Notes from the front of 30-05-2018

Ireland repeals anti-abortion 8th amendment

On 25 May an historic referendum vote in Ireland ended in a 2:1 vote to repeal the amendment to the constitution (the 8th amendment) which equates the life of a woman with the life of a foetus and since 1983 has effectively prohibited abortion in all bar exceptional circumstances.

This legislation led to at least 10 women a day travelling abroad, mainly to the UK for their abortions and others taking online abortion pills at home. A fatal consequence of confusion around the law contributed to the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Savita died from sepsis after doctors in a Galway hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy when she was miscarrying. Many yes campaigners are calling for the new abortion law to be named ‘Savita’s law’ and images of Savita dominated the campaign.

Every county in Ireland but one – Donegal – voted in favour of repeal, text which read ‘Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy’ and in spite of concerns that there would be a close vote split by generations, the exit poll indicated that support for repeal has a broad base, with a majority in most age groups voting in favour. The anticipated pattern of stronger support among younger voters has materialised, with 87per cent of those aged 18- 24 voting in favour of repeal, compared with 40per cent of those aged 65 and older.

While both men and women have voted in favour of repeal – and by comfortable margins in both cases – the strength of the Yes vote was much higher among women. Seventy per cent of women have voted in favour of repeal, compared with 65 per cent of men.

Turnout has been confirmed at 64.5per cent, more than three points higher than in the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2015 and a record in an Irish referendum.

The next step is for a Dáil vote on abortion legislation. 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 abortion medication is administered.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said he planned to have the new law enacted by the end of the year.

North Korea talks back on… or perhaps not

In the space of ten days, in a display of typically Trumpian diplomacy, the White House first announced the date and venue of the anticipated Trump-Kim Jong-un summit; a few days later Trump said the scheduled talks might not take place after all due to North Korean intransigence on full denuclearisation; a day or two later they were back on with Trump saying the US was prepared to be ‘flexible’; then the White House announced the talks were definitely off; and finally they are back on again, though maybe not on 12 June.

So what is going on? It is not simply that Trump is erratic – although he clearly has a tendency to jump in one direction then another, without fully planning and preparing where he is going. The on-off situation around the North Korea talks reflects sharp divisions in the US ruling class on foreign policy orientation, including on how to deal with Korea.

On the one hand, hardline hawks, like National Security Advisor, John Bolton, have long advocated ‘regime change’ in North Korea. Bolton responded to the developing peace process by advocating the ‘Libya model’ for the DPRK’s nuclear disarmament, spelled out as meaning that the DPRK should ship its entire nuclear arsenal out of the country and grant international inspectors untrammelled access to its nuclear sites, before it received any economic or other concessions.

This is not only unacceptable to North Korea – which offers incremental roll back of its nuclear programme in return for political, economic and security concessions from the US – but the reference to the ‘Libya model’ implies a threat that this would be followed by US military backing for regime change as played out in Libya a few years after the nuclear deal.

Not surprisingly, when Vice President Pence echoed Bolton’s words on Libya and added that the military option had ‘never come off the table’ if Kim Jong-un did not make a deal, the North Koreans reacted by questioning whether the US was serious about the peace talks or whether it was in fact sabotaging them before they took place.

It was at this point that Trump pulled out of the talks. It is speculated this was because he thought the DPRK was about to pull out and wanted to get in first; but whatever his reasoning it appeared to be a victory for the White House hawks who had never been keen on the peace process.

However other factors play against the hawks. Firstly, close advisers like Pompeo and Mnuchin advocate a more pragmatic and less ideological approach to foreign policy. Their aim, like the hawks, is, of course, to maintain the pre-eminent position of the US but without pushing issues to military or economic confrontations.

Secondly, the South Korean population is overwhelmingly in support of the talks, giving South Korean president Moon a strong incentive to pursue the peace process whatever the gyrations of the US. A surprise further meeting between Moon and Kim on 26 May underlined that the US position on the peninsula may suffer if the US absents itself from the unfolding détente between North and South.

And thirdly, Kim and the DPRK reacted to the cancellation of the talks with moderate language, kind words for Trump and encouragement to resume the process. A little flattery for Donald Trump has a decidedly emollient effect on the President’s ego.