Note: most of this was written on an iPad Mini on an airplane, so please excuse lack of hyperlinks and fadas.
It is more than a decade ago, and Dublin Sinn Féin are holding a full members’ meeting to discuss party development. Gerry Adams has travelled from Belfast to address the meeting. After he speaks, the members are invited to share their views on what could be done to increase party membership in the capital. A young North Inner City activist puts up her hand, nervously, and somehow finds the courage to say that the party has got to get its head around the abortion issue, or at some point it will find itself alienating the very demographic it wants to attract: passionate young people seeking fundamental change in society.
Gerry Adams replies that he disagrees, and that he doesn’t think this is a problem Sinn Féin needs to concern itself with. After all, he says, we have the most progressive abortion policy of any party in Ireland. And the young activist doesn’t argue, because the fact is, he’s right – at this point in time, Sinn Féin’s “exceptional circumstances only” policy actually is as good as it gets in Irish politics. Labour’s, believe it or not, is even worse. Oh, sure, there are genuinely pro-choice parties amongst the far left, but the far left aren’t really a factor right now; only the Socialist Party have a seat in the Dáil and their lone TD, Joe Higgins, hasn’t even mentioned abortion as far as anyone can remember. (In the 2007 election, Higgins will lose his seat and Ireland will be left without a single pro-choice party in its parliament.) The Workers’ Party have no TDs anymore and anyway, with a North Inner City representative linked to Youth Defence, they have problems of their own on the issue. And the subject itself is still so taboo in Irish society, there isn’t even really much debate about it; realistically, no one hopes to see more than legislation for the X case any time soon. So while Sinn Féin may be rather transparently trying to play both sides, the truth is, their fence-sitting policy is probably costing them more votes from the “never, never, never” crowd.
It’s now 2017, and how things have changed! That young activist – me, if you hadn’t guessed – is now politically unaligned (and needless to say, not so young anymore). Labour are now officially pro-choice, as are the Workers Party (who still have no TDs, but are far more active in Dublin these days). The Socialist Party are now Solidarity, and hold two Dail seats; People Before Profit and the Independents for Change are also giving pro-choice voters a strong parliamentary voice. You can’t throw a rock in Dublin city centre without hitting someone in a Repeal jumper; and though no one thinks the Dail will accept the Citizens Assembly recommendation for no restrictions on abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, even the fact that 100 randomly selected Irish people could come up with that recommendation is a sign of how far Ireland has moved.
Sinn Fein, however, are still rooted to the same position they were over a decade ago, and in fact two or three decades ago: calling for abortion to remain generally illegal with exceptions. So anachronistic does this now sound that when their spokesperson Louise O’Reilly responded to the Citizens Assembly vote by reiterating party policy, her statement was met by disbelief and anger among pro-choice supporters all over social media – many of whom had misinterpreted Sinn Fein’s call for repeal as a call for meaningful change. (And no, any change won’t be meaningful if it still leaves more than 90% of abortions illegal, and forces those women entitled to a legal abortion to either prove it, or just keep going to England like they always have.)
Now in fairness the party can’t just change policies on a whim; the exceptional circumstances policy must remain until an Ard Fheis votes to overturn it. Critics and cynics are right that the party leadership can usually get such a vote when they want one but that formality is, nonetheless, constitutionally required. And party spokespersons are constitutionally bound to adhere to that policy whether or not they personally agree with it (and I’m inclined to suspect Louise O’Reilly doesn’t, though I’ve never met her). [ETA: Judging by her Twitter response to this article, it seems I was far too generous to her. Well, at least now we know.]
But it does mean the party has a serious decision to make. And it can’t just keep doing what it did all the years I was involved, and respond to every attempt to change party policy at an Ard Fheis by trotting out a female Ard Chomhairle member with impeccable feminist credentials to persuade delegates that party unity would be best preserved by retaining its middle-of-the-road position. Because frankly, it no longer is a middle-of-the-road position. The hardline, no-repeal, no-exceptions stance that formerly represented the conservative side of the debate has now been relegated to the outer fringes where it belongs (just like in the US where, you might recall, Republican candidates supporting Irish style abortion laws were condemned as extremists even by other anti-choice Republicans). It’s no longer a question of will there be a referendum but when, and the real issue that remains is how restrictive – or how liberal – the replacement regime will be. If Sinn Féin sticks to their current policy they will find themselves on the right of this debate along with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and you can bet that they will struggle to convince today’s young activists to join them.
Of course, there are many people in Ireland – and not just among the far left – who think that that’s exactly where Sinn Fein belong, exactly where they always intended to be. Fianna Fáil light, just waiting to go into coalition and shed all their remaining leftist pretences. I can’t speak for the leadership, but I can certainly say that is not where the activists who I called comrades wanted to see them. I have no doubt that those who remain in the party are saying the same things internally that I’m saying here – and hopefully this time, the leadership will listen. Because the excuse I was given all those years ago just doesn’t cut it anymore, and I don’t think there’s an excuse that will. Ireland has changed, abortion politics have changed and it’s simply no longer credible for a party to present itself as a radical or even merely progressive alternative to the establishment parties, while siding with the most conservative of those parties on an issue of such fundamental importance to young people today. My prediction at that meeting may have been a bit premature, but tiocfaidh an lá. Sinn Féin cannot sit on the fence anymore because there is no fence anymore. The fence is gone, and they will have to choose one side or the other.
Over to you, comrades.