The coming months will see the various factions of the referendum sides amp up their narratives, a process which many of us dread. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the referendum is about more than the outcome of the plebiscite.
The pro-life campaigns are hoping to garner support from those who feel pushed out of what they feel to be the shifting political landscape in Ireland, which is becoming far too liberal for their liking. Carefully framing the debate on these terms will prove useful for such groups in continuing to foster conservative values post-referendum. The reach of these organisations should not be underestimated, with many younger members playing a role in college campus politics.
We should be wary of these tactics because they work, helping to make the referendum issue itself look like just another case of crazed liberals going too far. This is hugely impactful, not just for the referendum outcome, but societal change as a whole. Discourse which harks back to an Ireland of old, where the place of the family was privileged should be questioned.
What this ideology entails is less to do with religion than it is to do with restoring conservative values to Ireland, which don’t actually need too much restoration. Understanding this is key to understanding the dynamic of the referendum issue. It also explains their tactics: appealing to those who feel pushed out by the wave of lefties, the “latte socialists” Varadkar refers to, who want pronouns and avocados.
This is evidenced by the conservative backlash against what some people feel to be the left-wing radicalisation of student politics, a world where young conservatives are scorned for sharing their views and exist in an oppressed minority, mourning the Ireland supposedly dead and gone. For people who feel that way – who may not necessarily be pro-life – the Repeal campaigners can easily be portrayed as irrational feminists.
An interesting illustration of the tactics of the pro-life side was the recent scandal concerning the @Ireland Twitter account, which is run by a different individual each week. A young American woman, Maria Oswalt, curated the account for a few days, in which time it quickly emerged that she was a pro-life activist.
Concerns were expressed that Oswalt’s intentions were not apolitical. Although Oswalt never tweeted anything in relation to the referendum, she did respond to questions on Twitter by stating she was here to visit her boyfriend. However, posts by her and her family illustrating their extensive involvement with anti-abortion campaigning in the US were made public on Twitter. Indeed, her father had posted a picture expressing pride in her plans to go to Ireland to work with the Life Institute in making Ireland abortion-free. Tweets expressed distaste and anger at Oswalt’s curation, and did become aggressive in their criticism.
What is interesting is the response of the pro-life side. Consistent with the discourse around Katie Ascough’s impeachment from the position of UCDSU President, the Save the Eighth groups framed the Repeal response as an “orgy of abuse”. “It is only a matter of time until somebody is physically hurt,” reads a press release on the Life Institute’s website. Such a response overstates the level of vitriol and also fails to acknowledge that while scandals with such responses erupt on Twitter regularly, they are not limited to Repeal activists.
The pro-life side finds such opportunities very useful for couching the debate around the character and radical agenda of people are who are pro-repeal. The media is against pro-life individuals, as “pro-abortion extremists” have the “full sympathy” of the media. This narrative allows pro-life individuals to be seen as the victims of the hardline, oppressive repealers. It allows conservative people in Ireland in general to buy into the idea that they are being oppressed.
Naturally, if this is to be a culture war, it may be pointed out that Repeal factions also deploy tactics in the media and use popular culture to advance their agenda. They too use social media extensively and are aiming to tap into particular demographics. Materials such as the We Face This Land video on Repeal.ie use the imagery of female unity and the Irish land to connect the referendum with Irish history and national identity. The referendum is more than the outcome for these groups, but their political intentions are made quite explicit.
None of the Repeal coalition’s discourse shies away from their objective: to give women full bodily autonomy. The converse of this – the continued control and subjugation of women’s bodies – is never addressed by pro-life groups. Instead, broad appeals are made to the maintenance of the family and family life, with religion’s special place in Irish society the framing device for such discourses. These are the ideals espoused by the Life Institute and the Iona Institute, and need to be examined.
Looking behind seemingly innocuous claims for family life to be privileged in Ireland, one is reminded of the language used in the marriage referendum, in which the idea that children need both a mother and a father was a primary argument for those in opposition to same-sex marriage. The real meaning of such discourse is to return women to their proper place in the home, to not support the union of LGBTQ individuals in marriage, and to limit diversity in all its forms.
After all, in research commissioned by the Iona Institute, 17 percent of women don’t want to work full time, though it’s worth noting that this is only when asked “if money were no object” would they still want to work. The Iona Institute also published an article emphasising that their original prediction – that men would marry for money – had been fulfilled, and questions whether this union should be considered as “‘natural, primary and fundamental’ to society as the conjugal union of male and female.”
If these are the narratives emerging from one of the central camps in this referendum, it should make the “both sides are bad” sentiment seem ridiculous. Those “on the fence” in this debate have been swayed by the pro-life’s ability to provoke the garrison in an effective manner.
We should not overestimate the social change Ireland has undergone – though the referendum may pass, indeed this is very likely, the framing of and fallout from the referendum will have lasting impacts for how far feminists or any radical social change movement here can go. The pro-life campaign groups, and many members associated with it, are concerned with “challenging the secular consensus,” in their own words. The referendum is an opportunity for pro-life groups, whose objectives go beyond the vote, to cast doubt on the direction in which Ireland is moving, advocating instead that it remains in check.