Goretti Horgan

Changing women’s lives in Ireland

(Part 2)


In 1979 Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. In Limerick he said, “May Ireland never weaken in her witness, before Europe and the whole world, to the dignity and sacredness of all human life, from conception until death”. [60] Some of the Catholic right started to plan to make Ireland a “beacon of pro-life values” in the modern world.

The Women’s Right to Choose Group was set up in February 1980 to campaign for free, legal and safe contraception and abortion on demand. Four months later the Irish Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) was launched. It is worth noting that throughout the 1970s thousands of women had travelled from Ireland to England to avail themselves of legal abortion there. Yet there was no organised anti-abortion movement. Abortion was totally illegal in the Republic. However, travel to England was expensive and only a small layer of women could access abortion there. It was only when the question was raised of abortion being legally available in Ireland that the anti-abortionists got organised.

In May 1981 the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) was launched with the aim of securing an amendment to the Constitution of the Republic which would guarantee “the absolute right to life of every unborn child from conception”. Just five weeks after it was founded, PLAC had secured a promise from the taoiseach, leader of the opposition and Labour Party leaders to hold a referendum on the question. [61] The shock troops of Catholicism knew that they needed to hold the referendum as soon as possible, while church rule was still unchallenged and politicians were more afraid of the bishops than of voters. So John O’Reilly, a leading all-purpose family values and anti-abortion activist, told followers that the amendment to the constitution “must be won while the vast majority of the Irish people were still opposed to abortion and while abortion was not too politically divisive”. [62]

Fine Gael had for some years been trying to portray itself as the liberal wing of the Irish ruling class. The party had gone to great lengths to court women voters, imposing well known feminists as candidates in safe constituencies. In 1981 party leader Garrett FitzGerald had promised a far-reaching “constitutional crusade” in order to improve North-South relationships. He said, “If I were a Northern Protestant today, I cannot see how I could be attracted to being involved in a state which is itself sectarian”. [63] Yet he too supported a proposal to incorporate a specifically Catholic approach to abortion in the constitution. Many modernisers were disappointed by this capitulation.

Those feminists who had joined Fine Gael were not the only ones forced to tie themselves in knots to toe the party line. In its leaflet urging people to vote no in the referendum Sinn Fein The Workers’ Party (later Democratic Left) achieved the seemingly impossible – not only did the leaflet not mention abortion, it did not mention women! The press release issued by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions opposing the amendment similarly avoided mentioning abortion, although women did make a brief appearance in the final sentence. In June 1982 the Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC) was launched at a meeting in Liberty Hall.

The experience of the AAC shows that keeping a campaign “moderate” to win support is counter-productive. Although most of the work in setting up the AAC was done by socialists and radical feminists, the campaign was soon dominated by doctors and lawyers who conducted a debate that had little to do with the lives of the mass of women. Socialists were elected to the steering group of the campaign from its inception, but were always in a minority, and the question of a woman’s right to abortion, even in very limited circumstances, was rarely mentioned by campaign spokespeople. Socialists were berated for declaring themselves for a woman’s right to choose on AAC platforms, while right wing celebrities who started their speeches with, “I am totally against abortion, but also against the amendment,” were feted. On the streets, on the doorsteps, working class people told us they would vote for the amendment because they were “against abortion”. “But what if someone was raped?” we asked. “Oh, it should be available for women who’ve been raped,” was usually the reply, “or if a woman already has six or seven kids, or if the doctor says she shouldn’t have any more.” If the abortion issue had been faced honestly and openly, the Catholic right might still have won, but the debate would have been more advanced and the class nature of the prohibition on abortion more exposed. Instead the public debate was dominated by lawyers and doctors who used a language which was esoteric and patronising to suggest that the proposed amendment was not really about abortion but about issues plain folk could not possibly understand. The PLAC message, on the other hand, was simple: abortion kills babies – vote for the amendment.

On 8 September 1983 the eighth amendment to the Constitution of the Republic was approved in referendum by two thirds of the voters. Article 40.3.3 of the constitution now read:

The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

Four months later 15 year old Anne Lovett died giving birth alone by a grotto to the Virgin Mary in Granard, Co Longford. Her baby died with her.



The X case

During the referendum campaign PLAC was anxious to assure voters that it was interested only in stopping the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. It was scaremongering to suggest that the right of women to travel to England to end pregnancies would be curtailed. PLAC said it would not oppose ending the stigma attached to single mothers. It was lying on all fronts. Its agenda was to turn back the tide of progress. Its hypocrisy was exposed in the middle of 1984 when Eileen Flynn was sacked from her teaching job in a convent school for having a baby outside marriage. Defending her dismissal, a Jesuit priest wrote:

Ms Flynn’s pregnancy is significant only as being incontrovertible evidence that her relations with the man in whose house she resided were in fact immoral. Had her immorality remained genuinely private, it might have been overlooked. [64]

In other words, had she gone to England and had a quiet abortion, she would not have been sacked.

