News Analysis

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Baby Ann case shows 'new' Ireland is really only skin deep

Published 16/11/2006 | 00:11

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NOT quite as modern as we like to congratulate ourselves, are we? As the Baby Ann case highlights.

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One small but revealing detail preoccupies me in relation to this poignant and defining episode in the lives of two couples: the young pair who found they were having a baby felt they couldn't confide in their parents.

The year was 2004 and a couple of university students in their early twenties, who might be considered representatives of the dynamic new face of Ireland, seem to have felt ashamed and compromised by a pregnancy outside marriage. Isn't that a morality which harks back to the Magdalene laundries? What's it doing rearing its head in our Starbucks society with its Google and Microsoft plants, its revitalised docklands and almost-settled Northern question? This reference point in the Baby Ann case shakes the received wisdom that when Ireland was propelled into the 21st century at warp speed, its people embraced social change without reservation.

Straining at the bit to break loose and live a little, we were. Or so we hear. However, our attitude to sexuality, our need for parental approval and our urge to conform to expectations are deep-seated and often spring from more conservative days before the boom. We may live in a society where we can order a takeaway caramel macchiato en route to work at a computer terminal, sending emails by Blackberry as we queue to pay. But none of that makes us immune to the age-old worry about what others think of us. The trappings of a technological age don't override typically human concerns about becoming the subject of gossip or shaming parents. The progressive Ireland of popular modern lore may be a less sturdy construct than we realise - after all, the enormous sociological and economic transformation of our society has only happened in the last decade or so. As recently as eight years ago, an acquaintance was scolded by her bank manager when she applied for a mortgage after separating from the boyfriend with whom she co-owned a home. "You can't go around buying properties every time you take up with a new boyfriend," he tut-tutted, applying a moral dimension to the financial question of loan authorisation. We like to tell ourselves Ireland has been internationalised as well as revolutionised. Some even suggest we're living in a post-Catholic society. But the roots of this polished-up version of our nation are more urban than rural. And more people live outside Dublin than in the capital. Viewpoints and mores expressed in metropolitan areas aren't necessarily representative of anywhere but those metropolitan areas - a conclusion we seem incapable of taking into account.

There's something else, too, that's telling about the Baby Ann case. When the birth parents changed their minds about the adoption, they acted on legal advice and became husband and wife to improve their custody chances. Marriage continues to be prioritised and the children of married parents are treated differently to those who operate without the imprimatur of the law, even though a third of births now take place outside marriage. Married people don't only have enhanced rights to their children, as the Supreme Court spelled out by returning Baby Ann to her biological parents, they have other advantages as well.

These include tax credits and pension and inheritance rights which are denied to cohabiting couples. Such inducements could be described as a reward for being 'good' boys and girls and letting the state become involved in our private business. Or they could be called outdated, unjust and unenlightened.

Yet we tell ourselves Ireland is the most modern country in Europe. We're continually gloating over statistics showing we have more holiday homes or luxury cars or underfloor heating or marble bathrooms per head of population than the rest of the EU. But it takes more than the keys to an 06 SUV to make us modern.

Modernity is only skin deep with us. Affluence is no guarantee of it - home ownership, lucrative employment, surrounding ourselves with the glittering paraphernalia of success doesn't mean we're automatically modern. Our attitudes haven't kept pace with our credit card spending. This out-of-sync approach is generated from the top down. Our Government retains a traditional deference to the Catholic Church, for example, sometimes at the expense of its employer the taxpayer. The deal struck by that woefully inept former education minister Michael Woods with church representatives over sex abuse compensation left the country as exposed as Croke Patrick on a blustery day.

But I bet Woods is still getting his ministerial pension - and a warm welcome at the church social. Gay marriage? No sign of any contemporary leanings there. Hide them away, for the love of heaven. Contraception? Ask anyone who tried to buy condoms in the suburb of Glasthule, Co Dublin, and was sent packing by a chemist imposing her ethical code on her customers.

Then there's our continuing fear of facing up to abortion. Ever since gin and knitting needles were paired - and well before that, come to think of it - women have occasionally tried to end pregnancies.

As they always will. Rather than establish a medically controlled environment for this to happen in, we prefer to export our problem to abortion clinics in Britain. Shoving it under the carpet in the time-honoured Irish way of dealing with difficulties.

If we're modern, it's only in our accumulation of material possessions. As for the rest of what modernity entails, it's a state of affairs where we're still playing catch-up.

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