fb-pixel

DUBLIN — When Ailbhe Smyth was 37, voters in Ireland approved a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in nearly all cases and committed the nation to the principle that a pregnant woman and her fetus have an “equal right to life.”

Next year, when Smyth, a former professor and chairwoman of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, will be 72, Irish voters are expected to remove or alter that amendment in a new referendum that could give Ireland’s Parliament the freedom to legislate on the issue and write more flexible abortion laws.

What are the driving forces behind this significant shift in voter attitudes toward abortion and other social issues?

Advertisement



Ireland was long a bastion of Catholic conservatism, a place where pedestrians might tip their hats and hop off the footpath when a priest walked past.

But economic and technological changes helped propel a shift in attitudes that accelerated with the unfolding of far-reaching abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

Over a generation, Ireland transformed from a country where 67 percent of voters approved the constitutional abortion ban to one where, in 2015, 62 percent voted to legalize same-sex marriage.

Ireland moved to the left on other social issues, too. It decriminalized homosexuality in 1992, removed restrictions on the sale of contraception in 1993, and legalized divorce in 1996. The Irish voted twice, in 1992 and 2002, to permit abortion if the mother was deemed a suicide risk. In 2015, the country passed a gender identity law favored by transgender rights groups.

Priests once enjoyed great social and political power in Ireland, but the abuse scandal led to “the demise of the church,” the center-right prime minister, Leo Varadkar, 38, who is biracial and gay, said in an interview in September.

That would have been a politically unspeakable phrase for an Irish leader in the not-too-distant past.

Advertisement



“In the ’40s and ’50s, people replaced the colonialism of the Brits with a kind of colonialism of the church,” said Aodhan O Riordain, a senator from the Labor Party. That fostered an intermingling of Catholicism and Irish identity that was “a toxic mix,” he added.

For decades, legislation opposed by the church was doomed to fail. Eamon de Valera, an ardent Catholic who served as president or prime minister several times between 1921 and 1973, enjoyed a close relationship with the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who helped steer Ireland’s religious life for three decades and made assertive policy suggestions.

“The Catholic Church’s hold on the state, the ways in which it sought to influence the state, remained strong for a very long time,” Smyth said. “For much longer than you might have thought possible.”

Even in its diminished state, the church continues to play a role. It controls almost all state-funded primary schools — nearly 97 percent — and the law allows them to consider religion as a factor in admissions. Many hospitals, too, are either owned by the church or on church property.

But Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, said the church “certainly” enjoyed less influence now than in the past. He blamed the one-two punch of broad social trends and the abuse scandal for the church’s declining fortunes.

“The scandals emerged at a moment which was either just the wrong time or the right time, depending on which side you are, for them to emerge,” the archbishop said. “The two things, the change in the attitude to the church and the abuse, came together and had a disastrous effect.”

Advertisement



Those changing attitudes were driven by epochal economic and technological shifts felt in all countries, like the expansion of free trade and the birth of the internet. But in Ireland, the old order had largely managed to adapt.

“If you were a cardinal in Ireland in 1989, you would have felt pretty good,” said Fintan O’Toole, a columnist. “You would have said: ‘You know what? We weathered a lot of social and economic change and we’re still the power in the land.’”

Cracks had begun to emerge, though.

Economic liberalization, which began in 1960s, drew women into the workforce, shrinking the size of Ireland’s traditionally large families and creating pressure for the legalization of contraception, which was anathema to the church.

It also began to stem the centurylong tide of emigration. Some emigrants returned to Ireland, and newcomers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere arrived, making Polish the country’s second most widely spoken language.

Ireland’s break from the past has been so sharp that Garry O’Sullivan, a newspaper and book publisher whose company will soon release a book by a priest titled “Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die,” described it as akin to “intolerance toward views that represent anything of the old guard or traditional Ireland.”

That old guard was discredited by the yearslong drumbeat of child abuse allegations that began to emerge in the early 1990s as well as a cover-up by church officials who spent years denying the problem and moving abusive priests from parish to parish.

Advertisement