The Irish Referendum: The End of Rome Rule

By Medb Ruane
Spring 2002


The Irish Episcopal Conference called it “an opportunity not to be lost.” Three days before Ireland’s third abortion referendum in 20 years, the bishops’ pastoral letter was read in all Catholic churches, urging a “Yes” vote for the proposal from the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition government. The bishops sent special pamphlets to homes around the country, supporting the proposal to make abortion a constitutional crime on any grounds other than the threat of a pregnant woman’s imminent death. The combination seemed unbeatable.


But the people said “No.” On March 6, the combined powers of church and state, and in particular, the combined resources of the Irish bishops, the Fianna Fáil party and the anti-abortion movement, were defeated by a margin of some 10,556 votes. What William Butler Yeats called “The Bishops and the Party/That tragic story made” was set to be rewritten, as historian Ronan Fanning quickly pointed out.


Was it the end of “Rome rule?” Most Irish people had thought the rule was long gone. Yet although the Catholic church’s power in Irish life is waning on the surface, its influence is alive behind the scenes. Hospitals, schools, university posts and various ethics committees remain under its control, despite the removal of its special constitutional status in the early 1970s. Substantial areas of the medical profession also rely on the bishops’ patronage.


Signs of deliberate attempts to increase the consensus between church and state have been evident for some time. In 1992, the hierarchy’s opposition -particularly that of Dublin Archbishop Desmond Connell- enhanced the government’s 2:1 defeat in a similar referendum designed to outlaw abortions on the grounds of suicide risk. That followed a Supreme Court judgment allowing the risk of suicide as grounds for abortion after a raped 14-year-old girl and her parents were ordered to return to Ireland just as she was about to undergo an early termination in a British clinic. No Irish doctor was permitted to perform the abortion in what became known as the “X” Case.


The anti-abortion movement, led by Fianna Fáil Senator Des Hanafin and Trinity College law professor William Binchy, pressed Fianna Fáil for another referendum on the grounds that the Supreme Court judgment was fatally flawed, and therefore, presumably, the electorate voted in error. A Fine Gael/Labour coalition government went on in 1995 to introduce the rights to travel abroad for an abortion and receive information on abortion-rights the church hierarchy and the antiabortion movement opposed. Abortion remained illegal in practice but legal in theory. Doctors who admitted that terminations were sometimes carried out argued the principle of “double effect” to explain why the terminations were not abortions. Increasing numbers of women went to Britain for abortions, and returned to a culture that shamed them into silence and denied them medical follow-up. Not for the first time, Ireland’s old colonial masters enabled the country to find an “Irish solution to an Irish problem.”


During his successful 1997 election campaign, Bertie Ahern, the Fianna Fáil leader, pledged to hold another referendum with the sole object to reverse the “X” Case ruling. After it was announced late in 2001, Cardinal Connell made a point of publicizing his own agreement with the government’s “Human Life in Pregnancy Act,” and alerted the public to the Vatican’s support for it. The Irish bishops officially and unanimously gave it their blessing.


The key to this growing consensus between church and state was a clever definition of “abortion” that defined it as any act taking place after implantation, rather than conception. This way, the government could assure liberal voters that emergency contraception and the IUD would be legal, while the church could assure its fundamentalist wing that both devices were already suspect under the original 1983 constitutional amendment ensuring the equal right to life of both woman and the “unborn.”


“The key to this growing consensus between church and state was a clever definition of “abortion” that defined it as any act taking place after implantation, rather than conception.”


But neither got their way. Youth Defence, a militant anti-abortion group re-formed under the title “Mother and Child Campaign,” drew attention to the bishops’ pragmatic stance. Bishop Brendan Comiskey attacked the Mother and Child Campaign, which, with one of Ireland’s European Parliament members, Dana Rosemary Scallon, were urging anti-abortionists to vote “No” on the referendum. Within days, other members of the hierarchy indicated that a constitutional challenge would be made to the “morning after pill,” sending a tacit message that the bishops’ pragmatism in supporting the government was merely the first step in a wider campaign against extending reproductive rights to women.


Shock waves reverberated through Irish society as the debate about the “Human Life in Pregnancy Act” gained speed. Despite its complexity, which the government compared to the Belfast Agreement (which underpins the current political settlement in Northern Ireland), voters immediately noticed the difference between a bill that would make abortion a constitutional crime, subject to 12 years’ imprisonment, and an inter-government treaty that omitted such penalties for terrorists. Young raped girls presented a potentially clearer constitutional danger than the men who bombed Omagh.


Others noticed that the Irish Constitution’s stance on abortion would bring it almost directly into line with Canon 1398 of the Catholic church’s Code of Canon Law, which condemns women who have abortions to the ultimate sanction of excommunication. [1]


These sectarian undertones appalled many Protestant leaders, as well as all who support a more pluralistic society. Archdeacon Gordon Linney of the Church of Ireland emphasized his church’s teaching on the sacredness of human life, but argued that the referendum would reduce the rights of the mother to less than those of her fetus. Methodist leaders worried that exceptional cases requiring the best of Christian compassion, such as rape or lethal fetal malformation, would arise and be ignored.


Ahern’s own position was curious. Regularly pilloried by critics as a man without any deep convictions, he asserted his strong anti-abortion beliefs. On Ash Wednesday, his forehead blackened heavily enough to be picked up by long-distance television cameras, Ahern broke his own call for a calm debate by accusing Liz McManus, the opposition Labour Party spokesperson on health, of being “pro-abortion.” In the ensuing melee, an opposition member of Parliament, Fine Gael’s Nora Owen, a great-grand niece of the Irish republican hero Michael Collins, was thrown out of Parliament for coming to McManus’s defense.


The voices outside the church-state door grew louder. The medical profession in particular was openly divided on the referendum. General practitioners, psychiatrists, obstetricians and gynecologists spoke out against the measure. The masters of Dublin’s maternity hospitals held a press conference to urge a “Yes” vote, and found themselves calling for another referendum to allow abortion in cases of lethal fetal malformation.


The slim “No” majority was a bigger margin than the majority that voted to permit divorce in 1995. And the overwhelming “No” vote in urban areas means it can’t be claimed as an extremist anti-abortion victory. Even in Bertie Ahern’s constituency, where Cardinal Connell also resides, 59 percent of the turnout voted “No.” Thus was an “unbeatable” team with virtually unlimited resources defeated by a diverse opposition. The mandate hardly favors a liberal abortion law, but does stress, for the second time in a decade, that the Irish people favor the challenge of compassion to the tattered church-state colors of black and white.


Medb Ruane is an op-ed columnist with the Irish Times and a critic with the Sunday Times.





  1. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1398 states, “A person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication.” However, Canons 1323 and 1324 allow for several exceptions to this rule: if one is under 17 years of age; ignorant of the church’s teaching, acted under compulsion of “grave fear, even if only relative; or by reason of necessity or grave inconvenience,” or is unaware of the penalty or acted without full imputabilty.

    The teaching on abortion is not infallible and Catholics are allowed to dissent from noninfallible teachings, or those that are in development as long as one can find sound reasons for the differing position. Catholics must also follow the dictates of their consciences, rather than those of the church, following thoughtful and serious consideration.


Catholics for Choice