For centuries, public leaders have resorted to a distasteful tool to get their way fast. Division. They tend to follow a simple, but effective playbook: Look for something only 'their people' have in common, then single out the 'others', who are now declared inferior. Whip up an urgent sense of a sacred, existential mission, that justifies any means. History is full of terrible events that used this playbook: wars, civil wars, sectarian violence, genocide, identity politics. We don't need to look far back into history. Think Brexit, think Rwanda, think Trump, think Scottish- or Catalan independence, think the fight over abortion rights in America. Division does nothing to heal or enrich democracy. In all these cases, public leaders chose division as an effective way to preserve their power, or get their next big win. For communities, it is a downward spiral that is hard to escape. Why, then, did public leaders in Ireland decide on a different path to tackle their most divisive issue? Historically, a socially conservative catholic country, Ireland took the Slow Lane to remove a Draconian ban on abortion from its constitution.
The Eternal Temptation
Before we get to Ireland and its peaceful settlement on abortion in 2018, I want to take you back to an experience I had in Barcelona in 2012. It is but the smallest reminder of the lure of identity politics. One morning, I was called over by a group of pro-independence political activists to their information stall. They asked me if I was going to vote for Catalan independence from the Spanish state in the upcoming referendum. "Why," I asked, "would I?". I was with my daughters, eight and five years old, at the time. Both had been born and raised in Barcelona, had spoken Catalan as their first language at school and kindergarten for years. At home, we sang Catalan nursery rhymes. On hearing my question, I could see the activists lose interest once I replied in Spanish, not Catalan. It may not sound like much, but this was the first time, after a decade of living in Barcelona, that I had the courage to ask a pro-independence activist to pitch me. I never dared ask until then because whenever conversations turned to Catalan nationalism, foreigners, like myself, were told to shut up in no uncertain terms. We were told that we would never understand because we weren't Catalan. But why weren't we?
When What Divides Us Trumps Everything
When we first moved to Barcelona, the region's nationalism had felt benign. It felt like a way of preserving a regional identity, celebrating the language and culture. As my children were born there, I began to wonder. Were we now Catalan, too? Were the girls? Things really began to change when the financial crisis of 2008 brought to light serious financial mismanagement and political corruption in the region. As the scandal unfolded, the otherwise moderate regional president Artur Mas tried to divert attention by conjuring up Catalan nationalist sentiment. According to him, it wasn't a matter of finance or corruption, but of 'us' (the Catalans) against 'them' (the Spanish).
What for years had felt like a welcoming regional identity began to turn more overtly divisive by the day. Mas even referred to the "Catalan DNA" as being non-Spanish. A 2012 'informal' independence referendum began to divide society further. At school, some children began to refuse to speak Spanish. Families were divided. Politicians took more and more polarizing positions, forcing voters to choose parties on a single issue. Public leaders seemed to answer the question for me. Foreigners, like us, were, at best, an afterthought in the independence project. In matters of identity, bloodlines trumped all else.
Years later, in 2018, I learned about the Irish referendum on abolishing the paragraph banning abortion from the constitution. Now, living in America, we had lived through a bruising and divisive presidential election. There were referendums notable mainly for their false and divisive claims like those of Catalonia and Brexit. The results from Ireland were soothing because they seemed so orderly. Instead of polarization, it seemed to offer hope for democracy. I wondered, does the story of Ireland hold clues about how we can help people in power withstand the temptation to use division as a means to their next win?
A 157-Year Journey to Empowerment
In 1861, the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland passed the Offenses against the Person Act that penalized abortion with a life sentence. It remained in place in predominantly Catholic Ireland, and was reinforced by the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution in 1983 after pro-life campaigners feared a judicial ruling against the 1861 law. The 'Eighth' was supported by the three main political parties of the time, and approved by 66.9% of the population in a referendum. It was only in 2018, that it was replaced with a law permitting abortion and the removal of the Eighth as the result of a national referendum carried by wide-ranging support, with 66.4% of Irish voters in favor of legalizing abortion. Ireland had settled a painfully divisive issue peacefully, and strengthened its democracy along the way.
