Saturday 22 October 2016

You can do what you like when you're independent, unless the UN says no

It's up to the Irish people, not the United Nations, to decide what to do about abortion, says Eilis O'Hanlon, so what does our latest poll say?

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

‘If we must have a written
Constitution, it should be flexible enough to allow for continual updating'
‘If we must have a written Constitution, it should be flexible enough to allow for continual updating'

The natural reaction, on hearing that a United Nations committee has demanded the Irish Government hold a referendum on appealing the Eighth Amendment, which effectively bans abortion, is surely to ask: Is this the same UN whose arrival in conflict zones is frequently associated with a huge increase in child prostitution?

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The same UN that ran an 'Oil For Food' programme in Iraq that was riven with corruption? The same UN whose peacekeeping forces have been found to be selling arms illegally in certain countries? The same UN whose nepotism and incompetence makes the EU look like a model of democratic accountability? Since when did they become the great moral arbiter?

The report from the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (and isn't that name a dead giveaway when it comes to conveying the smug sense of entitlement that pervades the world's administrative class?) was written following a whole two days of hearings last month, and even calls for another referendum to repeal the clause in the Constitution which seeks to guarantee that women don't have to go out to work to the neglect of their "duties within the home".

That one promotes "pervasive gender inequality", apparently.

The UN is also telling the Irish Government what to do about austerity, because, of course, when you're dealing with the biggest economic downturn in a century, what you really want is the advice of a bunch of self-serving NGOs who get their opinions from another bunch of self-serving NGOs whose members all regularly meet up at conferences and have cocktails whilst setting the world to rights?

Perhaps these organisations should get their own houses in order before lecturing others on their responsibilities?

Unfortunately, far from telling these whited sepulchres to take a running jump, those in Ireland of a self-congratulatory liberal persuasion are more inclined to genuflect in the UN's direction. For them, such organisations have an unimpeachable moral authority which must be respected. They know better than us. They're cleverer, enlightened, more sophisticated. Oh, if only we were more like them!

Meanwhile, next year's 1916 centenary looms, during which we will no doubt imagine ourselves quite the rebels, when in truth we are as pliant as a rock star's groupie. The Irish love being told what to do by outsiders. Some independence, huh? All that changed was the accents of our supposed superiors.

Those with pretensions to intellectualism would no doubt call it a post-colonial mentality. Others might point out defensively that much of the UN's advice was entirely admirable. It was. Help the homeless. Increase protection for those in mortgage arrears. Improve living standards for migrants in direct provision centres. Few would wish to set themselves against such a parade of good intentions.

Even when it comes to recommending that voters should be given the chance to overturn the Eighth Amendment if they so chose, the UN is probably right - though not on articles idealising women in the home, because do we really want an expensive referendum just to remove a clause which has precisely zero practical impact on anyone's life, and never did?

There are few women still of childbearing years who were of an age to vote in the original referendum. That was 1983. The youngest women who could have voted then are 50 now. If any are still having children today, congratulations, and I do hope it's a girl, but most of those who are directly affected by the law on abortion never got an opportunity to say what they think about it. If we must have a written Constitution, it needs to be flexible enough to allow for continual change and updating.

It should, however, be left entirely to the Irish people to decide what to do with their Constitution, not the UN, thanks very much; and what the latest Millward Brown opinion poll shows, once again, is that a settled consensus on abortion has formed in Ireland, or is in the process of being formed.

As it stands, 66pc of people are now in favour of holding a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, with only 19pc against, and 15pc saying, Don't Know

The number of those in favour has remained steady since the last poll in March/April, and has risen significantly since last September, when 56pc of people backed a referendum on the issue.

The number against has remained relatively unchanged, which does seem to accord with anecdotal experience that those who are most pro-life in their views remain a more fixed community of opinion, with most of the movement being between the Yesses and the Don't Knows, with the trend being very much in one direction.

As might be expected, the proportion of those in favour of a referendum is higher among the under-30s than the over-50s; in urban Munster and Leinster, especially Dublin, than rural Connacht/Ulster; and among Labour and Sinn Fein voters than Fianna Failers. But it would be wrong to make sweeping statements about those opposed based on the figures.

The proportion of over-65s opposed to a referendum is higher than the national average, but it's still only 27pc. Irish pensioners are hardly raving reactionaries longing for a return to the good old days of the 1950s. Likewise, the number of FF supporters opposed to a referendum is higher too, but again only by a short margin - 21pc rather than the national average of 19pc.

The figures certainly don't back up those foolishly urging FF leader Michael Martin to specifically tailor positions on liberal issues to make a pitch for the disenfranchised social conservative vote.

What's interesting is that the growing consensus on holding a referendum also remains firm when it comes to deciding the circumstances under which abortion should be permitted. Roughly seven in ten are in favour of allowing abortion where a woman has been raped, or where there is a risk to her life or long-term health.

There's a dip down to 61pc in cases where there is a threat of suicide, but the gap is nowhere near as wide as it once was.

The real wonder is why, when the tide of opinion is clearly flowing in a pro-choice direction, the pro-choice lobby remains so shrilly hostile to any public expression of pro-life sentiment. Pro-lifers maintain that abortion is the unjustified killing of an innocent human being. Surely anyone who sincerely believes that, is morally obliged to oppose abortion?

Yet when they do so, they are vilified, and shouted into silence. Is this how a tolerant liberal society, of a sort demanded by the UN, treats those who are, as the polls now consistently show, a minority?

If anyone should be blamed for the persistence of the Eight Amendment, it's not pro-lifers, who are simply following their consciences, but government ministers who, despite the clear tide in public opinion, are still too cautious or cowardly to allow that voice to be expressed in a referendum.

Sunday Independent

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