In 1985 SPUC went to court to try to close down the two main pregnancy counselling centres in Dublin – Open Line Counselling and the Dublin Well Woman Centre. This resulted in a Supreme Court decision that providing information on abortion was unconstitutional. It was then that women’s health books, including Our Bodies Ourselves and Everywoman, which contained information on abortion, were removed from the shelves of Dublin libraries. Copies of magazines like Cosmopolitan had to be printed with blank pages where advertisements appeared for abortion services in Britain. Also in the mid-1980s a proposal to legislate for divorce was rejected in a constitutional referendum. It seemed that the Catholic right had won a decisive victory for reaction.

Mary Robinson’s 1990 election as first woman president was a slap in the face for the right, although the presidency’s limited powers meant she could have little practical effect. In 1992 the bigots seemed to be back in the driving seat with the emergence of the X case. On 6 February 1992 Attorney General Harry Whelehan obtained an interim injunction on the basis of the eighth amendment restraining a 14 year old girl, pregnant as a result of rape and reportedly suicidal, from obtaining an abortion in Britain. The injunction was confirmed by the High Court on 17 February, Justice Declan Costello ruling that the girl and her parents were prohibited from leaving Ireland “for a period of nine months from the date thereof”. [65]

The press leaked the news of the “internment” of a 14 year old rape victim. Up and down the country there was an explosion of anger. Thousands of mainly young women and men poured onto the streets to say, “Let her go.” Day after day and night after night thousands of women and men took to the streets. In Dublin there were several semi-spontaneous marches of up to 10,000 people – the equivalent population-wise of over 100,000 in London. These numbers were matched proportionately in Cork, Waterford, Galway and smaller towns too. In Waterford girls from all the convent schools defied the orders of the nuns and converged on the city centre, risking suspension. In one of the schools the nuns locked the doors to keep the girls in – they climbed out of the windows. There were banners improvised on lengths of computer paper saying simply “Let her go”. The country was convulsed. Thousands who had voted for the 1983 constitutional amendment because they were “anti-abortion” said, “This is not what we meant at all. Of course she should go.”

The government “applied intense pressure on the girl’s family to appeal the High Court judgement to the Supreme Court, with the government undertaking to pay all expenses”. [66] The five Supreme Court judges who heard the appeal were not liberals. They included Hugh O’Flaherty who had represented SPUC in earlier cases around abortion information. The majority ruling turned the constitutional amendment on its head. It decreed that abortion was lawful in Ireland in the event of there being “a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother” as in the case of threatened suicide. The judges went against all legal logic and agreed that Ms X had a right to abortion because they feared there would be riots if they tried to corral her at home.

The anger on the streets was about more than the High Court ruling. It was directed against the arrogance of the Catholic right, who were clearly unrelenting in trying to push women back to the 1950s. Emigration had reappeared in the 1980s. The recession of 1980-1981 had stymied growth. Nearly 200,000 people emigrated in the course of the decade. [67] The government had encouraged them to go, even petitioning the US government to give young people from Ireland Green Cards ahead of less pasty-faced people. But the drying up of US visas and rising unemployment in Britain in the early 1990s meant emigration was no longer an option. Young people who thought they could get out when they finished school or college suddenly found themselves stuck in a priest-ridden mire. But they had a new consciousness and self confidence. The howl of anger at the X case came from people who were not willing to live in this kind of society any more.

Mass action on the streets had brought the first set-piece defeat for the bishops and the bigots since the foundation of the Southern state. The floodgates were open. Later in 1992 Annie Murphy, an Irish-American who had had a love affair with the most populist bishop in Ireland, Eamon Casey, wrote a book revealing that he had a teenage son with her. It later emerged that Fr Michael Cleary, “the singing priest” who had preached chastity and promoted anti-abortion groups on his radio programme, had had two sons by his “housekeeper”. The exposure of this gross hypocrisy gave courage to people who had been abused physically and sexually by priests and nuns under the old repressive regime. As they started to talk, news came almost weekly of priests being arrested. The moral authority of the church on sexual matters imploded. Between 1993 and 1997 priests from dioceses including Dublin, Down and Connor, Dromore, Clogher, Ferns, Ossory, Armagh, Cork, Clonfert, Elphin, Galway, Raphoe and Tuam were convicted of the sexual abuse, including rape, of children as young as eight years old. [68] It emerged that church officials, having been made aware of the allegations, had typically acted, not to protect the children and bring the culprit to book, but to protect the church and let the guilty go free – often to abuse elsewhere.

