Social Change and Moral Politics: The Irish Constitutional Referendum 1983

DOI10.1111/j.1467-9248.1986.tb01872.x
AuthorBrian Girvin
Publication Date01 Mar 1986
SubjectArticle
Politicul
Studies
(1986),
XXXIV,
61-81
Social Change
and
Moral Politics: the Irish
Constitutional Referendum
1983
BRIAN
GIRVIN*
University
College,
Cork
The dominance
of
the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been challenged by
rapid socioeconomic change. To counter emerging secularist trends, anti-abortion
activists pressuri~ed the political parties
to
agree
to
hold a referendum for a
constitutional amendment
to
ban abortion. Opposition to the referendum, and party
divisions, led
to
the active involvement by the Catholic Church and the hierarchy in
the campaign. Although the amendment was passed, the intervention
of
the Church
has not been beneficial
to
it
as an institution. This is the first time since the
establishment of the Irish state that a significant cleavage has emerged around a
religious issue. The referendum reflected a change
in
Irish politics-new divisions had
emerged, based on age, class, religion and place
of
residence. This change is now
having an impact
on
the political parties.
1.
The Changing Nature
of
Catholic Power in Ireland
The Irish electorate decided on
7
September
1983
by a two
to
one majority
to
amend the constitution. The new clause in the constitution guaranteed the right
to life
of
unborn children and was an explicit attempt
to
prevent changes in the
existing anti-abortion legislation. This may not appear surprising as Ireland has
been a demonstratively Catholic country
for
centuries and has frequently
differed on moral issues from her European neighbours. However, the
referendum to amend the constitution was significant because, for the first time
this century, the Irish electorate had divided on an essentially religious issue.
Furthermore, the campaign has demonstrated that a new political cleavage is
opening up in Irish politics: that between liberal and traditional elements in the
society. The divisions over the referendum reflect the broader stresses
generated by two decades
of
industrialization. The Irish political structure has
traditionally been characterized in terms
of
authoritarianism, conformism, and
male domination. This has been sustained by a small-holding agricultural
economy.' Under these conditions the usual political cleavages did not operate;
neither class nor religion underwrote political support. Recently all these
features have been challenged.
As
a result
of
industrialization, the class
*
1
acknowledge the comments
of
the anonymous referees. Responsibility for interpretation is
mine.
I
R.
K.
Carty,
Parry and Parish
Pump
(Waterloo, Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier University Press,
1981).
p.
22;
B.
Chubb,
The Governmenr and
Politics
of
Ireland
(Stanford, Stanford University
Press,
1970).
0032-321 7/86/01 /0061-21/$03.00
ic)
1986
folrlrcul
Sludres
62
The
Irish
Constitulional Referendum
structure has begun to resemble that
of
the rest of Europe, while urbanization
and population growth have undermined the older social structure.* Although
the political system has not been challenged seriously by these changes, there
has been considerable tension within and between the main political parties
between liberal and traditional elements. The result
of
the referendum would
tend to lend support
to
the view that during industrialization in Ireland the
process of liberalization and secularization has been slow. In 19th-century
Europe the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by the marginalization
of
the churches’ influence on political and moral issues. While this process has not
been repeated exactly in Ireland,
it
is possible
to
discern issues which are leading
in that direction. The referendum has drawn attention to cleavages based on a
1iberaVtraditional dichotomy which had been either denied or not previously
apparent.
This new liberalism should not be confused with the anti-clerical liberalism
found in 19th-century continental Europe. There are anti-clericals among the
liberals, but they are
a
minority. The majority are committed to a reform
of
the
Church demanding greater participation, more respect
for
individual
conscience, and less authoritarianism. The traditional goodwill towards the
Church remains, but that
of
the liberals is contingent
on
an accommodation of
its views. The logic,
if
not the intent,
of
the liberals is the secularization
of
areas
once dominated by the traditional culture.3
This development has occurred at
a
time when religion has ceased to play a
significant r81e in political behaviour in Europe. In some countries there is
no
direct correlation between religion and political behaviour, in others the
relationship is there but largely pa~sive.~ ‘Ireland’, however, ‘is exceptional in
that the great majority
of
the people are not nominal but practising
catholic^'.^
In addition, anti-clericalism has played no part
in
political behaviour during the
20th century. Ireland’s uniqueness is apparent when it is recognized that while
the rest
of
Europe secularized its institutions and culture the Irish commitment
to religion was sustained and even intensified. This was
a
result of the way that
Irish Catholicism and political nationalism reinforced one another during the
first phase
of
political mobilization.6 The Irish Catholic Church, unlike some
of
its continental counterparts, has been a popular church. This has allowed it
great flexibility in its dealings with the state and with the political parties. More-
over, the mobilization
of
the Irish masses was effected by concentrating on
religious issues.
As
a result
of
Ireland’s position as a Catholic region within the
British state, religion was an important factor in political behaviour and as an
*
D. Rottman and P. O’Connell, ‘The Changing Social Structure
of
Ireland’, in
F.
Litton (ed.),
Unequal Achievernent
(Dublin, Institute
of
Public Administration,
1982),
p.
71.
3
Liam Ryan, ‘The Changing Face
of
Irish Values’, in
M.
Foggarty,
Irish Values and Attitudes
(Dublin, Dominican Publications,
1984),
pp.
105-6.
For
a
discussion
of
the traditional dimension,
see
J.
P.
O’Carroll, ‘The Politics of the
1983
“Abortion Referendum Debate” in the Republic
of
Ireland’ (unpublished paper, Department
of
Social Theory and Institutions, University College,
Cork).
G.
Smith,
Politics in Western Europe
(London, Heinemann,
1980).
p.
20.
5
J.
H.
Whyte, ‘Ireland: Politics without Social Basis’, in R. Rose (ed.),
Electoral Behaviour:
a
Comparative Handbook
(New York, Free Press,
1974).
p.
640.
6
S.
M.
Lipset and
S.
Rokkan, ‘Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments: an
Introduction’, in
S.
M.
Lipset and
S.
Rokkan (eds),
Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-
National Perspectives
(New York, The Free Press,
1967),
pp.
1-64.

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