Republic of Ireland
The Republic, which was created in 1921 when it became independent of Britain, granted the Catholic Church a prominent role in Irish politics and society. Catholic doctrine therefore strongly influenced social policy on issues such as treatment of unmarried mothers, family planning and abortion. Church influence, combined with conservatism in rural areas, meant that the changing social attitudes to sexual issues experienced in the 1960s-70s in many European countries, and the demands of the second wave Women’s Liberation movement on issues like contraception and abortion, had less impact in the Republic. Indeed, in 1983 the Irish voted by a majority to enshrine a ‘right to life’ ban on abortion in the Irish Constitution. The ban was so rigorous that doctors still feared criminal prosecution in the first decade of the 21st century if they intervened to save the life of a mother. But many Irish girls and women travelled to Britain, where abortion was legalised (within certain limits) in 1967, in order to get safe abortions.
Attitudes within the Republic began to change, however, under the impact of EU membership and rising economic prosperity, as was dramatically confirmed when, in May 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalise same sex marriage as the result of a popular vote in a referendum. This change in social attitudes was confirmed by the strong vote in the 2018 referendum in favour of removing the ban on abortion from the Constitution, leading to new legislation.
When the Irish Republic was created in 1921, six of the provinces of Ulster (in which Protestants were in a majority) were allowed under the Treaty with Britain to became part of the United Kingdom. Northern Irelan was, however granted its own government and assembly (Stormont) and given certain devolved powers, including social policy and issues like abortion. Religious beliefs in the North, both of many Protestants (divided into a number of different churches and sects, including Presbyterians and Methodists), and of many in the Catholic minority, tended to oppose abortion. The major changes in politics in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which resulted in power sharing between Protestant and Catholic political parties (see Vol. 2 section J for details) did not alter the restrictive policy on abortion. The result of the 2018 referendum in the South mobilised many women to demand change in the North. But change was brought about by the Westminster Parliament in July 2019, after internal disputes in the North had prevented elected members of Stormont sitting, and an executive being formed, for over two years. Back bench Labour MPs at Westminster had long campaigned for liberalisation in Northern Ireland, and as a result of the suspension of the government there were able to secure amendments to a technical bill covering budgetary and other matters in Northern Ireland on the grounds that government there was inoperative. As a result, the law on abortion in Britain would apply to Northern Ireland (the only part of the UK where abortion was still illegal). A last ditch attempt by Northern Irish politicians, through a hurried special session at Stormont, to prevent this process (and a similar liberalisation on gay rights) failed.