The interaction of all these factors and revelations meant that women felt more able to speak openly about the reality of their lives. With the logjam broken, the government moved to modernise the Republic. Trinity College lecturer David Norris had won a case in the European Court of Human Rights in 1986 requiring the legalisation of male homosexuality. In the wake of the mass mobilisations on the X case, legalisation was finally enacted in 1993, with an equal age of consent. A year later Emmet Stagg, a Labour junior housing minister, was arrested cruising a gay area. The government responded that Stagg was not a hyprocrite – he had always supported gay rights and sexual freedom generally. It was a “personal matter”. He remained a minister and held his (semi-rural) seat at the next election. In 1995 divorce was finally legalised, though with a five-year waiting period.

By contrast there has been very slow progress in the North. There are similar rates of abortion for women on both sides of the border. But in the North the issue is still swept under the carpet – this is despite three High Court judgements that abortion should be available in the North, in effect, under the same conditions as in Britain. The reason the North lags behind the South in matters of sexual freedom when for decades it was the other way round can be traced to the mass mobilisation around the X case. Kieran Allen has argued about the X case that:

... slow, molecular changes in quantitative relations can at some point transform into decisive qualitative changes, so that the past does indeed look like another country. Historically, the midwife for these enormous transformations has been struggle and mobilisation. These struggles sometimes stop short and often simply force our rulers to reorder the manner of their rule, but they are nonetheless the decisive conjunctures on which historical changes pivot. [69]

Thus the left and pro-choice forces were able to win the X case, but have not been able to force legislation to allow all women access to abortion, even under the terms of the X judgement. The blame for this lies largely with the cowardice of the mainstream left and the contentment of the middle classes. To a woman who has little problem getting £500 or £600 together to get to England, and who has access to the internet or knows about the counselling services available in the larger towns, the fact that abortion is not available at home is not a huge problem. To a woman for whom £1,000 is like a tenner to the rest of us, it is no problem at all.

Nonetheless, it is clear that North and South the changes in women’s relationship to production have been accompanied by changes in attitudes to sexual freedom. Take attitudes to children born outside marriage. As late as the 1980s having a child without a husband was considered shameful. The baby had to be smuggled into the church at a quiet time to be baptised.

Today one in four children in the North and close on one in three in the South are born outside marriage. Both North and South almost half of these children are registered by two parents, which suggests they are born into relatively stable relationships, not lone parent families.

It is in the area of teenage pregnancy that the changes in attitudes are most evident. In spite of regular outbreaks of moral panic, there has been little variation in the number of teenagers becoming pregnant over the last 25 years. The figures for the South have remained relatively steady at around 3,000 a year. The difference is in relation to births outside marriage. In the 1970s about 600 unmarried teenagers had babies every year, compared to 2,400 married teenagers. Now it is almost exactly the other way around: about 600 married teenagers, compared to 2,400 unmarried. In short, shotgun weddings are largely a thing of the past. Getting pregnant does not condemn a young woman to an unhappy marriage for the rest of her life.

Table 2: Births to Teenagers in Ireland,
North and South,
within and outside Marriage, 1976-1998

Inside marriage

Outside marriage

% of teenage
births within











































Source: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and
Central Statistics Office, Republic of Ireland

The role of socialists was important in the months following the X case in halting the backlash initiated by Catholic fundamentalists. Even before the injunction against Ms X was lifted, Youth Defence was born (on Fr Michael Cleary’s radio programme). A number of the children of well known anti-abortionists announced that they, not the people on the streets, were the authentic voice of Irish youth. They made their own debut on the streets with a march in Dublin calling for a referendum to reverse the judgement in the X case. The response of some of the forces involved in forcing the Supreme Court judgement was to play down the threat of Youth Defence. The SWP argued the exact opposite – that it was vital to confront and expose the bigots. A counter-demonstration was called against the Youth Defence march. Around 10,000 anti-abortionists, most of them not young, marched. Happily, some 300 pro-choice activists were there to harass them. The counter-demonstration grew as the march progressed, and a sit-down on Dublin’s main bridge blocked the march for some time. The following day’s newspapers did not report a march of 10,000 anti-abortionists, but clashes between pro and anti-choice activists. The next Youth Defence march drew less than 2,000 and again there were counter-demonstrations. Since then they have been unable to muster more than 1,000. The intervention of socialists was crucial – had Youth Defence been able to present themselves as “reasonable” people, they could have grown and reversed the gains of the X case. Instead they were shown up for the bigots they are. At the end of 1992 another referendum was held, this time to vote on the right of women to travel, the right to information about abortion, and whether or not the Supreme Court judgement should be reversed. There was overwhelming backing for the right to travel and to information and two thirds of voters opposed rolling back the Supreme Court interpretation in the X case.

