HELEN LEWIS: Sorry, right-wing commentators. #RepealtheEighth is nothing like the Brexit referendum
PUBLISHED: 11:00 31 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:25 31 May 2018
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Helen Lewis on the critical differences between Ireland's referendum and the UK's Brexit referendum.
They couldn’t help themselves. In the hours after the exit poll was announced in Ireland’s referendum on abortion, pro-Brexit commentators weighed in, sneering: “Oh, I guess we are in favour of referendums now?”
The only problem with this question – apart from the patronising impulse to use women’s struggle for bodily autonomy as a debating society gotcha – is that it treats all referendums as the same. The vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution is a model for how to debate a profound change to a country’s governance. Britain’s EU referendum of 2016... was not.
Let’s start at the beginning, or at least close to it. There have been signs that Ireland’s position on abortion has been moving for years. In 1983, two-thirds of the country voted to bring in the Eighth – which gave “equal weight” to the life of the mother and the foetus. But many Irish people have been on a ‘journey’ since then, including medical professionals who once supported the law, but then saw its effects in practice.
So this was a campaign with a human face – in fact, hundreds of them. People spoke out in unprecedented numbers about the effect of the law, simply telling their stories. The women whose foetuses would not live beyond birth, who were forced to continue their pregnancies, knowing there would be no baby to take home from the hospital. The women forced for months to smile tight-lipped as strangers asked after their growing bumps, unable to offload the news of the tragedy happening inside them. The estimated 170,000 women who flew or sailed to England between 1980 and 2016 for an abortion here, and the thousands more who could not afford to follow them. The men left at home to look after the other kids while their partners made the journey alone, unable to support the person they loved most in the world. All these cruelties were exposed by the referendum campaign, and by the years of activism which preceded it.
Because that’s the other thing to remember about what happened in Ireland: the country has been preparing for this vote for half a decade. It was back in 2012 when Savita Halappanavar died at the age of 31, after doctors refused to accelerate her miscarriage, and infected foetal membranes led to sepsis. The outcry over her needless death – which prompted an apology from the hospital involved – fed into a citizen’s assembly in 2016. That gathered 99 people from all demographics, and a chair, to consider reforms to the constitution. There were 13,000 public submissions to the assembly, and it heard from 17 organisations, including Amnesty International and the Church of Ireland. After hearing all the evidence, the assembly recommended scrapping the Eighth Amendment and enacting new legislation.
Contrast that with the EU referendum, which David Cameron called after only the briefest attempt at a renegotiation of the terms of our EU membership. It always felt like he planned to get the thing out of the way, to appease his eurosceptic backbenchers, then get on with a little light legacy-building for the final years of his premiership. That meant a short campaign which left little time for any exploration of the potential outcomes of the vote.
Would we still pursue a renegotiation if we stayed? What were our demands? And if we left, on what terms: Canada-style, Norway-style, WTO or something completely bespoke? And did more than one in every 1,000 people understand the difference between the Canadian and Norwegian approaches, anyway?
As for the customs union and its effect on Northern Ireland, there was a barely a whisper about it. My own publication, the New Statesman, worked on a special issue with the former prime minister Gordon Brown: he was insistent that we cover the question of the Irish border, because of how little attention it had received until then. But very few other publications followed suit.
This is not a criticism of the strategists working for Remain. With such a short campaign – and with the memory of Cameron’s successful soundbite of a “long-term economic plan” still fresh – it must have looked like common sense to focus narrowly on the economy.
But those arguments did not land: first, because the Conservatives on the campaign were unused to getting their message out to a hostile press, rather than a friendly one. Second, because of the post-crash feeling that no one in economics knew what they hell they were talking about.
Why trust the doom-laden predictions of a group of people who didn’t see the sub-prime mortgage market for what it was – a pyramid scheme?
In Ireland, by contrast, the government laid out detailed plans for the legislation it would bring in the event of a Yes vote. Abortion would be available up to 12 weeks, with provision for later terminations on medical grounds. (This is a lower limit than England, Wales and Scotland, which are set at 24 weeks, although the 1967 Abortion Act also imposes other restrictions Irish women will not now face.)
The No campaign offered bloodcurdling warnings about a ‘free-for-all’, but they struggled to gain traction when voters knew exactly what the other side was offering.
Added to this, the Irish population simply had far more knowledge of the issue under discussion. Walking around Dublin before the vote, I was astonished to see the level of engagement. Not only was every lamp-post covered in posters, but ‘Repeal’ jumpers and ‘Yes’ stickers were everywhere. Both campaigns were handing out leaflets at commuter rail stations. In rural areas, canvassers went door-to-door for weeks on end.
That allowed the Yes campaigners to bring the whole country with them, securing a majority in every county except Donegal, one of Ireland’s most deprived areas – and one which many younger people have to leave to find work. Yes secured thumping majorities with both men and women, and with every age group up to 65.
Organisations such as Midwives for Yes and Grandfathers for Yes ensured that support for Repeal was broad, and looked it too – the vote was not a youthful revolt against their elders, or a way for pensioners to express their nostalgia.
After the vote, politicians reassured the losing side that their views were not illegitimate, and that being in the minority was not the same as being unpatriotic or a traitor. “You may feel the country has taken the wrong turn, and is no longer a country you recognise,” the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the No voters soon after the result was announced. “I would like to reassure you that Ireland is still the same country today as it was before, just a little more tolerant, open and respectful.”
His words reflected a Yes campaign which was at ease with nationalism; I saw Irish flags waved at Dublin Castle, where hundreds gathered to hear the results, alongside partisan banners.
The way that Ireland conducted this referendum also means that the new legislation should have a smooth passage through the Dail. Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil – many of whose members opposed repealing the Amendment – accepted the result, calling it a “new dawn” and talking about how he had been moved by women’s stories.
Contrast that with Britain. First we had a narrow vote which was interpreted as a mandate for the hardest possible Brexit. Second, we spent months hearing not detailed plans but guff like “Brexit means Brexit”. Then, the accelerated timetable of the referendum was compounded by another unforced error – triggering Article 50, and beginning the formal process of leaving the EU, without any idea of our negotiating priorities or the trade-offs we were prepared to make.
The more sensible Brexiteers pointed out at the time that Article 50 was designed as a punishment: a way to kick out eastern European countries if they slid towards authoritarianism. Yet Britain took one look at the EU’s best weapon and plunged it into our own heart.
The ticking clock explains all the panicky flim-flam we are hearing now about magic new customs arrangements and creating our own satnav system to replace Galileo. Many Conservative backbenchers have spent their entire careers fulminating against Europe – and yet appear to have given little thought to the practicalities of disentangling ourselves from four decades of co-operation and interwoven laws and standards.
Fans of schadenfreude will have noted the gasps of horror emanating from leading Brexiteers as a result. This is the “wrong Brexit”, we are told. Whitehall has cocked it up. It should be going better than this. It must be sabotage! Or, possibly, this is the rubber of populist slogans hitting the road of... you know, parliamentary scrutiny. The Good Friday Agreement. Observable material reality.
Britain now teeters on a precipice; a series of bad decisions brought us here. Meanwhile, a series of good decisions gave Ireland a referendum which delivered a decisive result, and where the losing side was treated with respect and reassurance.
So no, referendums are not ‘good’ now. But some are definitely better than others.
Helen Lewis is deputy editor the New Statesman.