Fionnuala O Connor: Republic has broken abortion taboo – the silence that chained so many

A mural in Dublin of Savita Halappanavar, who died after being denied an abortion, after voters in the Republic voted to repeal the eighth amendment of the Constitution Picture: Niall Carson/PA
A mural in Dublin of Savita Halappanavar, who died after being denied an abortion, after voters in the Republic voted to repeal the eighth amendment of the Constitution Picture: Niall Carson/PA

YOUNG women in Dublin Castle yard chanted ‘Savita! Savita!’ and gave power salutes.

Much older women held that heart-breaking photograph of a happy 31-year-old newcomer to Ireland effectively killed by the 8th Amendment and sang ‘Yes we fight for bread but give us roses too’.

The decorated mural of Savita Halappanavar showed the inspiration of her tragedy.

Delight in last Friday’s landslide has strong undertones of regret, and anger; for the lives of so many blighted, women and children too, forced emigrants, girls who took a secret deemed shameful into lakes and rivers.

Irish women, and men, have broken the last taboo, the silence that chained so many. Ireland’s referendum has changed a nation, including this separated part as we will surely see.

On a different plane, the contrast with Brexit could not be sharper. The UK referendum solved nothing, merely accentuated divisions. Two years on the British government cannot even agree on what it wants.

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Compare what has happened in the Republic. Enda Kenny’s civic commission heard from experts, recommended legislation, put freedom of choice before 12 weeks of pregnancy firmly in the public arena. Referendum promptly followed.

Politicians may have been glad to devolve responsibility, but they legitimately invoked their duty to listen to the people.

A 25-county Yes almost precisely reversed the 67% to 33% that in 1983 authorised the Eighth Amendment.

Dramatically unlike the UK on Brexit, the Republic has decided not just the principle but the outline of legislation and end destination.

This is still honeymoon-time but politicians so far have mostly come through with credit.

Leo Varadkar rightly praised the left-wing women TDs, in particular Clare Daly and Ruth Coppinger, crusading well before the Kenny move, belittled by the media and much of the Dáil.

Micheál Martin is vindicated, having sprung on Fianna Fáil his own conversion with that unanswerable catalogue of reasons beginning ‘Because the Eighth Amendment has been shown to cause real damage to Irish women’.

Mary Lou McDonald and Simon Harris made strong campaigners, McDonald and Martin a winning team in the last televised debate.

Personal testimonies, tragedies like that of Savita, people forced abroad for termination in cases where their babies would not live more than hours, it all plainly had an effect.

But Friday’s exit polling showed a high percentage saying their minds were made up five years ago. Martin says he has been thanked by women coming to take his hand and say quietly ‘Thank you for saying that’. Some expect a thunder of FF feet getting behind their leader.

The result, in their own constituencies alone, is enough for the loudest No voices to confirm they will not block legislation as they threatened. But new legislation may not be through until 2019. Will women until then still have to resort to Britain or the web to exercise the right to choose?

The passionate wave of #hometovoters probably had a disproportionate effect on how the result has been greeted, at home and abroad.

There is a strong sense of young educating the old, children their parents, an older generation relieved to be rid of what in their hearts many knew was wrong. But this was a vote waiting to speak.

Exit polling showed religion as a factor in their choice for only one in eight voters. An embarrassed Church was at least smart enough to largely keep their heads down, a good call.

Allison Morris put it best 10 days ago: "When you spent decades telling women that having a baby was a sin, you don’t get to tell them not having one is also a sin."

Campaigning in 1971 in the south, no such powerful response came to mind when devout bystanders heard ‘foreign’ accents and jeered "Get back to the north with your filthy habits".

What we were asking for then was not abortion; just legal contraception. Divorce was illegal, abortion unthinkable, unspeakable. The customs impounded condoms. Was that a better Ireland?

Protestants in the secular north, with its free contraception and divorce, always dreaded, like more than a few Catholics, that IRA violence could produce an unmade-over Catholic 32-county Ireland with, as Paisley loved to preach, "the priest interfering in the marriage-bed".

Now Sinn Féin’s new leader leads mainstream southern opinion in seeing off at least this aspect of anti-women Ireland.

And yesterday’s man Gerry Adams deserves credit, and McDonald’s thanks, for teeing up change with his own outgoing declaration for choice.

‘The North is Next’? Subject for another day; tomorrow.