Reflections on a Referendum – Kennedy Summer School

Speech by Minister for Health, Simon Harris TD

‘Reflections on a Referendum’

Kennedy Summer School


I am very appreciative of the opportunity to be with you today to share my reflections on the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment, especially as its result is now moving firmly into the implementation phase and will be a key piece of work for the Oireachtas in the coming

Yesterday’s decision of the Supreme Court now ends the legal challenges to the result of the referendum and means we can now get on with enacting the will of the Irish people.

Reflection is a very apt word because not only did the referendum itself challenge us to think deeply, its result brought with it much to discuss and reconsider, perhaps even suggesting we had been too long using a somewhat dull and tarnished national mirror and seeing reflected there an outdated self-image.

Myth -busting

There was plenty of ‘received wisdom’ on offer as I prepared to play the part I did in the campaign. Such received wisdom included: “The Marriage Equality referendum was different. Comparisons between this and that are misplaced” – and whilst, of course, it certainly wasn’t the same, in many ways it wasn’t that different after all Compassion and understanding could yet again be seen as issues to the fore of the minds of many people as they worked their way through the issue in advance of polling day.

“Dublin is different. You might get it passed in Dublin but not far outside it.” – this attempt to typecasting rural and urban Ireland as opposite and divided is another habit the referendum result happily broke. Because, obviously, crisis pregnancies do not stop in Dublin. Figures showed women from every single county in our Republic had travelled to the UK to access termination in the most recent figures available. And ultimately, every constituency in Ireland bar one voted to repeal the 8th amendment.

“Young voters will vote to repeal but there will not be much support beyond that” – pitting the young and the old against one another did not prove a workable tactic as intergenerational solidarity showed itself a stronger force than divisiveness.

‘Men would stay out of it the debate and many might not even vote” – thankfully this too did not turn out to be trueand many of us approached this issue thinking how we would like our country to care for our wife, our partner, our sister or our mother should she find herself in need of support and compassion.

As had happened with marriage equality, many people in politics and in the media too perhaps, were, at least initially, missing a movement that was taking place at
ground level across the country.

In this movement, people were talking about a subject which many people in political circles still preferredapproaching with their fingers in their ears and all the time this movement was gradually building a groundswell of support.

When the political system took its first step towards joining them, many saw it as a tentative one at best and a cynical one at worst. Many feared that the Citizens’ Assembly was a stalling tactic. A process in which to park a difficult and divisive issue – and I can understand and appreciate the scepticism. But now after the successful referendum outcome, I believe the Citizen’s Assembly was THE best next step our country took and I take the opportunity today to recognise the stewardship of my fellow panelist Ms Justice Laffoy here and to thank for her it.

We have now seen how a model of citizen engagement, and civil society and political structures working together, can successfully consider complex issues, address what are seen to be as the difficult social issues and then bring about historic change.

This must now be our model as we move forward together to address the next questions we wish to answer as a mature republic. It presents a vehicle through which we can create a real, participative democracy. One in which civic society and the political world mutually respect each other’s roles and understand that when we work together, there is no limit to what we can achieve.

On Friday 25 May 2018 the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, which seeks to delete Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution and substitute it with wording confirming that the Oireachtas may make laws for the regulation of the termination of pregnancy.

There was certainly no complacency among those advocating a Yes vote. This was bound up with the strong emotions people were feeling – especially, I believe, the fear of rejection in the face of a heartfelt appeal for compassion. Personal stories of hurt, of tragedy, of isolation and loneliness had been told, often in a very public manner. These stories could never be untold. They could never be unheard.

I think it is fair to say that even those who were more confident about the result were surprised by the emphatic way in which it happened.

After all, Article 40.3.3 had been in the Constitution for 35 years and, despite the damage it had done to women, it hadn’t always been clear that there was even an appetite to change the status quo, or more recently that a majority could be found to support what that change might be.

As I have said, I believe we needed a process to work through this Constitutional change and I am proud that that is what we did.

The Citizens’ Assembly Report and the Report of the All-Party Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution confirmed the desire for change and channelled it into a consensus proposition.

Those reports provided the thorough and considered basis on which the Government proceeded. I want to reiterate my thanks to those who participated in this process for the parts they played in bringing about this momentous change.

And can I just make the point, in terms of reflections, politicians clearly showed how much more effective we can be when we are that bit less partisan or tribal. Oireachtas colleagues who sat on the All-Party Committee did not wear party jerseys. Instead, they listened, they studied the evidence, they worked together and they did some great work.

Perhaps a lesson which should be much more broadly applied to politics. Certainly one I intend to reflect on.

Personal stories

For me, the most powerful and thought-provoking aspect of the campaign was the personal stories told by courageous women, and families, about how they had suffered because of Article 40.3.3.

