Ireland’s abortion referendum is finally happening – but the campaign will be ugly

The anti-abortion side has hired a digital campaigns company that previously worked for Donald Trump.

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This summer, after 35 years, Ireland will finally hold a “yes-no” vote on repealing the eighth amendment to its constitution, which prohibits abortion in almost all circumstances.

That the referendum is happening at all is a huge victory for feminist campaigners, who have spent decades battling cowardice and apathy on the part of government. What’s more, the campaign to repeal will have the support of both Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin – the leaders of Ireland’s infamously conservative major parties – and of the entire cabinet. Even five years ago, this situation would have seemed impossible.

But while the pro-choice option has a solid polling lead and high-profile political support, a win is still far from certain. The future of choice in Ireland will be decided in the next four months – and it will be a long, hard, distressing slog.

Already, images of children with Down Syndrome are being used by the anti-abortion side. And they’ve hired a digital campaigns company that previously worked on the Donald Trump campaign – so things will only get uglier from here.

As ever, the vast financial resources of Ireland’s anti-abortion movement will be a major challenge. Anyone who has marched or tweeted for repeal in the last few years must now, if they have the means, donate to repeal.

We must also recognise that the support of political elites can cut both ways in campaigns like these, as the Brexit referendum and US election showed. We should anticipate a campaign that attempts to set rural, religious voters against a crass metropolitan elite. Countering that perception will require patience, kindness and deep respect for people’s religious beliefs.

And it will require a clear focus on the core issue of women’s health and the dangers of the current system, and on positive concepts like respect and dignity. A close focus on the thousands of women forced to travel abroad for abortions each year will also perform well.

On the messaging front, the early signs are good. The Taoiseach's statement last night was measured and sensitive, framing the referendum as a decision “about whether we want to continue to stigmatise and criminalise our sisters, our co-workers, and our friends. Or whether we are prepared to make a collective act of leadership to show empathy and compassion”.

These simple, moderate messages are especially important given that voters are being asked to trust that, in the event of a yes vote, government will legislate in a way that’s consistent with their views. That this isn’t – as the no campaign will undoubtedly claim – a power-grab, designed to remove all regulation and oversight of abortion services.

On Monday night, Varadkar clarified that the government’s plan is to introduce legislation that allows for general abortion provision in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and more strictly controlled provision thereafter. It’s a less ambitious legislative plan than many feminists would like, but will still be difficult to pass through parliament and is dividing the cabinet. For example, while the deputy prime minister supports repeal, he has expressed concern about the 12-week legislation.

This reflects the fact that across Ireland, even among people who recognise the deep flaws with the current system, there is profound anxiety about “abortion on demand”. If that’s what the alternative sounds like, too many might opt for the devil they know – the eighth amendment. So it’s understandable that the government is proposing legislation that will make abortion in Ireland “safe, legal and rare”.

Promoting such a conservative message won’t be easy for many feminists. And it won’t be easy to stay patient and respectful in the face of character assassinations, graphic posters and other vile tactics from the other side.

But it’s taken 35 years to get to this point and, if we lose, it could take as long to get another chance. So we have no choice but to take a deep breath and face into four months of tough, tactical campaigning, knowing just how difficult they’ll be.