirds of the population live in urban areas, an increase of 5 percent between 2011 and 2016. Dublin continues to grow disproportionately with 44 percent of the urban population now living in Dublin. Towns within commuting distance of Dublin have also seen the biggest growth; both Drogheda and Swords have experienced urban growth rates of over 6 percent over the same period.28

However, it is women’s lives that have seen the biggest changes. In 1990, the Irish female labour force, as a percentage of the total labour force, was 34 percent; by 2017 it had risen to 45 percent, two percent less than the UK and one percent less than the US, both countries where the change had taken place several decades before.29 The numbers of women working in Ireland increased sharply over the Celtic Tiger period of the 1990s and 2000s, following a pattern in other countries which experienced a boom, such as Brazil for example, which matches Ireland’s recent increase.30

The female employment rate, as a percentage of the female population, fell slightly during the recession, but by 2016, according to the latest Irish census figures, it was back up to 60 percent.31 In Northern Ireland the female participation rate is higher at 66 percent, although this has fluctuated in recent times.32 In the UK the equivalent figure is 71 percent.33 The main reason for lower participation rates for southern Irish women is the lack of affordable childcare. Ireland has one of the highest childcare costs as a proportion of household income, across the OECD. Low paid workers can spend as much as 20 percent of their income on childcare for one child and those with other young children considerably more.34 For women aged between 30 and 39 and without college education, there is a lower workforce participation rate as they are the women most affected by expensive childcare costs.35 Even in spite of this serious obstacle, there has been a substantial cumulative overall increase in the numbers of Irish women working. For women aged between 25 and 34, 78 percent are in paid work.36

Women now outnumber men in higher education. In 2006, practically every woman in her 20s was either pursuing further education or in the labour force.37 Women now occupy higher-skilled jobs, transforming the workplaces of what was called (somewhat quaintly, it seems now) white collar work. Women’s employment in these jobs was less severely affected by the recession than men’s. Fewer women lost their jobs and fewer emigrated.38 But working women without college qualifications bear the full brunt of low pay: 29 percent of female workers are in low paid jobs, in comparison to 19 percent of male workers.39

Social being determines consciousness. How society is organised and what place you have in it tends towards holding certain views of the world. In the Ireland of the 1980s, when the Eighth Amendment was added to the constitution, although the marriage bar, which prevented women in the civil service working after they married, had been lifted a decade before, still 55 percent of women over the age of 15 were classed as “looking after home/family”.40 In this situation, Irish women were open to the conservatism pumped out from the Catholic church and local politicians.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai argued that women’s incorporation into paid labour is a material precondition for the liberation of women, even if their entry into the workforce is under conditions of the most extreme exploitation. While working, for many women, is a grueling routine, carried out on top of other work at home, the fact of going out to work and earning alters women’s perceptions of themselves—about pregnancy, about abortion, about contraception, about male violence and sexual harassment, about relationships, about control over their lives. This changed consciousness surfaced strongly in the Yes vote for same-sex marriage in 2015. That victory is often claimed to be the result of a slick PR campaign, but women’s changed social role also played a part. The younger generation, men and women, rallied to vote in large numbers, and many graduates working abroad returned home to vote. A growing student population which naturally identified with LGBT+ liberation and women’s rights swelled the Yes vote then. Polls before that referendum showed that women were the most supportive of same-sex marriage.41 By the time the abortion referendum of 2018 happened, a further tipping point had been reached as women found themselves locked in a system which denied Irish women the right to an abortion—a right upon which so many other freedoms depend.

Family and state

Women entering the labour force in large numbers highlights a contradiction that Marxist analysis puts at the heart of the persistence of women’s oppression in capitalism. On the one hand, capital’s constant need to extract more surplus value draws more women into the workforce. On the other, capital is dependent on the care provided in the family—work mainly done by women—for the reproduction and replenishment of labour power.