Three years later, when the second divorce referendum was held, it was mainly socialists who stood up to the bishops and pointed out their hypocrisy, whereas the timidity of the liberals gave the right renewed confidence. The bigots produced a poster reading “Hello divorce. Bye bye daddy”, playing on the fears of women working in the home that divorce would undermine their security. The SWP produced a counter-poster with a photo of bishop Eamon Casey and the slogan “Let the bishops look after their own families”. Divorce was passed – but with a margin of less than 1 percent. In the aftermath, analysts credited the “bishops” poster with stopping the slide by reminding people of the hypocrisy of opponents of divorce. It also illustrated how a more vigorous campaign could have produced a bigger majority for divorce. One national tabloid analysed voting patterns and said the working class had swung it for divorce. It joined a list of reforms carried out within three years of the X case.



The “feminisation” of the workforce

As a result of the changes in the Irish economy in the 1970s, women growing up expected and demanded a life outside the home. The overwhelming majority wanted to be more than wives and mothers. They voted with their feet by joining the workforce in ever increasing numbers. The changes in female participation rates seen above were dramatic. Even more remarkable were the changes in the 1990s. By 1996 there were 488,000 women at work – an increase of 213,000 since 1971. This compares with a growth of just 23,000 in male employment over the same period. In 1996 half the female workforce was married – 241,400 married women were working outside the home, an increase of more than 600 percent since 1971.

While there had been a steady increase in women working over 20 years, the rate of growth accelerated dramatically in the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1996 women’s employment grew by 102,000, almost equalling the growth over the previous 20 years. Between 1996 and 2000 a further 128,000 joined the workforce. [70] Many are mothers struggling to combine paid jobs with caring for children. In the ten years from 1987 to 1997 the number of working mothers almost doubled, from 120,600 to 253,300. In 1997 some 75,000 working mothers had one dependent child, 79,800 had two dependent children, and 59,300 had three or more dependent children. This is to say that in Ireland mothers were by far the largest group entering the workforce in these ten years.

Most women workers are clustered in the lowest paid jobs and earn on average 73 percent of men’s wages. The differential is even greater among the lowest paid women. In 1997 the average weekly earnings of industrial women workers was 65 percent of men’s earnings, and of women in white collar jobs 72 percent, [71] while women in senior management earn an average 83 percent [72] of their male counterparts’ earnings. Some of the reason for the differences comes down to the number of hours worked. In 1994 18 percent of women workers were part time. In 2000 the figure was 29 percent. In the same period the proportion of men working part time rose from 4.4 percent to 7 percent. The vast majority, both women and men, said they were not seeking full time work. A high percentage of the part time workers are mothers – 36 percent of mothers worked part time, compared to 13 percent for all other women in employment in 1997.

The number of dependent children has a clear effect on women’s participation in the workforce. Almost half of all women with fewer than three children were working in 1997. However, women with three or more children are less likely to work outside the home. Again this isn’t necessarily a matter of choice since low wages and the cost of childcare can mean women with more than one or two children simply cannot afford to work outside the home. Labour force participation is highest, at about 90 percent, for women aged 25 to 34 who do not have children, and is relatively lower in the older age groups. [73]

There is, of course, a small layer of women enjoying the wealth created by the boom. These women do not have to worry about childcare, grocery shopping, cooking or cleaning. They have nannies, maids, cooks and cleaners. One of the effects of the feminisation of the workforce has been to substantiate the stark class divide among women. Nowhere is this clearer than among PAYE workers. The following figures exclude the rich who, even ruling class supporters admit, pay little or no income tax. In 1997-1998 the bottom 25 percent of earners, women and men alike, earned less than £9,000 a year – less than half the average wage. Over half of all workers (56 percent of women and 51 percent of men) earned less than £13,500 or two thirds the average wage. On the other side are those who earned £40,000 or more – more than twice the average wage. These are not the rich – just the well-off. The majority of these are, of course, men. Twice as many men as women earned £40,000-plus – 10 percent of men and 5 percent of women. Nonetheless, those figures illustrate sharply the class divide: there is a layer of women who are doing considerably better than the overwhelming majority of women and men. Again it is important to note that these figures do not include rich women, like Margaret Heffernan of Dunnes Stores and her ilk. [74]

The changes in the North have not been so dramatic, due partly to the fact that jobs have always been available for women there who wanted to work outside the home. Nonetheless, the number of women who work, including married women and women with children, continues to grow. In 1977 the female economic activity rate stood at 42.9 percent. By 1997 it had risen to 63.8 percent.

