Irish abortion vote is remarkable political victory for Leo Varadkar | World news
May 29, 2018
Ireland’s landslide vote to repeal its abortion ban was an extraordinary political success for Ireland’s young prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who staked his political reputation and possibly his job on a conviction that his fast-changing country would support change.
The scale of the victory means legislation outlined by Varadkar before the vote is likely to pass through parliament relatively unhindered.
The health minister, Simon Harris, said he would start the process on Tuesday, when the Irish cabinet will meet to discuss draft legislation to allow terminations within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and up to 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.
The outline of new legislation was laid out ahead of the referendum, but details must be agreed with doctors and approved by Ireland’s parliament and senate.
However, several prominent anti-abortion campaigners have already said they will not try to interfere with change after the government won such a clear mandate, and Varadkar has promised the abortion laws will be on the statute book by the end of the year.
The repeal was driven by huge grassroots campaign work, and came on the back of decades of campaigning by both women’s rights activists and the minority of Irish politicians who have always backed reform, most notably the Labour party.
Varadkar was bolstered by cross-party support, including from the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, and the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin. But the biggest dividends of victory will likely accrue to him.
Already set for a place in the history books as Ireland’s youngest ever taoiseach, its first government minister of Indian heritage and its first openly gay head of government, he will also be remembered as the man who paved the way for a landmark change on abortion.
The result will likely bolster his confidence in his own political judgment. And with a general election looming, and his party’s coalition agreement with Fianna Fáil due to expire in October, the political dividend will be welcome.
Neither Varadkar nor his party have a track record as long-term champions of women’s reproductive rights. Less than a decade ago, Varadkar was describing himself as anti-abortion.
But that was a different country and perhaps a different politician. He came out as gay publicly in 2015, before Ireland’s landmark referendum on marriage equality.
The popular vote for gay citizens to have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples in Ireland was a remarkable repudiation of Catholic doctrine, and a sign that the church’s once unbreakable grip on the country had loosened.
For Varadkar it was also a personal landmark. In his first speech as prime minister he paid tribute to his predecessor, Enda Kenny, for calling the referendum and successfully campaigning to pass it.
“His leadership also enabled me to become an equal citizen in my own country only two short years ago and to aspire to hold this office, an aspiration which I once thought was beyond my reach, at least, if I chose to be myself,” he said.
He went on to stake his own reputation on changing the constitution so Irish women could access safe and legal abortion at home.
Kenny had set in motion the slow process of preparing for a referendum, calling a “citizens’ assembly” to study the issues and recommend possible reforms. But many had seen that as a shrewd attempt to kick an issue often considered political poison into the long grass.
So Varadkar surprised many inside and outside his party when he announced plans to hold a referendum within a year, almost immediately after taking over from Kenny.
After an initial reticence to say whether he supported proposals to bring in abortion on request up to 12 weeks, he became a powerful advocate for change, identifying himself so closely with the campaign for a repeal that there were questions about whether he could survive as taoiseach if it was defeated.
His closest ally in his Fine Gael party during the campaign was Harris, a slightly geeky 31-year-old who became an improbable heartthrob.
Harris had also been anti-abortion earlier in his career, and backed Varadkar’s opponent in the party leadership race year. But he became one of the most effective voices calling for reform.
His eyeroll of exasperation with an opponent in a TV debate about the referendum went viral. When he turned up at Dublin Castle to hear the final results, one woman greeted him with a sign reading “I fancy Simon Harris”.