The Irish family constitutes a uniquely strong social bond, forged in reaction to the cruel depredations of colonisation, famine and emigration. Tom Inglis describes the Irish family as a social support network sustaining collective consciousness, and the family as a microcosm of society.42 Linda Connolly, basing her study on marriage, fertility rates and family types, presents the family as a social structure of gender relations, whose different forms depend on “traditional, modern or postmodern contexts”.43 Other accounts lay emphasis on the Irish family as a site of women’s identity formation in the interests of national state authority and patriarchal culture.44 Less common is analysis of the family in its relationship to capitalism. Yet the Irish family, despite its deep affective and cultural resonances, is a striking case. It provided an economic safety net for a society which had a very patchy social welfare system.45

The Irish state was surprisingly frank about the family’s function. Article 41.2.1 of the Irish constitution, drawn up in 1937, notes in particular, “the state recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. The constitution goes on to declare, in Article 41.2.2, that “the state shall therefore endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. Leaving aside sexist stereotyping, it is ironic that amid the Catholicism of Éamon de Valera’s constitution, such a material case for the family and women’s labouring role in it is so plainly made.46 This unlikely source highlights something that Marxists have always stressed: that domestic care in the family is not a parallel system separate from production but, through its function of replenishing and reproducing the present and next generation of workers, intricately tied to profit accumulation.47 Domestic care and consumption, as Marx put it, is “productive to the capitalist and to the state since it is the production of a force [ie labour power] which produces wealth for other people”.48

Applied to the Irish context, the growth of women working can be understood in terms not just of capital’s need for labour but also capital’s changing interests regarding social reproduction. When families were larger, as they were up to the 1990s in Ireland, it was more economical for the system to rely exclusively on women in the home to look after the needs of those who would be the potential labour force. However, once the number of children per home unit grows smaller, women are “freed” for exploitation through the labour market. From the point of view of capital, the old larger traditional family becomes wasteful as women with fewer children expend more labour in the home than is strictly necessary to reproduce labour power for the system. Hence, as Chris Harman pointed out, the long-term tendency in capitalism is for the number of women in paid labour to rise.49 Between 1996 and 2006, the average number of children per family in Ireland fell markedly, to 1.4 per family (where it stands now), coinciding with women entering the workforce in large numbers.50 This is a win-win situation for employers and the state, even as it creates new pressures for women. Women who work must pay for childcare out of their own earnings or, as is common in Ireland, arrange childminding through family relatives. Thus, the system arrives at both extracting further surplus value from more women working while at the same time carrying a fraction of the costs of childcare.

Movement from below

If women’s lives were being transformed and coming up against the legal and political status quo, why did it take so long for the abortion ban to be taken out of the constitution? The answer is that the political establishment had depended on its alliance with the church and so refused to challenge it. It suppressed political change for over three decades for fear of what it would unleash. However, pressure from women and young people and the coming together of a movement from below forced this political settlement to change and, in response, a section of the ruling class took the initiative to steer things in the direction it wanted.

The movement had been growing for some time. According to the RTE’s exit poll, 76 percent of the 3,000 people surveyed said they were always going to vote Yes and a further 8 percent said that Halappanavar’s death in 2012, at the hands of the Eighth Amendment, convinced them.51 The Abortion Rights Campaign, also founded in 2012, under the banner of free, safe and legal abortion, was mobilising larger numbers each year, culminating in tens of thousands marching in September 2017. A broad campaign, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, with over 80 affiliated groups, was established in 2014. International Women’s Day in Ireland was becoming a focus for abortion rights and it was copying direct action tactics from the Polish women’s strike movement: “Strike for Repeal” in March 2017 blocked Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge in the middle of a working day. The marches against Trump and a rising international #metoo movement also played a role. In April 2018, in Belfast and in Dublin and in other towns in Southern Ireland spontaneous #Ibelieveher rallies took place after two Northern Irish international rugby players had been acquitted of rape. A social media campaign which named and shamed the director of Dublin’s Gate Theatre for his decade-long sexual harassment of female actors, fed further into the movement. A new generation of young women, working women, students, young mothers, came to see themselves as a part of an international tide of resistance to sexism in all its forms.

The radical left played a significant role in shaping the politics of the Repeal movement. Independent Socialist Clare Daly in 2013 introduced a Bill in Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality; it fell because Fine Gael, most of Fianna Fáil and Labour opposed it, and Sinn Féin abstained. The Fine Gael government’s Protection for Life During Pregnancy Act, also in 2013, allowed for abortions when a woman is suicidal, but included a shameful maximum 14-year prison sentence for any other abortion. Again, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour and Sinn Féin had no objections. In 2017, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, the first elected public representative to declare publicly that she had had an abortion, introduced a bill to remove the prison sentence, but mainstream parties refused to support it. Two years earlier, the Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Ruth Coppinger’s bill to repeal the Eighth Amendment was also defeated, again with the Labour Party voting against.

