When the votes were counted on Saturday the result of the referendum on the eighth amendment was decisive. Two thirds of the electorate voted YES. The onus is now on the Taoiseach and his government to produce the necessary legislation to give effect to the will of the people. It will also be for the legislators in the Dáil and Seanad, including Sinn Féin’s team of TDs and Seanadóirí, to ensure that the new legislation reflects the outcome of the referendum and that it passes speedily into law.
During the campaign I canvassed almost every day in my constituency of Louth and East Meath. By last week my sense from all the doors I had knocked and the people I had met was that the YES vote would succeed. However, the overwhelming nature of the final result was a pleasant surprise. Critical to its success, and to motivating people to vote and/or to change their minds, were the many personal stories that women courageously stepped forward to tell. Their deeply personal accounts of crisis pregnancies, of traumatic journeys to Britain, and of tough decisions they had to make when faced with the distressing news of a fatal foetal abnormality, undoubtedly helped to shape public opinion. We must not forget those stories in the months ahead.
Last Friday’s referendum result is also further evidence of a significant societal shift on this island. Three years ago 62% of voters in the south backed marriage equality for our LGBT citizens.
These two referendums were remarkable and genuinely transformative moments in recent Irish history. But they weren’t alone. Last week also marked 20 years from the historic referendum in May 1998 which saw the people of the island of Ireland convincingly vote in support of the Good Friday Agreement. That referendum gave democratic validation to the Agreement’s emphasis on equality, parity of esteem and human rights for every citizen living on this island. Since then there has been enormous progress. But there are important matters that still remain unresolved.
The marriage equality and repeal the eighth referendums have also brought into sharp focus those areas of civil rights and human rights where there has been insufficent progress in the north. In that part of the island the opposition of the unionist leadership and the refusal of the British government to honour its obligations means that there is no marriage equality; there is no Irish language act; there is no equality and parity of esteem for citizens, especially for women facing crisis pregnancies.
Changing this will be challenging given the approach of some Unionist political leaders. However, the reality is that the marriage equality, and repeal the eighth referendums reflect a genuine groundswell desire by most citizens for positive change within Irish society. That means, in the first instance, that those rights which have been won in recent years in one part of the island need to be extended into the other. In the absence of an Assembly these issues are the responsibility of the British government.
So too is the setting of a date for a referendum on Irish unity. The call for this has increased, especially in the last year. The population and political demographic changes that have taken place in the last two decades and which are reflected in the most recent Assembly and Westminster elections, make a referendum on Irish unity achievable in the next five years.
The priority for Irish republicans is to win that referendum. To achieve this, we need to win over some of those who currently oppose Irish unity. That means addressing those issues which are of specific concern to them. It isn’t enough to argue, however convincingly in the light of Brexit, that the island of Ireland will prosper best as a single economic unit; or that the standard of living will be better; or that the Good Friday Agreement, in the event of Irish reunification, specifically protects the right of northern citizens to be British citizens also. Republicans have to go beyond that.
Republicans have to articulate our vision of a new Ireland as a shared Ireland. An inclusive democracy. A place in which social, cultural and economic rights guarantee real equality for every citizen. A new Ireland which tackles poverty and homelessness, provides a decent health and education service for all, and respects and guarantees the full rights and entitlements of every citizen, whether they identify as Irish or as British.
In particular republicans need to avail of every opportunity to engage with unionists. To speak to unionists, but, most especially to listen to unionists. We must also accept that many unionists hold to their sense of unionism and of Britishness as strongly as republicans hold to our sense of who we are, and to our Irishness.
This shouldn’t be a zero sum game in which there are winners and losers. A new, shared Ireland has to be a win for everyone. So, republicans need to emphasize those aspects of our shared experience which are positive and which embrace those areas of agreement and of co-operation; of good neighbourliness and the common good. Key to this is a process of reconciliation.
So, let the conversation about a new, shared Ireland continue. And as we prepare for the referendum on Irish unity let us not forget that this time next year there will be a referendum on extending the vote in Presidential elections to citizens in the north and in the diaspora. That will be another stage in the process of transforming Irish society.