I’m thinking, in particular, of women like Amanda Mellet and Siobhán Whelan, and so many others, who publicly relived the worst moments of heir lives to make us to think about why change was needed in this country.

We also remembered Savita Halappanavar and her family. We remembered Miss X. We remembered A, B, C & D. We remembered Miss Y. We remembered Miss P.

We thought of the thousands of women from every county in Ireland who made lonely and frightening journeys to other countries at times of crisis in their lives.

We thought of the women who were facing these crises alone and unsafe with pills purchased online rather than with the safe, medical care they need.

I believe we thought strongly that we no longer wanted to be a country that treated women as we had in the past – harshly, judgmentally, unequally.

For anyone who thought this issue was too personal to allow for the necessary debate that would lead to change, it was precisely because it was so personal that we finally accepted the painful reality of what Article 40.3.3 meant in practice.

Instead of being faced with the abstract concept of the unknown woman who travels abroad for a termination, we now had names and faces to put with those harrowing stories.

We started to question our own attitudes and how we would react if someone we knew or loved found themselves in the same situation.

We thought about these scenarios and we chose. We chose to support the campaign for a Yes vote. We chose to vote in favour of the referendum. Ultimately, we chose compassion for women. We chose choice (as the exit polls showed us…). We chose solidarity and equality.

Social media also played a role and whilst it is a far from perfect medium, it did allow a younger generation to further engage with the issues. I said, at the time, that a great proportion of the people who would vote have lived with Article 40.3.3 for their entire reproductive lives.

Many of those people, myself included, were not even born at the time of the referendum in 1983 that facilitated the insertion of Article 40.3.3 by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

It was heartening to see the cross-generational work on the campaign for a Yes vote. I think anyone who read the ‘home to vote’ contributions couldn’t help but be moved by stories of young people travelling great distances to cast their vote in the hope of making a better future for women in this country.

While these stories were dominated by young people, they would not have been in a position to vote in the referendum, had it not been for the generations that went before.

Women and men worked for many years to help evolve our country’s thinking on Article 40.3.3 and got us to a point where the time was ripe for change.

I think it is important in political discourse, not to demonise those we disagree with. Whilst, I fundamentally disagreed with the stance of No campaigners, it is important in a democracy to disagree with the policy stance, debate the issue robustly but without personally attacking those who have sincerely held different believes.

Post-referendum landscape

The past, as they say, is a foreign country.

In 1992, the Supreme Court decided in Attorney General v X that the Constitution permitted a termination of a pregnancy where there was a real and substantial risk to the life of a woman which could only be removed by terminating the pregnancy.

Yet it was another 21 years before lawful termination of pregnancy was placed on the statute books by the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.

However, so many of the difficult and painful realities facing Irish women could not be addressed by that Act owing to the Eighth Amendment.

Our law as it stands still permits termination only in situations where a woman will otherwise die.

It does not permit termination, for example, where there is a diagnosis of a foetal condition likely lead to death before or shortly after birth. It does not allow termination where a woman has been raped. And it does not permit termination where a woman’s health may be permanently damaged by the pregnancy. The enactment of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018 will change all of that.

Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018

With the decision of the Court yesterday, the referendum result can now be signed into law by the President.

I will now return to Cabinet this month to finalise the Bill and expect to introduce it in the Dail in early October.

It is my priority to have a medically delivered, safe and regulated service for the termination of pregnancy for all those who require it, based on the huge mandate that the Irish people have given for this work.

We are working and engaging with the medical community to develop and deliver by the beginning of next year woman-centred services to effectively operate the legislation. As a Government, we will also move forward with measures to increase access to contraception, and continue improvements in women’s health services and sexual health education.

What’s next for Ireland?

That’s ‘what’s next’ when it comes to implementing the referendum result but that’s not what most people meant when they asked me ‘what’s next?’ at the conclusion ofthe campaign.

When I addressed the National Women’s Council earlier in the summer, I called it ‘Together for More’. Because there are more questions we need to answer as the mature, progressive, inclusive society we have shown ourselves to be. For example, there is much unfinished business on women’s equality and, I am pleased to say, a cross-departmental focus and determination in Government to maintain momentum on this.

But there are also more fundamental questions about the changes needed to better reflect our modern society, including the role of the religious in delivering health and education services, and how the State structures separation while ensuring services are delivered where people need them, and how people need them.

As we reflect on the referendum, we see it gave us a historic and momentous result, we see it gave us a result that is not an end in itself but leads us to further define our now sharper self-image, but we also see that it gave us a model for democratic, citizen-led, consensus-based change. It gave us partnership between people and politics (and among people inpolitics) to deliver social change and therefore the way forward as we answer that ‘what’s next?’ question together.

Thank you.