Because of the presence of radical left TDs (Members of Parliament), the Repeal message was given a very public airing. Solidarity-People Before Profit along with independent socialist members of the Dáil became the spokespeople for the right to abortion, not only in so-called “hard cases” but as a political principle.52 The contrast with the Labour Party and Sinn Féin was stark. Labour, despite having pro-choicers in their ranks, until very recently judged Repeal of the Eighth Amendment to be politically “premature”. In 2015, Labour Leader Joan Burton declared it was not “a red line issue” for her party to become part of a coalition government.53 Sinn Féin had a restrictive position on abortion; it allowed for abortion only in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities or where the health of the mother was at risk. Thus, during the campaign, despite leader Mary Lou McDonald’s strong media presence for Yes at the end of the campaign, Sinn Féin found itself with a policy which advocated less than what the official draft legislation proposed (ie abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks). It has subsequently modified its abortion policy. However, it was one of Sinn Féin’s TDs, Peadar Tóibín, who spoke for the No campaign on the national television debate in the run up to the vote.

Although this was a campaign around voting, it was characterised by mass actions. Monster canvasses, meetings, rallies, stalls, banner-drops and mass leafleting, in a repeat of the street tactics of the recent water charges campaign, were the order of the day. On canvasses in some areas, more than a hundred local people would show up. The movement unleashed mass active involvement of people completely new to campaigning. Open activists’ meetings, extensive and creative use of social media and a plethora of WhatsApp message groups for people to arrange canvassing and fundraising and suggest ideas, allowed people to step forward quickly into organising roles. In the Dublin Bay North group, for example, a 17-year-old school student, coming up to exams (and who was not even old enough to vote) threw herself into public speaking and had no qualms about doing so in front of large crowds. Many young women came forward and told their stories of abortion, risking online intimidatory abuse from the No campaign. During the lead-in to referendum day, large groups of campaigners in hi-vis Repeal jackets lined traffic junctions, roundabouts and bridges with banners, flags and chanting. Political merchandise for the campaign—badges, T-shirts—went through the roof. A simple word—REPEAL—in white on a black background became the signature symbol of solidarity: it was worn in workplaces, on the street, in colleges, on public transport, on flights abroad and even in the Dáil.

It was interesting that despite hefty international support, the No side was unable to make a dent into the undecided voters. The more strident the No campaign became, the more lurid their “aborted babies” posters, the less impact they made. This set Ireland apart from Trump’s America or from the rise of the far-right in Europe, where anti-abortion has been used as a rallying point. The No side in Ireland adopted the same fake news methods, wheeling out US pro-life campaigners and hiring a UK-based political campaigning company, Kanto, fresh from UKIP’s Brexit campaign. But their goal to garner support under the theme of the underdog versus the liberal elite never materialised.54 In a welcome validation of the power of a genuine mass campaign and, in the absence of an organised far-right presence, their well-funded shock tactics proved no match for the swelling ranks of the committed activists of Repeal.

The overriding concern among the official leadership of the Repeal/Together for Yes campaign, encouraged by spin doctors from Fine Gael and Labour, was to keep the messaging “soft” (ie not talk about choice, only “compassion”) so as not to put off an imagined “middle ground”. Many abortion rights activists, over-cautiously, went along with this. However, on the doorstep it was clear that it was pro-choice arguments that convinced, partly because everyone knew someone who had had an abortion. On the ground, the campaign was not only pro-choice, but woman-led and left-leaning. A trade union group in the campaign raised issues affecting women workers, won support for Repeal from the main unions and produced literature showing how abortion was a workplace issue.55 Migrant workers, trans people, disability activists, trade union members, students spoke at rallies and public meetings.

Only a relatively small number of Labour and Sinn Féin members participated actively in the broad campaign, preferring to prioritise their own party canvassing teams. A new small, centre-left party, which split off from the Labour Party in 2015, the Social Democrats, was more active within the local groups and saw its support grow somewhat as a result. People Before Profit played a strong role in the local organising of the campaign in the Dublin Repeal/Together for Yes groups, in Cork, Mayo, Carlow-Kilkenny and in the North West. Since the referendum result, activists have kept networked to ensure that the abortion legislation is not watered down but also over a range of issues: to campaign for an end to church control of education and health, against women’s low pay and for the right to housing. Many of these activists provided the critical mass that rallied against the Pope’s visit.

