Ireland was ready for same-sex marriage, but is it ready to legalize abortion? 

DUBLIN: The wedding photograph was quite startling, and an indication of how transformed Ireland has become.

The occasion was last week’s nuptials in Co. Cork of Irish Senate Chairman Jerry Buttimer to his long-time boyfriend. Also in the photograph was Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with his boyfriend Matthew Barrett, a doctor.

In attendance was former Taoiseach Enda Kenny as well as leading members of all political parties, the legal profession and the media. In others words, the great and the good - minus any leading Catholic Church figures, of course.

Such a scene would have been unfathomable just a few years ago, and unthinkable a generation ago. The pace of social change in Ireland has been dizzying in scope. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in the 1970s.  Now the leaders of both houses of the Irish government are gay men, and gay marriage is legal.

Changed times, but are they changed as much as we think? We will soon find out.

There are two major events planned for 2018 that will test the mood of the Irish electorate and possibly a third.

The first is a referendum, expected to be held in May, that will likely ask approval from the electorate to allow abortion up to 12 weeks. The second is the visit of Pope Francis in August. The third could well be a general election sparked by either of those events or perhaps some other, yet unknown issue.

Read moreIrish citizens vote for unrestricted abortion rights

What effect, if any, could a visit from Pope Francis have on an abortion referendum?

What effect, if any, could a visit from Pope Francis have on an abortion referendum?

Remember, the Irish government is being propped up by main opposition party Fianna Fáil, an arrangement that could end at any time as it almost did just before Christmas when a policing scandal broke.

Ireland was ready for gay marriage when it passed a referendum in 2015, but is it ready for legal abortion? The answer is truly unknown.

Up to 4,000 Irish women officially flee to Britain every year for abortions; perhaps thousands more are never reported. Matters came to a head with the 2012 death of Indian-born Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who was refused an abortion at a Galway hospital even though the fetus she was carrying was non-viable.  Its life took priority over hers, and there was a huge outcry.

While these are clearly emotive issues, the anti-abortion side sees this referendum as an opportunity to draw a line in the sand on liberal social issues.

It is a far more complex issue than gay marriage which was ultimately about the wishes of consenting adults, something that had the power of a fundamental right about it.

Abortion in Irish politics is as divisive an issue as there has ever been and is regularly fought about in every decade.

Read more: Irish abortion laws violate human rights, claims UN

Rally for Repeal in Dublin in 2017. Image: RollingNews.ie.

Rally for Repeal in Dublin in 2017. Image: RollingNews.ie.

For the church, beaten down by the pedophile scandals, it is an opportunity to snatch the high moral ground again on an issue that opens the coffers of their most dedicated followers.

On the pro-12 week legal abortion issue, there are many of the same forces that aligned with the LGBT community on the same-sex marriage vote.

Then there is the X factor – the pope’s visit. Pope Francis is remarkably popular in Ireland. The shadow that his imminent visit will cast is a major question: how much impact he will have.

Experts believe that the younger Irish generation, far more socially liberal and highly approving of their hip young taoiseach, will sway the vote sufficiently.

But I would not bet on it.  There are an enormous number of conservatives waiting in the long grass to pounce on this issue. Expect a close run thing, no matter what the polls say.

If the referendum fails, Varadkar will be on the back foot and Fianna Fáil may take the opportunity to seek an election.  It looks like a very interesting year ahead in Ireland.

Would you vote for Ireland to legalize abortion at 12 weeks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, below. 

Pro-choice and pro-life protesters in Dublin in 2017. RollingNews.ie