The Right Activist, In the Right Place, At the Right Time
Many people who had studied this story had told me about Katherine Zappone. She, they told me, was a central figure in the process. As our Zoom call connected me to her in her home in New York City, I had two questions on my mind. Why had Ireland not made abortion a matter of eternal political division? And what had led to this peaceful resolution? Like so many key players in the Slow Lane, her story mattered a lot. Born in Seattle, she became a theologian and moved to Ireland in 1982, just months before the introduction of the Eighth. She was a self-described feminist. Her partner (later wife) was the theologian Ann Louise Gilligan, a former nun. Together, they founded An Cosán in 1986, one of Ireland's largest providers of education and services to empower women and girls from disadvantaged areas. Teaching feminist theology in Ireland, the Eighth began to take a central role in her work. The issue also eventually forced her out of catholic institutions. She joined Ireland's leading university instead.
Katherine became a leading advocate for better abortion rights, and marriage equality. Their first success happened in 1992, when a referendum stopped the introduction of even more hard line clauses to the constitution, and led to amendments that allowed sharing information about abortion services abroad. It took another 21 years until the next win, the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. Then, in 2016, Katherine became an independent member of parliament and joined the cabinet of prime minister Enda Kenny, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Her appointment was essential to the prime minister, who needed her vote to form a minority government. Katherine, who didn't see eye to eye on most issues with this socially conservative politician, had a single condition to join his government: She wanted a citizen assembly on abortion reform.
The Path of Peaceful Deliberation
I called Jane Suiter, a Professor of Communications at Dublin City University, and one of the leading scholars on citizen assemblies in Ireland. I wanted to know why, of all things, Katherine had demanded a citizen assembly. Jane is told me that since the 1983 adoption of the Eighth, the harsh terms of the law had created a growing number of legal challenges. High-profile cases revealed the inhumane conditions the law created for victims of rape, or women and girls in other life-threatening situations. Even the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on Ireland to do something about a law that was exceptionally cruel to women. But the dominant political parties, all socially conservative, had little appetite for an issue that the media portrayed only in its extremes.
In parallel, Jane and colleagues at political science departments at Irish universities became increasingly concerned about the decline in informed political debate. In 2009, they formed a working group to develop new ways forward. By 2011, they organized "We the Citizens", a first experimental citizen assembly. The goal was to find a way to slow down decision-making on critical, and divisive issues and avoid political posturing by letting randomly selected citizens develop recommendations. "We the Citizens" inspired an act of parliament in 2012, that established a first national citizen assembly, the Irish Constitutional Convention. It was a new deliberation process, made up of one hundred people. One of the most notable outcomes was that its recommendations led to legalization of same-sex marriage in a referendum on May 22, 2015. Katherine hoped this process could find a peaceful resolution on abortion, too.
Here is how the citizen assembly worked, that led to the abolition of the Eighth Amendment. In 2016, the Irish government created a citizen assembly, modelled on the experience of the Constitutional Convention. The assembly was chaired by Justice Mary Laffoy, a former supreme court judge. Ninety-nine members would be invited to develop recommendations for the parliament on eight themes. As demanded by Katherine, what to do about the Eighth Amendment was one of them. Thirty-three of the members were appointed by political parties in parliament. Sixty-six members were ordinary citizens selected at random by a jury, to be representative of social, economic and geographic backgrounds. Prior to deliberations, an open call invited the public to present their views. They presented 13,000 submissions.
Mary Laffoy, the chair, invited seventeen organizations to make presentations to the assembly, representing the different sides on the abortion debate. Members met to hear presentations, consulted experts, and deliberated for 18 months before the assembly voted on recommendations for constitutional reform. Recommendations reflected the different views of the assembly. Options included abolishing or reforming the Eighth, as well as views on the application of time limits for abortion relative to the age of the fetus, consideration of other circumstances like rape, or health risks to women. The government led a debate of the report in parliament, as mandated by law. In May 2018, the government presented the abolition of the Eighth for a constitutional referendum. 66.4% of voters voted in favor of abolishing the Eighth. A new law, the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Act, was adopted that legalized abortion up to twelve weeks of gestation.