These changes in women’s relationship to production have led to the qualitative changes seen above in how reproduction of the next generation of workers is organised within the family. And they have also led to a massive quantitative change in reproductive behaviour. North and South, the birthrate has dropped. In the South it went down from 22 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 1980 to 13.5 in 1996. In the North the crude birthrate dropped from 20.6 per 1,000 to 14.0 in 1998. The fertility rate has dropped to well below replacement rate in the Republic and is just at replacement rate in the North. The rate of marriages has also gone down – from seven per 1,000 population in 1970 to 4.3 in 1997 in the South. Again the fall in the North is similar but lagging a few years behind. The combined effects of economic and social change have broken down many of the old stereotypes of women as wives and mothers. Although most women earn too little to break away completely, a measure of economic independence makes leaving a partner a real possibility.

The mass entry of women, especially mothers, into the workforce has had a contradictory effect on women’s lives. On the one hand, a “double burden” is imposed on women – they have to do a day’s work for their employer and then come home and work again for their family. On the other hand, it has greatly enriched women’s lives and opened up new possibilities for many. This is why Marxists see the entry of women into the workforce as a necessary prerequisite to ending the oppression – it gives women a collective power they can never have while isolated in the home. Cliff described this process:

Oppression in itself does not necessarily lead to a struggle for liberation. The oppression of women, by dividing them and imprisoning them in the four walls of the home, leads most often to powerlessness and submission. Only where women, as workers, have collective power do they gain confidence to fight exploitation, and are then also able to fight their oppression as women. The other side of the coin is that women workers, like other oppressed groups, are in a period of social crisis often more spontaneously revolutionary than men. The struggle of workers against exploitation is the key to their successful struggle against all oppression. Hence the first step for working class women in entering the arena of struggle for their liberation as women is to leave the isolation of the home and enter the social area of production. [75]

Marx and Engels argued that real women’s liberation demands not only the entry of women into social production but also the socialisation of the care of children, and others needing care, and housework. They argued that the sexual division of labour is hierarchical, placing the man (Connolly’s “slave of capitalist society”) in superior and the woman (“the slave of that slave”) in subordinate positions. The hierarchical principle throughout society has to be eradicated, together with the division of labour between the sexes, if women or men are to have full equality. For Marx and Engels, the abolition of the sexual division of labour under communism will be “an integral part of the ending of all divisions of labour”. [76] They wrote:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. [77]

Cliff explored what more the abolition of all division of labour could mean:

Only after the division of labour has been abolished will men and women attain the full development of their human personality. Communism will therefore bring real freedom to the individual. Communist society, declares The Communist Manifesto, will be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. [78]

Not only is socialism necessary for women to have the freedom to enjoy work, rest, play and bringing up children, the liberation of women is necessary for men to be able to enjoy real freedom too.



Irish men

The Catholic right and some right wing journalists have tried to portray the fight for women’s rights as a “battle of the sexes”, where any advance for women has to mean suffering for men. This is not true. Women certainly bore the brunt of sexual repression and church domination, but men too suffered greatly. The dreadful psychological and psychiatric effects of celibacy and late marriage on the bachelors of rural Ireland are well documented. They lived empty, lonely lives and died alone. [79]

For decades married men who couldn’t get work in Ireland travelled to England to dig ditches, build railways and make motorways. They worked all hours to make money to send home to the wives and children they saw once, at best twice, a year. They shared squalid bedsits for one with two or three other married men. The stereotype of the drunk Irishman in London is of someone who drinks every penny he makes. In fact, many worked such long hours they had time for drinking only, or at least mainly, at weekends. There are loads of songs by and about these men, but we rarely think about what they really meant:

The only time I feel alright is when I’m into drinking
It eases up the pain a bit and stops my mind from thinking
That it’s a long, long way from Clare to here

Working such long hours, they could have afforded a good lifestyle if they hadn’t been sending most of their money home. By no stretch of anyone’s imagination can it be argued these men benefited from the oppression of their wives and daughters in Ireland. Quite the opposite. If there had been jobs open to their wives, maybe they would not have had to live such miserable lives. Then, when they were too old to work, they returned “home” to a wife and children who didn’t know them and who had built lives of which they had no part. And before they had time to get to know these wives and children, the lost years caught up on them and they died strangers in the home they had worked their lives away to build and maintain.

