‘Life is precious’: Donegal quietly defiant after voting no in referendum

In Donegal town on Sunday, it was not immediately apparent that Ireland had just held one of the most significant votes in its history.

The morning after it emerged that Ireland had voted by a landslide to liberalise abortion laws, the campaign posters still blanketing the rest of the country had already been taken down in the town centre and the badges that were so prominent in other counties were nowhere to be seen.

Donegal stood out on Saturday as the only constituency in Ireland to have voted against repealing the eighth amendment, which had given equal legal status to the lives of a foetus and the woman carrying it.

The country overall voted with a two-thirds majority: 66.4% yes to 33.6% no. In Donegal, the result was 48.13% yes and 51.87% no – with just 2,532 votes making the difference.

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But yes campaigners in Donegal town were taking heart in the result. “We had said as a campaign team that 40% was a victory,” said John Campbell, an independent councillor. “So the result here takes a little bit of shine off the national result. But I don’t think anyone is too disappointed.”

In 1983, when the constitution was amended, only 18% of people in Donegal – then two constituencies – voted against it. The result this time showed a big shift in attitudes. “For a county that was in the church’s vice, we did fantastically well,” said Sinéad Stewart from the campaign Donegal Together for Yes.

The town of Donegal bucked the county trend by voting yes on Friday. At mass in St Patrick’s church, the priest mentioned the result, locals said, but there was no condemnation.

Few residents were willing to talk about the referendum. Many of those who did speak to the Guardian, and had voted no, did not want to be named.

“I don’t like murder,” one woman said, when asked why she voted against the change. “I know you have to consider cases like rape and young girls, but I think that should have been legislated for separately. I feel very sad about this as I think the next thing they will do will be euthanasia. They will stick a needle in us and we’ll be gone.”

She said she did not want to named because she worried about the backlash from others. “I don’t know what way other people think,” she said.

Q&A

Abortion in Ireland – what happens next?

Abortion will not immediately be available to women within Ireland.

The eighth amendment – article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution – which prohibited abortion, will be replaced with a clause stating: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

The Irish government is planning to bring legislation before the Dáil, providing for abortion on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy, with a three-day “cooling off” period before medication is administered.

The prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said he wanted the new law to be enacted by the end of the year.

Between 12 and 24 weeks, abortion will be available only in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, a risk to a woman’s life or a risk of serious harm to the health of the mother. After 24 weeks, termination will be possible in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

There will be provision for conscientious objection among medical practitioners, although doctors will be obliged to transfer care of the pregnant woman to another doctor.

A resident of the town said Donegal’s vote against the change made him feel proud of the area.

“There are special cases, like when a girl has been raped,” he said. “But at the same time I just think life is precious and now they’re just throwing it all away. I know that might be kind of a silly attitude, but I think life is precious.

“I wouldn’t tell a lot of people that I voted no because a lot of people have a one-track mind. The government will do what it wants to do. If it hadn’t been a yes vote they would have had another referendum down the road in six months’ time.”

As well as a low turnout in Donegal, the small margin for no could be partly attributable to geography. The remote location means many young people have left to work and study, and taken their votes with them. According to the 2016 census the under-35s account for 26% of the population, compared with 30% nationally.

The area was also particularly affected by austerity measures after the recession. “People left to [go to] Dublin and the cities, and they’re still there,” said Stewart. “They see themselves as being from Donegal but their vote is registered elsewhere. I have about 15 cousins who moved out of Donegal. They would all have voted yes here.”

Campbell said: “One of the effects of not having those young people here is that conversations with parents that swayed votes were less likely to happen. That could be one factor that explains the result.”

Ciara Haley is one of those students who moved her vote. “I [am] massively disappointed in Donegal’s response, but I am also not surprised. Religion is such a prominent part of our local communities and I think a lot of pressure came from the church,” she said.

“I often feel like Donegal is forgotten about – in this sense it’s quite an isolated county. The infrastructure is seriously lacking. It’s important to remember these issues when criticising Donegal for its ‘backwardness’.”

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