The movement linked up with the struggle for abortion rights in the North. Significantly, for the first time in three decades a 32-county activism has emerged around reproductive rights for women. In Northern Ireland, abortion is also not available because politicians have refused to extend the British 1967 Abortion there and to legislate for abortion rights. Activists from Derry campaigned in Donegal and the week after the referendum buses from the South went to Belfast to support decriminalisation of abortion rights in the North. As Eamonn McCann put it in a recent article, the abortion question opens a space for socialist politics outside the Orange-Green norm. Not only do significant numbers of Democratic Unionist Party voters support choice, but identification with the Repeal campaign has shown the powerful effects of all-Ireland campaigning from below.56

Managing change

If you were to believe the mainstream media, however, you would think that two men, Leo Varadkar, “a very modern taoiseach” (as a new biography labels him) and the “confirmed feminist” health minister, Simon Harris, single-handedly delivered the Yes vote. In reality, both were late on the scene and only when they saw which way the wind was blowing.

Their change of tune was prompted by recent political set-backs for the Irish ruling order. Their ramming through of harsh austerity measures after the banking collapse, and the rising mood against them, stripped them of their established hegemony. In 2011 Fianna Fáil lost three-quarters of its seats and suffered the greatest defeat of any sitting government in the history of the Irish state. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition that replaced it was hit five years later with the full force of the water charges movement and was unable to secure a majority. The combined vote of the State’s two biggest parties dropped below 50 percent for the first time. Sinn Féin and Solidarity-People Before Profit along with other independents increased their representation in the 2016 election. The political centre seemed weaker than at any time in Irish history. Since then, the unprecedented coming together of the two ruling parties (Fine Gael is in government in a “confidence and supply” agreement with Fianna Fáil) added the further risk of exposing what they had opportunistically disguised for decades—their fundamental political agreement.

In this fragile situation, a section of Fine Gael took the initiative. Adopting a more liberal agenda on abortion would require something of a volte-face as Varadkar himself had only recently declared himself “like most people in the country” against abortion.57 But with the movement for Repeal growing, thousands of young people on the streets, and freer abortion recommendations emanating from the Citizens’ Assembly, Varadkar, now Fine Gael leader, decided that his party would have to quickly stake its claim on the new liberal Ireland.

Varadkar’s calculation is that a liberal gloss will help his party to reach out electorally to young urban professionals and to the “hip and rich” IT corporate sector.58 It might help Fine Gael to reinvent itself at the expense of the slightly more traditionalist Fianna Fáil. Varadkar, now openly gay, modelling himself as the modern, PR-savvy liberal, quickly aligned himself with the “progressive” Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and with Macron’s new vision for Europe. However, this brand of liberalism, as Hillary Clinton discovered, is not without its own pitfalls.

These late capitalist liberals’ commitment to neoliberalism can be a block to their proclaimed social liberalism, and risks alienating the very voters that they have targeted. When the economy is still feeling the effects of recession, as in France, Macron’s attacks on workers’ rights have shown up his “blitzkrieg neoliberalism”, risking him becoming as unpopular as François Hollande was before him.59 Irish liberalism in the mainstream is a newer phenomenon and the shine has not yet worn off. But the contradictions are there. For example, Harris, even as he was being praised for his progressive stance over Repeal, was mired in a shocking scandal for Irish women—the privatised outsourcing of cervical cancer screening had led to over 200 misdiagnoses and risks, in those cases, of terminal cancer.

Abortion rights, as an issue, is particularly subject to the clash of neoliberal free market economics and the actual delivery of those rights. In the US, for example, privatisation, curtailing of federal funding and the increased cost of having an abortion have contributed to the abortion rate declining, even during the Barack Obama years.60 In Ireland, the “doctor-led” solution at the centre of Fine Gael’s promised post-referendum abortion regime is subject to similar restrictions. The Irish system requires you to pay to see a GP (sometimes as much as €60). And state support, through a medical card, is conditional on earning so little that many low-paid workers are not eligible. Abortion pills cost over €100, not counting the cost of a GP visit. The waiting period of 72 hours, as proposed in the draft legislation, will incur further expense because a doctor will have to be seen twice. More broadly, the provision of surgical abortions in an already overladen, under-resourced health service will mean that not all women who need them will be able to be fitted in within the 12 weeks. Thus, for many women, rights in law without assurance of access will mean that they will still have to travel or access online pills without medical support.

Despite these contradictions, winning the referendum has created a mood for reform across Ireland, which has had a significant political effect. The lid on church-state repression has been lifted and, for many activists, has vindicated their long-fought struggle. But for the new Irish liberals, the next few months will be about placing themselves at the helm of social change while at the same time not upsetting the establishment. It will be about changing things in order that things can remain the same.

