Fri, May 11, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Abortion question divides rural Ireland as referendum looms

Roscommon was the only Irish constituency to vote against same-sex marriage — and might buck the trend again

By Harriet Sherwood  /  The Guardian, ROSCOMMON, Ireland

Illustration: Mountain people

There are far more than three billboards outside Roscommon and their opposing messages indicate an intensifying battle for undecided voters in a historic referendum on abortion this month.

On the roads into this quiet town in the middle of rural Ireland, it is impossible to miss the laminated placards fixed to the street lights.

Some have one from each camp, vying for the attention of passersby in a polarized campaign in which voters have to make a binary choice between yes and no.

A few hoardings have been torn down in the night, in a sign of strongly held beliefs, but mostly the people of Roscommon are holding their views close, unwilling to discuss with each other — let alone a stranger — where they will place their cross on May 25.

Three years after Ireland, where historically the Catholic Church has been the undisputed moral authority, became the first state in the world to endorse same-sex marriage in a popular vote, people are going to the polls again.

This time, the Irish are being asked whether they want to repeal the eighth amendment — a clause in the constitution that protects “the right to life of the unborn.”

The amendment means legal abortion is impossible in Ireland, even in cases of rape or fatal fetal abnormality, although about 3,500 women travel to the UK each year for terminations and another 2,000 illegally order abortion pills online.

The referendum, along with public opinion surveys that indicate a majority in favor of repeal, is a measure of how far Ireland has changed within a generation or so, but Roscommon-South Leitrim, the only one of 43 constituencies to vote against same-sex marriage, albeit by a slim margin, might buck the trend again.

“There are very deeply held feelings here, it’s a small, tight community,” local business man David Molloy said. “The issue of abortion is very much at the core of Catholic belief. Even though there will be people here who have had abortions or know someone who has had an abortion, it would never be spoken about.”

In a campaign in which the generational divide is seen as significant, the county has one of the oldest age profiles in Ireland, largely a result of young people leaving to find work or go to university.

It has also seen a remarkable influx of immigrants in the past two decades: Brazilians recruited to work in the meat industry, eastern Europeans and a smattering of families fleeing the war in Syria.

The changes have been striking.

Once, the Catholic Church was the only religious show in town; now there are more than a dozen Christian denominations, including a Nigerian and a Brazilian church.

In nearby Ballaghaderreen, plans last year to convert a historic convent into a mosque caused a row.

“There are dozens of different nationalities in the local school — a complete transformation from a generation ago,” said Paul Healy, editor of local newspaper Roscommon People.

Cultural and social changes include tacit acceptance of things once seen as scandalous: couples living together and children born outside marriage, and “even one or two” gay partnerships, Molloy said.

“The influence of the church has taken a massive knock, partly as a result of the [child sexual] abuse scandals and the cover-ups, but also because my generation are less deferential and more questioning, and then there’s the Internet,” he said.

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