2018 is the new 1916. There are turning points that define a nation, and last week’s referendum on the Eighth Amendment was one of those moments. The Easter Rising was only the beginning of a long process that eventually allowed the Irish people to claim their sovereignty and perform their autonomy. Autonomy was also a major theme in the May 2018 referendum, the decision to repeal the amendment of the constitution being fundamentally about respecting each woman’s self-ownership and self-determination.

As soon as the news of the exit polls was broadcast on RTE’s The Late Late Show, the proclamation of a seismic shift in public attitude in Ireland could be heard repeatedly on every radio and television station, and echoed on all the social media platforms. A recurrent soundbite was that "change has arrived", that Irish people have ushered in "a new dawn" with this poll, that this referendum marks the birth of "a new Ireland".

From RTÉ One's Late Late Show, David McCullagh announces the results from the RTÉ exit poll on the Referendum on the Eighth Amendment

There is truth in this and, in the immediate aftermath of a long battle, euphoria has to be embraced. The significance of this referendum cannot be overestimated. Anyone who stands for social justice, equality, and human rights will welcome the result, and both the outcome of the referendum and the margin of victory should be celebrated. 

For now, this referendum changes everything, but there is still work to be done. It would be unforgivable to become complacent and assume the finality of these changes. This referendum does not mark the end, but the beginning of another long political process. The gender pay gap is still a huge embarrassment and some professions are still overwhelmingly populated by men. Sexual violence and domestic abuse are still part of our society, and then there is the recent cervical cancer scandal, and its many unanswered questions.

The concept of structural injustice can explain why Ireland had been dragging its feet on the abortion issue for so long

Change is also unpredictable. In Poland, new drastic restrictions on abortion are being considered, while there is talk in Italy of introducing new legislation aimed at tightening abortion laws there. It’s important to remember that while things can change for the better, there is always a risk that things will revert back in the future. The euphoria that welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall in eastern Europe in 1989 has now been replaced by a very different and frightening reality.

The concept of structural injustice can explain why Ireland had been dragging its feet on the abortion issue for so long. According to the American philosopher Iris Marion Young, structural injustice occurs whenever limitations unfairly constrain the opportunities of some while granting privileges to others.

The oppression which results from structural injustice often does not take the form of intentional coercion. Instead, it stems from the everyday practices of people who fail to question norms, habits and the many hidden assumptions underlying institutional rules. Structural violence can help to explain why the majority of women voted in favour of the Eighth Amendment in September 1983.

From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald, co-director of Together For Yes Ailbhe Smith, Director of the Iona Institute David Quinn, and journalists Larissa Nolan, Fintan O’Toole, and Alison O’Connor discuss what the referendum result means for them and for Ireland

Young singles out five categories of oppression that also double as categories of injustice: exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. Structural injustice and the five categories of oppression have always been part of the fabric of Irish society - and still are in many ways.

This is a country that only legalised divorce in 1995, contraception in 1980 and where women were forced to give up their civil service jobs when they got married until 1973. In the 1970s, Irish women were barred from entering many pubs and were not served at the counter. Until very recently, women were unable to get a restraining order against a violent partner, were not permitted by law to refuse sex from their husbands and, before 1976, were unable to own their home outright.

It is also necessary to change the culture that gives legitimacy to these laws

There seems to be a pattern here. Exploitation and marginalisation are the essence of the Magdalene laundry scandal. Violence and powerlessness are symptomatic of the mother and baby home scandals. And in the run-up to the recent referendum, the rhetoric used by some campaigners and sympathisers on the No side suggested a still deeply ingrained misogyny.

As the unfolding scandal of illegal adoptions at St Patrick's Guild reminds us, structural injustice has deep roots. To fight structural injustice requires making legal changes and the 2018 referendum is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But structural injustice tends to be enduring and introducing formal changes at an institutional level is not sufficient per se to uproot injustice. It is also necessary to change the culture that gives legitimacy to these laws. 

Many things have changed in Ireland in the last few decades, but more changes are still necessary. This is a country where more than 90 percent of primary schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church and where sex education in schools is still woefully inadequate. Perhaps the next referendum should be aimed at breaking the virtual monopoly of religious institutions over Irish schools? This would ensure that every child is introduced to secular ethics and proper sex education, which ought to include a discussion of the human right to health and the right of women to decide what is best for them in case of an unwanted pregnancy.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