Much is being made in the mainstream media about Varadkar’s clever ­handling of the Pope’s visit, during which he declared a “new covenant” between church and state.61 However, the government has already shown how weak its approach is. Last year, when it emerged that the Sisters of Charity would be running the new National Maternity Hospital, widespread protests forced the government to commit to making the hospital free of Catholic influence. But the subsequent agreement with the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, a private Catholic entity, to run the hospital has left the Catholic ethos in place, including the “valuing each human being from conception onwards”. This directive is reinforced by the Code of Ethical Standards in Healthcare, published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference coincidentally in the same month of the referendum. It prohibits Catholic-run hospitals offering or referring a woman for an abortion, performing vasectomies, fitting IUDs or prescribing the contraceptive or morning after pill. It even declares that its hospitals cannot be compelled by legislation to provide services that do not comply with Catholic teaching. Thus, the state is mandated from the referendum result to legalise abortion, but it will be giving €300 million to a huge new maternity hospital that refuses to provide the full range of sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare.62

With such concessions, Varadkar’s “covenant” amounts to little more than an updated version of the old church-state partnership. The church is still left running profitable hospitals under its ethical codes, an arrangement that conveniently fits with the government’s neoliberal attachment to the outsourcing of public services. But it is incompatible with women’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The only way to ensure that women win abortion rights is a fully state-funded health service that no longer relies on the 20 or so voluntary hospitals under Catholic influence.

Conclusion: the movement, the radical left and socialist politics

In contrast to elsewhere in the EU, where the far-right and fascist parties have a growing presence, Ireland is a country where mass popular movements have scored victories, first against austerity and then against the conservatism of the Catholic church. I have explained here how abortion reform has been possible through a movement from below which gave expression to the changed reality of Irish women and to their desire to end church-state rule. People power proved able to break the old dominant ideology of the Irish ruling class, force the old ruling order to change tack and in the process changed the political ­consciousness of the activists themselves.

To build on the movement, two strategic questions present themselves. First there is the need to strengthen the radical left. As pointed out, there is much unfinished business around abortion legislation and access. Existing networks of Repeal activists can be mobilised again and, at the time of writing, they are already planning to turn out thousands for the Abortion Rights Campaign demonstration on 29 September. Full delivery of abortion rights will involve politically challenging Fine Gael’s soft liberalism. It will require more state funding to make abortion accessible for all women, something which conflicts with the government’s neoliberal agenda. Furthermore if, as is likely, the reformist parties, Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats make clear that they will enter a coalition with right wing parties, this will have the effect of diluting the gains won by the movement. A strong radical left is needed to counter this.

A radical left political party such as People Before Profit provides a link for activists from the Repeal movement to become involved in other struggles of the working class. Many activists from the Repeal movement have already shown their support for other campaigns against racism, the housing crisis and low pay. People Before Profit is involved in national campaigns against the housing crisis and climate change, but also in bringing anti-capitalism to the local level, opposing the cutbacks of services, privatisation and the sale of public land, demanding schools outside church control, supporting low-paid workers on picket lines and ­participating in elections to give a louder voice to that opposition. PBP TDs, alongside others, have showed how effective a principled radical voice in the Dáil can be and, by extension, how a political party with socialist politics sticks to its word.

The radical left played a key role in the movement for Repeal, but this is a two-way process. This has required socialists to change their style of doing politics, to speak in ways that engage rather than berate, to learn from the activism of the movement and use it to make revolutionary politics more effective. In the case of People Before Profit, this style of working with people, disagreeing where necessary but always committed to unity to create a stronger movement, has been at the core of the project from the beginning and why the party has won support.

The second strategic question concerns expanding revolutionary socialist politics within the radical left. This is vital to politically strengthening People Before Profit to enable it to resist the inevitable pulls to reformism. The recent experience in Greece of Syriza’s capitulation to mainstream politics and EU austerity shows the tragic cost of this absence. The people who have joined People Before Profit from the Repeal movement, while drawn to our radicalism, are often new to socialist politics, to a Marxist understanding of oppression, the nature of the capitalist state, the politics of a united socialist Ireland and the centrality of the working class in changing the system. Socialist Workers Network provides the organisational framework through local meetings, its Rebel website, and its annual Marxism event, for the discussion of these core ideas, as well as of specific strategies needed in the movements and local campaigns.63 Already for some in People Before Profit, seeing its involvement in the struggles against austerity and racism and for Repeal and women’s and trans rights, revolutionary politics which targets capitalism seems a logical step.

