The man wired to fight abortion
Published 07/10/2001 | 00:11
Gayle Killilea meets Justin Barrett of the anti-abortion group Youth Defence, which led the No to Nice campaign
'IF WE didn't get an abortion referendum this November we were going to have an abortion referendum next June and it would be called a general election. I think Bertie Ahern knew that," says Justin Barrett, Youth Defence's chief spokesman and mastermind.
Last week, the Taoiseach, who's been accused of avoiding difficult decisions over the past four years, confronted what appears to be the most explosive issue possible: he has decided to have an abortion referendum.
Perhaps Mr Ahern bowed to pressure. Ever since Justin Barrett orchestrated the No to Nice campaign the Taoiseach knows how formidable an opposition Youth Defence can be. On a more cynical note, perhaps he knew the abortion issue could divide Fine Gael and nearly destroy Labour. (According to some Labour councillors there has already been a frightening backlash against the Labour Party in working class areas over their "right to choose" stance.) Justin Barrett believes that Bertie Ahern is trying to drum up the pro-life vote for Fianna Fáil before the next election, a vote he believes is considerable.
For the next six weeks the abortion issue is going to be an all-consuming debate. For 30-year-old Barrett it is the most consuming issue in his life. I suspect the abortion argument is closer to his heart than he is willing to admit either to himself or to others. Justin was adopted as a child; in another era he could have been aborted.
"I'm aware that is certainly a possibility. I was born in 1971, four years into the British abortion regime. It's not a motivating factor. I'm aware of it, but it would be clichéd of me to say that because of my personal circumstances I am therefore motivated by that. I think of the mothers and children of today and what they will face in an abortion culture." Very noble. You just have to meet Mr Barrett to realise that he is like an emotional iceberg, and therefore unable to cope with the reality that we're all motivated by personal circumstances.
"Bright-eyed, well-spoken, good-humoured, driven by that fierce inspiring youthful determination." This quote from journalist Brenda Power, describing Youth Defence members, is used on their website. Their best-known public face, Justin Barrett, is small and skinny with big ears and a high-pitched, clipped voice. He is intelligent, articulate and wired with determination. At present, he is living on coffee and cigarettes.
Youth Defence has spent the last week deciding howto react to the wording of the abortion referendum. Barrett has been busy talking to medical and legal experts and getting in touch with his people on the ground. He doesn't get too close to me, though; when we are having our picture taken he edges away from me on the sofa.
Justin's mother, Eileen, gave him up for fostering when he was two he was adopted by his foster family three years later. It was only when he was 21 that he realised that "Aunty Eileen" was, in fact, his real mother. "It was bizarre. I regard myself as reasonably intelligent but I was really stupid on this one. I had never thought about why she was my Aunty Eileen and nobody else in the family's."
The moment of realisation came when he was telling his future wife, Bernadette, about Aunty Eileen, whom he lost contact with when he was 10. Bernadette asked if it had occurred to him that Eileen was in fact his biological mother. Suddenly, it all seemed quite obvious.
He doesn't know why Eileen gave him up, and says he does not have a hang-up about being adopted. "I don't know the circumstances and I never asked.
"A mother who gives a child up for adoption has made one of the potentially right decisions because she hasn't gone for an abortion. Because of that she has the right to no further contact with the child and the total right to privacy as to why the adoption took place," he says. If his mother made the "right" decision, by opting to give birth rather than abort, Justin has been determined to continue doing the "right" thing ever since. Justin is a strict Roman Catholic. He was born in Cork, then moved to his foster family in North Tipperary. He studied at Athlone RTC, where he first got involved in politics.
He was working in Supermacs in Galway during his summer holidays when he met Bernadette, who worked in the nearby Centra. Was it love at first sight? "I don't believe in anything as idealistic as that," he says. But they clicked, and have never had an argument about anything fundamental in the 10 years they have been together. They agree on everything which is the way Justin likes it. He was studying accountancy, but never completed his exams because, as he puts it, "everything changed when the X case happened in 1992." The X case prompted a group of seven young pro-lifers, including Niamh Nic Mhathúna, her sister Una Nic Mhathúna, and Peter Scully, to arrange a protest outside the Supreme Court. A thousand people showed up, so they decided to set up a movement: Youth Defence.
In June 1992, coming up to the Maastricht Treaty referendum, Barrett distributed leaflets for the pro-life movement. By the time the abortion referendum came about in November of that year he had joined Youth Defence. He was chairman of the Youth Against Divorce Campaign.
I put it to Justin that he does not leave room for people to make mistakes in their lives. He disagrees. "It's about making a decision that causes the least misery. You do not solve marital problems by introducing divorce or abortion, you exacerbate and multiply those problems. The sum total of human misery is increased."
He certainly did not leave much room for such mistakes in his own life. Justin does not believe in sex before marriage. I asked him if he found it difficult to meet a girl who shared his belief on this issue. "To be quite honest I find the line of questioning intimate. It's not something I feel comfortable with." But he continues anyway. "I don't regard myself as prudish, Catholic morality is not necessarily prudish. There's no reason why you can't have a full sexuality without being licentious. There is such a thing as moral sexuality."
But back to him and Bernadette. The fact that neither believed in premarital sex was obviously an important bonding factor. "I don't have to concern myself with who Bernadette's been with in the past," he says. "That's a real positive within a marriage. I think marital fidelity is easier to maintain if there are no previous sexual partners. The act of sex is bound up with that one person, so the mental leap of infidelity is harder."
Even in post-Catholic Ireland we can presume that at least 5,000 other people share his point of view. That is the estimated number of Youth Defence members.
With the Nice Treaty referendum, Barrett decided he was going to run a No campaign and see who joined. To many critics, their advertising catchphrase, "You Will Lose Power, Money, Freedom," highlighted how little the voters knew about the details of the treaty. Voting No seemed the easier option.
Very few people realised that the No to Nice campaign was masterminded by people whose main concern with the Nice Treaty was its impact on abortion. "I wouldn't want it to be perceived that that was our only motivation, or that we were somehow using the other arguments as a camouflage for the abortion issue. Everything we said we meant," says Barrett.
But he later admits: "As an organisation we only have one agenda: abortion", and that "the pro-life movement is obviously about abortion but we have also deep concern about the Irish nation".
Barrett believes that Youth Defence have been demonised by the Irish media, and that the Nice campaign gave them the chance to canvass, knock on doors and meet people face to face. "People are profoundly uncomfortable with the way the nation is going and the way the liberal establishment is running this country. But they are not comfortable with alternative voices yet. People do not hear what we say, they hear what the media say we say." He is particularly displeased with The Irish Times comparing a Youth Defence demonstration to a Hitler Youth rally. Youth Defence often make themselves fodder for negative press with their aggressive campaigning. Like the time they interrupted the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis, or picketed Bertie Ahern's house. Then there were widely reported fracas with gardaí during an anti-abortion protest outside the Adelaide Hospital.
Even the Catholic church maintains a distance. Archbishop Desmond Connell made veiled comments about his dislike for the "American-style tactics" some Irish pro-lifers practise. "I'd like to meet the archbishop. I don't think he would have said those things if he knew us," maintains Barrett.
Justin Barrett is preparing to take on a new role, running Youth Defence's Mother and Child Campaign. Nine years on, the original members are not so "youthful" any more, and they do not want the movement to lose the dynamism that made the organisation a force to be reckoned with. The mantle is being passed on to younger members. Even if there is a total abortion ban in this country, Barrett says he does not believe that the pro-choicers will go quietly. No matter what happens over the next six weeks the abortion issue and Youth Defence are here to stay.