Momentum seen behind Sinn Fein policy shift
Momentum seen behind Sinn Fein policy shift


Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has said she expects her party will endorse the provision of abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy following last Friday’s 26 County referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which gave a pregnant woman only an equal right to life as her unborn child.

The party is to hold a special party Ard Fheis [conference] on the issue when members meet in Belfast in two weeks time. It will take place at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on Friday and Saturday June 15 and 16.

The move will represent a major change for her party, which just three years ago supported abortion only in cases where there was a danger to the mother’s life.

There has been a surge in feminist activism in the 26 Counties in recent months with huge numbers of young women engaging with social media campaigns, culminating last week in one of the most intense periods of social activism Ireland has seen.

The campaign had its origins in the death in a Galway hospital from a septic miscarriage of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, in part due to the refusal of medical staff to carry out a requested termination of her pregnancy. With constant revelations of abuses by the state and church against ‘fallen women’, a high profile rape trial and the latest news on failed cervical cancer screening, women’s rights, and the lack of them, has come to dominate the news agenda in the 26 Counties.

One exit poll put the increase in turnout at the referendum among young female voters at an incredible 94%. There was unbridled celebration at Dublin Castle where the result, a two-to-one vote to scrap the constitution’s rigid protocol against abortion, was declared in scenes reminiscent of the 2015 vote on same-sex marriage.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the results represented “the culmination of a quiet revolution” taking place in Ireland for the past 10 to 20 years. However, the same RTE exit poll shows the general Irish public is still almost exactly split on the issue of ‘abortion on demand’.

Irish media commentators have declared that the Catholic Church’s authority in Ireland is at an end. The outcome was described by the Irish Times as a ‘backward’ state finally ‘modernising’. Fine Gael Health Minister Simon Harris, the most prominent government advocate for abortion, was lauded as the “face of the new Ireland”.

Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald has said her party is mindful of what she described as ‘new politics’. Although Sinn Fein’s current policy supports abortion in cases where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, she confirmed the party will now be asked to support abortion on request “for a limited gestational period”.

The party’s ruling executive will decide the length of the supported gestational period, which is expected to be the 12 weeks outlined in the Dublin government’s proposals.

Ms McDonald said the referendum campaign was like “no other” she had been involved with and described the atmosphere in Dublin last weekend as “incredible”.

“Our attention, as elected representatives, now turns to the job of enacting legislation,” Ms McDonald told the Dublin parliament. She said it was the job of elected representatives to enact legislation on the issue.

“It is crucial that we get this done without delay and that we get it right... I hope that every member of the Oireachtas will act constructively in recognition of the democratic decision of the people. The people have played their part. It is now up to us as legislators to play ours.”

Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin, who argued in a televison debate against abortion, has confirmed he will campaign against his party changing its policy to support allowing unrestricted abortions up to 12 weeks. He said he would be reserving his position on how he will vote until after the Ard Fheis and the proposed legislation is published.

His party colleague Carol Nolan, the only other Sinn Fein TD to actively campaign against repeal, has already confirmed she will vote against the proposed legislation.

Mr Toibin has said that the government’s 12 weeks abortion proposal is still a contested issue.

“There’s a large majority that have voted for the repeal of the Eighth and that is the democratic will of the Irish people and people from both sides must respect that,” Mr Toibin said.

“I don’t agree with the abortion on demand for 12 weeks and I very strongly hold that view. And the RTE exit poll stated that roughly 50% of the population who actually voted actually don’t agree with abortion on demand up until 12 weeks as well, and I would oppose that particular element of the legislation.”

But Mary Lou McDonald said that members must toe the party line on the issue. “We will have a unified, decided position on the legislation. People are grown ups and they have to meet their responsibilities,” she said.

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