The eighth amendment of the Irish constitution makes Ireland, depending on your point of view, either a unique beacon of humanity in a godless world or a superstitious hamlet determined not to enter into the 21st century. The amendment was signed into law in October 1983 after two-thirds of the electorate voted in a referendum to accord equal status to the life of a child growing in the womb with that of its mother. As a result, only in extreme circumstances can an abortion take place. Pointing out that no one under the age of 52 had ever voted on the issue, the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, last week announced that a referendum would take place by the end of May to repeal the amendment.
All over Ireland, old arguments are being dusted down and fortified, and red lines are appearing in the sand again. It’s not enough to say that this is a country divided; all democracies are divided – by class, geography, money. Ireland right now is experiencing convulsions. This is what happens when an old order which has held a people in its grip for centuries is forced to let go. We are witnessing the long, slow separation of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and the Irish state.
In the course of this generation, the constitution has been amended to remove the prohibition of divorce in 1996, and 20 years later the Irish people voted overwhelmingly to approve same-sex marriage.
Now a woman’s right to have an abortion, a right held to be sacred in about 200 other countries, is about to be accepted in what is often perceived as the world’s most Catholic country. If this isn’t recognised in May, it must only be a matter of time before it is.