The winning of Repeal has vindicated the idea that reforms can be won, and people power can deliver gains. It is now up to the radical left and the revolutionary socialists to translate that victory into much more than neoliberal capitalism has on offer.

Marnie Holborow is a member of People before Profit and the Socialist Workers Network in ­Ireland. She was secretary of the Dublin Bay North Repeal/Together for Yes campaign. She is ­Associate Faculty at Dublin City University, writes on language and Marxism and is the author of Language and Neoliberalism (Routledge 2015).


1 Throughout this article I use women to include trans and non-binary people. I am grateful to Kieran Allen, Melisa Halpin and John Molyneux for their comments on this article in draft.

2 Downing, 2018.

3 The results listed here are taken from The Irish Times, See also Holborow, 2018a.

4 Meagher, 2018.

5 O’Leary, 2018.

6 O’Leary, 2018.

7 Ryan, 2018.

8 Cogley, 2018.

9 Irish Examiner, 2018.

10 Allen, 2016; Kennedy, 2018.

11 Gramsci, 1971, pp258 and 420.

12 Allen, 2016; Lee, 1989, pp157-174; Gibbons, 1989.

13 Fahey, 1998, p203.

14 Fahey, 1998, p204.

15 O’ Toole, 2018a; Horgan, 2001, p62.

16 Amnesty International, 2011.

17 O’Carroll, 2017.

18 Bacik, p26. The church initially only contributed 128 million euros and the state agreed to pay the rest. So far it has cost Irish taxpayers 1.5 billion euros.

19 Meehan, 2017. See also Brophy, 2014.

20 Ferriter, 2018.

21 O’Toole, 2018b.

22 McGarry, 2016.

23 Holland, 2013, p80.

24 Regan, 2018.

25 Calnan, 2018.

26 Allen, 2018, p6.

27 Linehan, 2017.

28 CSO, 2016b.

29 World Bank, 2017.

30 There is nothing automatic about the increased participation of women in the workforce in times of economic boom. For example Turkey, during a period of very high growth rates, did not experience the same increase. Neither, for obvious reasons, did Saudi Arabia. There are other examples, like the US in the 1950s when female participation rates were relatively low, at 34 percent (see US labour statistics at

31 CSO, 2016c. Eurostat’s figures are higher: its latest data have female participation rates for Irish women in 2017 at 67 percent—Eurostat, 2017.

32 NISRA, 2017

33 McGuinness, 2018.

34 Russell and others, 2018, ppvii-viii.

35 Bercholz and Fitzgerald, 2016, p71.

36 CSO, 2016a.

37 Bercholz and Fitzgerald, 2016, p66.

38 Bercholz and Fitzgerald, 2016, p61.

39 TASC, 2016, p2.

40 Duncan, 2013. This had fallen to 17.5 percent three decades later.

41 Holborow, 2018b, p44.

42 Inglis, 2014.

43 Connolly, 2014, p33; see also Inglis, 2014. His study also sees the family as a “residual social category”, a microcosm of society and describes it, very memorably, but from the inside, as it were.

44 Meaney, 2013.

45 See Norris, 2016. Her claim is that Ireland’s welfare system was shaped by property redistribution and a familist social order.

46 It is proposed, in the wake of the referendum, that this article be removed.

47 Harman, 1984. See also Bhattacharya, 2017, for a detailed analysis of Marx’s theory of labour power applied to domestic care and social reproduction, what she terms “social relations outside wage labour”.

48 Marx, 1976, p719.

49 Harman, 1984.

50 Walsh, 2009, shows that Irish fertility rates (births per woman) fell over the 1980s, a high period of unemployment, from 3.23 to 1.85 in 1994. See also CSO, 2016c.

51 RTE, 2018.

52 Solidarity-PBP is an electoral alliance in the Dáil. Solidarity was called the Anti-Austerity Alliance until 2017.

53 Bardon, 2015.

54 O’Toole, 2018b.

55 Bloomer and others, 2017.

56 McCann, 2018.

57 Leahy, 2018.

58 Nagle, 2015.

59 Marlière, 2018.

60 Kliff, 2016.

61 See Carswell, 2018, for The Irish Times cringingly sycophantic take on Varadkar’s performance which he sees as “the finest in recent history”.

62 Canning, 2018.

63 See the Rebel website at


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