NEWS
27/05/2018 12:38 BST | Updated 29/05/2018 15:00 BST

It's Not Over Yet: What Needs To Happen Next To Legalise Abortion In Ireland

It's now down to the government to change the law.

As the results of Ireland’s abortion referendum were announced to rapturous crowds of pro-choice campaigners at Dublin Castle on Saturday, it marked the start of a new era in the country’s history. 

Almost 35 years after the Eighth Amendment was first introduced into Ireland’s constitution, giving pregnant women and unborn foetuses the same right to life, 66.4% of voters cast their ballot in favour of legalising abortion

But despite the ‘Repeal’ campaign’s landslide victory - with all but one constituency in Ireland voting ‘Yes’ - the day after the referendum result was revealed, Irish women are still unable to access terminations in their own country. 

So what happens next? 

The responsibility of carrying out the will of the Irish public now falls to the country’s government, led by prime minister Leo Varadkar, an outspoken supporter of the ‘Yes’ campaign. 

Varadkar’s health minister, Simon Harris, pledged on Saturday to push forward with new abortion laws following Ireland’s decisive vote, leading chants at Dublin Castle of “Yes we did”. 

On Tuesday, Harris will put draft legislation before the cabinet for backing, with the new legal framework expected to be tabled in the Dublin Parliament in the autumn.  

Niall Carson - PA Images via Getty Images
Candle and flowers are placed in front of a mural of Savita Halappanavar in Dublin

Under the prospective legislation, women will be able to access abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, subject to medical advice and a three-day cooling off period. In exceptional circumstances, terminations up to 24 weeks will also be permitted.  

The government hopes the new abortion regime will become law by the end of the year. 

Speaking on Saturday in the wake of the referendum result, Varadkar said the vote marked “the day Ireland stepped out from under the last of our shadows and into the light”.

“Today, we have a modern constitution for a modern people,” he added. 

What does this mean for Northern Ireland?  

Following the result in Ireland, focus has now turned to north of the border. 

Despite being in the UK, abortion is effectively illegal in Northern Ireland, and is barred even in cases of incest and rape. 

The DUP has signalled its opposition to the relaxation of abortion laws, with the party’s leader Arlene Foster saying Ireland’s referendum has “no impact upon the law in Northern Ireland”. 

“A referendum was held in the Republic of Ireland because of the constitutional prohibition on abortion that existed there. No such constitutional bar exists in Northern Ireland,” Foster said. 

“The DUP is a pro-life party and we will continue to articulate our position. It is an extremely sensitive issue and not one that should have people taking to the streets in celebration.

“I want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly restored and put no preconditions on the immediate establishment of an executive.

“Some of those demanding change are the same people blocking devolution or demanding that Westminster change the law whilst simultaneously opposing direct rule.”

But other politicians and activists have voiced their support for relaxing the country’s stance on abortion. 

At Dublin Castle, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald and deputy leader Michelle O’Neill held up a banner with the words: “The North is next.” 

Meanwhile, Tory education minister Anne Milton told ITV’s Peston On Sunday she will back liberalisation of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. 

“I understand there was a survey last year that showed a majority for a change in the law in Northern Ireland,” she said. 

“It does feel anomalous and we are offering abortions for women from Northern Ireland (in England), that doesn’t feel quite right.

“It will be for the Northern Irish to reflect on.”

Given there was no assembly, she said if an amendment was put forward by an MP there should be a free vote and “personally, I believe in a woman’s right to choose”.