The Phone Call That Ended of Fast Leadership
According to Jane, the experience of poor decision-making during the financial crisis played a big role in making the citizen assemblies possible. In 2008, facing the collapse of the financial system, government leaders in Ireland had found themselves in a similar position to leaders in Spain (see Story #3). In an ad-hoc phone meeting at six in the morning, the cabinet decided to guarantee all banks. A decision that cost Irish taxpayers billions and caused years of hardship, was taken by phone, in a rush, with no evidence. In part, this rushed decision came about because citizens expected decisive leadership. But later, after the fallout became clear, citizens were looking for a different way. Assemblies offered a new way forward, a way in which citizens could participate in big, complex, and nuanced decisions.
Building Back Better Belief Systems
After the financial crisis, Ireland also found itself grappling with its values. Before the collapse, Ireland self-proclaimed its fast growth economic model as the 'Celtic Tiger'. It had hoped that by unleashing financial markets and globalization, it would deliver sustainable wealth and progress. But the financial crisis brought humiliation, austerity and grief. When I attended a summit in Dublin in 2012, I heard public leaders talk about a sense of shame over what had happened in the Tiger years. Shame in letting speculation go so far, and a sense that their decision-making (including the 6am phone conference to bail out banks) had served financial over human needs. It was an incredible moment of reckoning, of a country coming to terms with its Fast Lane ways that had led it astray from its tradition of humility and neighborly values. People wanted a better way forward.
The rapid decline of influence from the Catholic Church was another enabler of Ireland's transformative citizen assemblies. Historians, journalists, activists, commissions, and parliamentary inquiries began in the 1990s to reveal a history of abuse of women and thousands of children by the church. By challenging the purity of the rigid doctrines of the past, the revelations made room for rebalancing people's religious beliefs, and human rights. Ireland's was a late mover on both investigating abuse, and later reforms when compared to other European countries. Katherine, and activists like her, found themselves not just demanding change, but also cushioning this transition from a country organized around a church to a country organized around human rights. As a feminist, the first openly gay cabinet minister, and a theologian married to a former nun, she seemed to embody this transition. A trusted member of the prime minister's cabinet, she helped government leaders settle their own difficult questions of faith and values.
Real Division Was Always Just a Short Drive Away
What happened in Ireland was neither an accident, nor was it a truly coordinated societal effort. Instead, it looks more like something that was in the making, crawling toward resolution for generations. More than a matter of abortion laws, it was a symptom of broken societal systems holding back progress on a range of human rights issues. Katherine and Jane had no real answers to my question as to why politicians chose not to use abortion to divide the country, as it did in America.
Northern Ireland must have played into it. Belfast is just a two-hour drive from Dublin. When I visited West Belfast in the late 1990's, shortly before the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland, I got a glimpse of what can happen when you go all the way in the game of division. High walls separated catholic and protestant communities after decades of sectarian violence. Police trucks with snipers patrolled catholic neighborhoods in an attempt to control the 'troubles', the uprising against British rule of Northern Ireland. Neighborhood police stations were fortified like bunkers in a war zone. Taxis were either serving catholic or protestant neighborhoods. It was a city divided. And a reminder for Dublin to not gamble everything, but play it slow.
A Roller-Coaster, A Crash, An Elegant Landing
More than anything, it may have been the deep soul-searching that Ireland underwent following the financial, and abuse crises, that led to its peaceful and inclusive reform of abortion laws. It was a moment of reckoning, but also unlearning. Too many people had made mistakes, had misplaced trust, had believed in economic growth, looked the other way. Like many other countries, Ireland got its wake-up call. Unlike others, Ireland chose to slow down by creating citizen assemblies to deliberated complex questions. And these citizen assemblies got things done, proved productive. Over the course of a decade, Ireland passed important constitutional and policy reforms.
Unlike Spain, it wasn't radical new political parties that uprooted the Irish political establishment. Instead, mindsets and belief systems shifted, helped along by widely respected institutions, universities, movements. And people like Justice Mary Laffoy, Katherine, and Jane, who helped fill the void. They offered guidance when long-held power structures and belief systems fell apart. The citizen assembly was the kind of instrument that helped navigate the end of this critical period, into long-overdue reforms. It helped heal democracy, by giving citizens a say on issues that had proven difficult to solve by conventional political means, without sacrificing nuanced understanding of issues.
Thank you for reading this story, as always, please share this story, and please share your feedback. In my next story, I will conclude this chapter on healing democracy.