In an atmosphere of total sexual repression, gay men and lesbians had no hope at all of leading happy, open lives. When sexual activity is closely tied to reproduction within a family based on marriage, gay sexuality cannot blossom. When all sexual feeling outside marriage is condemned, all same-sex feelings are condemned. Mick Hanly’s All I Remember describes feelings that could be recognised by anyone, gay or straight, brought up in pre-1980s Ireland:

The priest in confession condemned my obsession
With thoughts that I did not invite
As I mumbled and stuttered he slammed
Down the shutter – goodnight

God kept a very close eye on me
He hung round my bed in the darkness
He spied on me

There used to be a joke that you’d know an Irishman because he was the one who’d climb over a naked woman to get to a Guinness. Generations of Irish children grew up without ever being hugged or kissed by their fathers or seeing affection between their parents. At least the women had the children to love and hold. Like the men living on the family farm waiting for their parents to die and the men living in London bedsits waiting to be able to go home, the men with the best deal, living in Ireland with their own families, often led empty, lonely lives too.

The same forces that have freed up women’s lives in Ireland have freed up men’s. Even ten years ago few men in Ireland would be seen pushing a pram, or know how to change a nappy. That has changed, and what have men lost? Nothing, and gained a lot. They can now hope for a fairly equal relationship with a woman who is a friend, rather than an adversary. With more laid back attitudes to sex, more men as well as women are able to have decent sex lives. They have warm and loving relationships with their children, who generally do not fear their fathers and usually love them. Gay men too have gained. The rapid transformation has produced tolerance, not just for all kinds of non-marital heterosexual relationships, but for homosexual relationships also. Of course, homophobia is still alive and well in Ireland as elsewhere, just as sexism is. So many families are still taken aback when their sons or daughters come out to them. But increasingly parents in Ireland as elsewhere come around, accept their child’s sexuality and end up welcoming their partners into their homes. The questioning of the church’s authority on sexual matters gave men whose childhood had been taken away by paedophile priests the chance to speak out and name and shame their abusers. So, far from losing out to advances in women’s rights, men have benefited considerably.

Men in Ireland have also played their part in helping to win some of the rights gained by women. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Catholic-dominated hospital ethics committees made it impossible for women to get sterilised, Ireland had an extraordinarily high rate of vasectomies. Vasectomy was available on an out-patient basis through the illegal family planning clinics, so men did not have to go through ethics committees. Men in Ireland showed solidarity with their partners by getting the snip in large numbers. [80] The Contraception Action Programme, the Women’s Right to Choose Campaign and the Anti-Amendment Campaign were all mixed organisations, with women in the leadership but large numbers of men involved. In 1984 during the strike of cleaners in University College Dublin the women argued hard and long with the relatively large female workforce of the university for solidarity action. None materialised. The one group of workers who took solidarity strike action was entirely male – construction workers building a new block on the site. While the “sisters” in UCD let the cleaners down, the builders, usually portrayed as macho wolf-whistlers, came through for the women of their class.



Wages, childcare and abortion – the limitations of the Celtic Tiger

There are three areas of women’s rights that cannot be ducked in the Irish Republic. Pay and working conditions, abortion and childcare are all linked. None are easy for even the fastest growing Western economy to solve within the confines of the market.

Wages and childcare: The massive influx of women, and especially married women into the workforce has not been accompanied by a huge rise in working class standards of living. Many women are working simply to maintain previous standards as inflation bites deeper into the family budget. A small layer is doing very well, as illustrated by the quadrupling of sales of BMW and Mercedes cars between 1987 and 1997. But for the majority, the Celtic Tiger means little. Ireland comes second only to the US in having the highest proportion of its workforce categorised as low paid. The share of the workforce earning less than two thirds of median earnings is now 23 percent, one of the highest rates in the OECD. The real hourly earnings of the worst paid 10 percent of the workforce have stagnated or fallen slightly while those of the top 10 percent have risen steadily. As a result, the ratio of earnings of the top decile to the bottom for men working full time increased from 3.5 to 5 times between 1987 and 1994. [81]

The average female industrial wage in 1998 was £220.11 a week, the average male industrial wage £340.55. [82] In the same year the average cost of full daycare in a childminder’s home was £71 a week. [83] The cost of a full time place in most Dublin creches at the end of 2000 was £100 a week. Prices of childcare, as a proportion of parents’ earnings, are amongst the highest in the European Union, with average full-day care prices at 20 percent of average earnings and over 40 percent of the average industrial wage for women. [84] If economic growth is to continue, the government needs to encourage more women into the workforce. But that means providing more affordable childcare, and the market is unable to do that.

Packages of capital grants for private and “community-run” creches and after-school projects have been made available. [85] But the biggest problem faced by providers of childcare facilities is labour costs. Nursery and creche owners find it increasingly difficult to get workers for a wage which allows them both to make a profit and to keep charges at what parents are able to pay. The only way around this for the state is to provide publicly funded creches or to subsidise private and community-run nurseries. That would, however, go against the neo-liberal consensus that the market will provide. So the plan is for more capital grants for providers and cuts in personal tax to help parents pay – which will discriminate against women living in poverty who benefit least from tax relief.

