In the end, it wasn’t even close.
Irish voters – young and old, male and female, farming types and city-bred folk – endorsed expunging an abortion ban from their largely Catholic country’s constitution by a two-to-one margin, referendum results compiled on Saturday showed.
The decisive outcome of the landmark referendum held on Friday exceeded expectations and was cast as a historic victory for women’s rights. Polls had given the pro-repeal “yes” side a small lead, but suggested the contest would be close.
Since 1983, the now-repealed Eighth Amendment had forced women seeking to terminate pregnancies to go abroad for abortions, bear children conceived through rape or incest or take illegal measures at home.
As the final tally was announced showing over 66 per cent of voters supported lifting the ban, crowds in the ancient courtyard of Dublin Castle began chanting “Savita! Savita!” in honour of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died of sepsis during a protracted miscarriage after being denied an abortion at a Galway hospital in 2012.
With exit polls showing a win for abortion rights campaigners, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called the apparent victory the “culmination of a quiet revolution”. Later, he hailed the momentous outcome as a victory for Ireland’s future.
“I said in recent days that this was a once-in-a-generation vote. Today I believe we have voted for the next generation,” said Varadkar, who is Ireland’s first openly gay leader as well as its first prime minister from an ethnic minority group.
The next battleground is likely to be Ireland’s parliament, where the government led by Varadkar hopes to capitalise on the fresh momentum and enact legislation spelling out the conditions under which abortions will be legal for the first time by the end of this year.
The plan is to allow abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and in special cases after the first trimester, likely ending the trail of Irish women who go elsewhere mostly to neighbouring Britain – by the thousands each year for abortions they can’t get at home.
Opponents of the repeal movement conceded defeat Saturday morning after exit polls from the night before suggested they had no hope of victory.
John McGuirk, spokesman for the Save the 8th group, told RTE that many Irish citizens would not recognise the country in which they were waking up. The group said on its website that the referendum was a “tragedy of historic proportions,” but McGuirk said the vote must still be respected.
The support for lifting the ban highlights the liberalisation of traditionally Catholic Ireland, marking the diminishing influence of the Church hierarchy and a desire to align Irish secular laws with the other countries of Europe.
First it was same-sex marriage, approved here in 2015, and now it will be the consignment to history of the Eighth Amendment.