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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 00:12 GMT
Analysis: Ahern's abortion setback
Badges indicating mixed feelings of a voter
The referendum was criticised for being confusing
test hello test
By James Helm
BBC correspondent in Dublin

The many weeks of complex, divisive debate are over and Ireland's voters - or at least about 43% of them - have spoken.

The support of the Catholic bishops and the main pro-life group wasn't enough to save Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's proposal to change the law on abortion.

So what does the result tell us?

The turnout was low - due in part to bad weather on voting day, but possibly due more to the confusion arising from the sheer complexity of this debate.

Mr Ahern's response will be to stress that this referendum represented voters' personal, moral decisions on the contentious issue of abortion

So many voters I spoke to found the intricate medical, legal and political arguments surrounding the abortion referendum difficult to follow.

Almost as difficult to comprehend was the way in which campaign groups lined up for and against the proposal.

Supporting the No vote, for instance, were arch-enemies from pro-choice and arch-conservative pro-life traditions.

Next, the results reinforced what many people already suspected: views, and voting behaviour, on abortion varies between town and country.

Dublin, whose electorate makes up about one-third of the total vote, was strongly against the proposal to remove the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion.

But more rural areas tended to go along with the prime minister and the Catholic Church and vote Yes.

Social split

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ruairi Quinn, told me he thought the result was a victory for a "modern and progressive Ireland".

Bertie Ahern
Ahern: Disappointed
Many would disagree with him, but the split does highlight a difference in social attitudes.

As for the prime minister himself, this referendum defeat is hardly ideal preparation for his party's annual conference this weekend.

There may well be some criticism from within Fianna Fail's ranks at the way the campaign was run.

Added to Mr Ahern's defeat in last year's Nice Treaty referendum on European issues, this defeat represents a political setback, at least in the short term.

All eyes will now switch to Ireland's general election, which is expected to take place early in May.

It's clear that Mr Ahern's response will be to stress that this referendum represented voters' personal, moral decisions on the contentious issue of abortion, rather than a political judgment on his government.

Bertie Ahern, Irish Prime Minister
"Today's result is a culmination of a substantial consultation process"
The BBC's Anita McVeigh
"It is likely that the arguments are certainly not going to go away"
Minister for Public Enterprise Mary O'Rourke
"The people said no"

Irish abortion
Your reaction to the referendum result?
See also:

26 Jun 01 | Europe
Ireland wavers on abortion
27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
03 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Legal challenge to NI abortion law
20 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
No change to abortion law
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