Rocketing house prices make it yet more difficult for families to afford childcare. Even with two full time salaries, many couples on average earnings cannot afford a house. It has been said that this generation of young people is “obsessed and terrorised by property prices”. [86] Small wonder – at the start of the boom in 1994 Dublin house prices were 4.3 times the average annual industrial wage. In 1998 this had risen to 8.2 times. By 2000 the ratio was 10 times plus. [87] Given that banks and building societies are reluctant to lend mortgages of more than three to four times a couple’s combined annual wage, people on average wages just can’t afford to buy houses.

With house prices rocketing, many younger families have no choice but to live in the outer suburbs of the larger cities. Bad planning and bad public transport have contributed to a massive increase in commuting times – some people are spending four hours a day, 20 hours a week, just getting to work, according to the Dublin Transportation Office.

Reducing the abortion rate: This combination of low wages, high childcare and housing costs, and transport problems impacts on the incidence of crisis pregnancies and therefore on the rate of abortion. Any strategy for reducing the abortion rate has to start from the reality of people’s sexual lives today. Most people in any kind of steady relationship are having sex. For most young people a night’s partying includes at least the possibility of sex. So the first thing needed is a free and easily accessible contraceptive service.

Recent government-funded research suggests that the lack of a decent contraception service is to blame for many or most of the unwanted pregnancies ended by Irish women in England. Only a third of the women with crisis pregnancies interviewed had been using reliable contraception. Of these, fewer than 10 percent had been using the pill, with a little more than 20 percent using condoms. Asked why they were not using a reliable contraceptive, there were three main answers: the prohibitive cost; lack of access to a family planning clinic; and fear of being thought a “loose woman”. [88] While contraception is free on the NHS in the North, contraceptive advice and services must be paid for in the South by all but medical card holders. So most young people and all students have to find £30 to £40 to get a few months supply of the pill. Even for many women who have a decent enough job, the cost of a visit to a doctor and then of a prescription puts the pill beyond reach. Making all contraceptive services free on the health service is a first obvious step in reducing the number of abortions. Providing more family planning clinics is also vital.

Many women said they wouldn’t go on the pill if they were not in a steady relationship, although they would have sex occasionally. They cited the attitudes to sex with which they had been brought up. “If you’re on the pill, you’re ready for sex” – they saw this as something to be ashamed of. The research showed condoms to be the most popular method of contraception. When condoms burst – or when someone has unprotected sex – the obvious next step is emergency contraception. However, while the November 2000 Oireachtas report on abortion recommended emergency contraception to be made more easily available, the next month the Irish Medicines Board banned Levonelle, the new progesterone-only “morning-after pill”, now available over the counter in pharmacies in Britain and Northern Ireland. It refused Levonelle a licence because it may work by preventing a fertilised egg from implanting and the constitution still guarantees the fertilised egg’s “right to life” from the moment of conception. [89]

The Women and Crisis Pregnancy report concluded that “while abortion is often considered tantamount to a rejection of nurturance ... many women set high demands for motherhood and speak of how little they can offer a child and the way it contrasts with how much they would like to offer a child, or what they consider appropriate to offer a child”. [90] In other words, women say, “I want better for my children than I would be able to offer now.” Given what we have seen above of the low wage, high cost Celtic Tiger society, most of these women are simply being realistic.

The research indicates that the best way to reduce abortions is to end Catholic church domination of the schools and to have more openness about sex and sexuality. We know that the average age of first sexual intercourse in the Republic in 1997 was just under 16. [91] Sex is not a big deal any more – and it need not be if proper precautions are taken. But that means changing attitudes towards young women being on the pill or carrying condoms. The view of women’s sexuality that sees taking the pill outside of a committed relationship as shameful belongs with the Magdalen Laundries in the 1950s, but it is the view still being peddled in the schools. The idea that “nice girls don’t” or that it’s alright to “get carried away” but not alright to acknowledge your sexuality and protect yourself from getting pregnant lies behind many of the unwanted pregnancies which end in abortion in England. A proper sex education programme, open and explicit about sexual practices and contraception, would go a long way towards reducing the number of abortions.

An opportunity for such a programme arose when the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme was introduced to secondary schools in 1997. But the state failed to stand up to the bishops. The ensuing fudge means that only about half of all schools provide an RSE programme and the content of the programme and the resources used in its teaching are decided by the schools, over 80 percent of them controlled by the bishops. Despite all that has happened, the state still backs off before church-approved bigotry.




There has been a rapid a rate of change over the last 20 years in relation to women’s position in society, to sexuality generally but especially to lesbians and gay men, and to the way children are treated. In other words, change in the form of the family. We have seen how that change has been the result of the interaction of changes in women’s relationship to production with other issues thrown up by those changes. Women workers have been among the first to demand a share of the wealth created by the workers of the Celtic Tiger. Nurses, a profession which had been regarded as a “vocation” went on all-out indefinite strike in 1999 and forced the government to concede many of their demands. But the problems facing women workers in the Irish Republic, as elsewhere, cannot be solved in a society that puts profits ahead of the needs of ordinary people. The opportunities for women to join the workforce are seen as a mixed blessing by many. On the one hand, there have been practical, visible improvements in the position of women in society and in sexual freedom for all. But women (and men) work long hours, their lives are more stressful and, particularly for those with children, can be a difficult juggling act.

Over the last 30 years we have seen global capitalism open the doors of workplaces at all levels to women. While the numbers of women in the boardrooms and parliaments of the world are still tiny, they are growing. As we have seen, there is a small layer of women which is able to sidestep the worst oppression. But the exploitation and oppression of the majority of working people are necessary for the survival of global capitalism. And if the Celtic Tiger’s boom economy cannot deliver on the needs of the mass of women, then it is clear capitalism never will.

The real hope for women’s needs being put before global capitalism lies in the growing anti-capitalist movement. The disproportionate extent to which rampant globalisation impacts on women’s lives has been a theme of critics of neo-liberal development models for over a decade. [92] What is exciting about this new way of putting women’s liberation on the political agenda is the way the root cause of women’s oppression and the real enemy is clearly identified as the same system that exploits the majority of men. And it is important to put women’s liberation at the heart of the anti-capitalist movement in Ireland perhaps more than in many parts of the world. In the slump of the late 1980s the right were able to gather support with slogans like “Jobs not divorce” and questioned the right of married women to work. As the US economy catches a bad cold, economists fear the Celtic Tiger will develop pneumonia. The right will try again to exploit uncertainty and desperation to blame working women for growing unemployment. But women now make up 44 percent of trade union membership. They are a large and quickly radicalising part of the Irish working class. They will not go back to the kitchen.




60. Quoted in J. Beale, op. cit.

61. Ibid.

62. Irish Catholic, 1 April 1982.

63. Quoted in K. Allen, op. cit., p.165.

64. Quoted in N. McCafferty, The Best of Nell, p.55.

65. See A. Smyth, A Sadistic Farce: Women and Abortion in the Republic of Ireland, 1992, in A. Smyth (ed.), The Abortion Papers Ireland (Dublin 1992).

66. Ibid.

67. K Allen, op. cit., p.171.

68. E. McCann, Dear God (London 1999).

69. K. Allen, op. cit., p.167.

70. Central Statistics Office, Quarterly National Household Survey, December 2000.

71. Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Delivering Gender Equality 1999-2004: Fourth Equality Programme (Dublin 1999), p.11.

72. The Missing Sex: Women in Corporate Ireland, Business and Finance, 23 April 1998, pp.20-23.

73. Central Statistics Office, op. cit., p.111.

74. Revenue Commissioners, Statistical Report (Dublin 1999). All figures are in Irish pounds (punts).

75. T. Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation: 1640 to the Present Day (London 1984), p.10.

76. Ibid., p.239.

77. K. Marx and F. Engels, quoted ibid., p.47.

78. T. Cliff, ibid., p.239.

79. C. Curtain and A. Varley, Marginal Men? Bachelor Farmers in a West of Ireland Community, and A. O’Hare and A. O’Connor, Gender Differences in Treated Mental Illness in the Republic of Ireland, both in C. Curtain et al., op. cit.

80. Irish Family Planning Association, Annual Report (Dublin 1989).

81. Ibid., p.76.

82. www.cso.ie/econseries/industry/qibq762.htm. All figures are in Irish pounds.

83. Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare, National Childcare Strategy (Dublin 1999), p.12.

84. Irish Congress of Trade Unions, op. cit., p.5.

85. Irish Times, 19 July 1997.

86. M.A. Wren, Changes In Public Policy Could Ease Stresses, Irish Times, 18 May 2000.

87. K. Allen, op. cit., p.94.

88. E. Mahon et al., Women and Crisis Pregnancy (Dublin 1999).

89. Ireland on Sunday, 17 December 2000.

90. E. Mahon et al., op. cit., p.274.

91. T. Inglis, op. cit.

92. See, for example, S. Joekes and A. Weston, Women and the New Trade Agenda (New York, 1994); W. Vee and N. Heyzer, Gender, Poverty and Sustainable Development (New York, 1995); C. Harman, Globalisation: a Critique of the New Orthodoxy, International Socialism 73 (Winter 1996); A. Hale, Trade Myths and Gender Reality: Trade Liberalisation and Women’s Lives (Manchester, 1998).


Last updated on 5.3.2003