David Quinn: The liberals now have too much sway on government thinking
Published 03/01/2014 | 02:30
State papers just released under the 30-year rule reveal the meetings and correspondence that took place in 1983 between government officials and supporters of the pro-life amendment to the Constitution, which was passed that year by a two-thirds majority.
Supporters of the amendment included the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign and the Catholic bishops. For some, the papers reveal the 'undue' influence of conservative groups and the Catholic hierarchy in that era but, of course, influence is mostly 'undue' only when you dislike it.
In every era, there will be those who exercise 'undue' influence. During the Celtic Tiger, the social partners exercised 'undue' influence.
God knows what the 30-year rule will eventually reveal was going on during that period, but undoubtedly we will see that excessive deference was shown to organisations with a vested interest in keeping the property bubble growing.
In November 2012, we had the 'children's rights' referendum and the Government certainly held talks with all sorts of interested groups, but in particular with those who had campaigned in favour of the referendum to make sure they were happy with the wording. It would be very strange if the Government didn't do this.
In other words, what the state papers from 1983 have revealed is simply the normal business of government. In every era, certain groups and organisations will be powerful and over time the power of those groups will wax and wane, but when they are powerful, governments will listen. That is the way of things.
The reason the Catholic Church was powerful back in those days was because so many people still went to Mass and listened to the bishops.
Today, Mass attendance has more than halved, and even those who still go are much less inclined to listen to the hierarchy than they were.
On the other hand, the public sector unions (for example) are still powerful today because the Government is terrified of strike action on their part.
The trick, when you don't like the power of a given group, is to make it less powerful. When that happens, the government of the day will stop listening to it.
So, in this respect, Ireland in 1983 was little different from Ireland today. There will always be someone exercising 'undue' influence upon government and government will always be 'deferential' towards someone.
In what other ways are we similar? We are still a country dominated by three main parties -- namely Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour. Fianna Fail is obviously greatly diminished, but it is impossible to imagine an Irish government without at least one of these parties in it.
We were in a recession then, and we're in a recession now. We had a huge budget deficit, a ballooning national debt, high unemployment and high emigration. And Michael Noonan was a senior minister just as he is now.
Also, we were looking to the EU (or rather the EEC) to help save us.
In what ways were we different? You could argue that politics was more corrupt in 1983, although we've had our fair share of corruption scandals since then.
The Troubles obviously still loomed very large 30 years ago and compared with this, the 'legacy' issues being dealt with by Richard Haass are a mere echo.
The biggest change apart from this is that we are much less conservative than we were. Homosexual acts were rightly decriminalised in 1993. Our laws regulating contraception were progressively liberalised. Divorce was made legal in 1995.
All of these changes were aimed at expanding personal choice and sexual freedom. Does our present emphasis on choice make us morally superior to the Ireland of 30 years ago? Not necessarily.
A (diminishing) majority of Irish people in 1983 still believed that untrammelled sexual freedom and personal choice would come with a big social cost. They believed that divorce would damage marriage. They believed that easily available contraception would irretrievably weaken the link between sex and commitment.
Today, there are a quarter of a million divorced and separated people in Ireland, up from 40,000 in 1986.
Separating sex from commitment has caused the number of unwanted children to increase exponentially. When adults put their own freedom first, children suffer. If the woman doesn't want the baby, the baby is likely to be aborted. If the man doesn't want the baby, the woman is likely to be left raising the child on her own.
No truly pro-child society would do this to so many children.
However, despite the big transformation in social attitudes since 1983, even in this respect we are not quite so different today from what we were back then.
Ireland clearly overdid the social conservatism, and today we are overdoing a hyper-individualistic social liberalism. This is because Ireland continually overreacts against its past. We overreacted to the years of British rule by becoming fanatically anti-English in the years after independence.
And now we are often fanatically anti-conservative because our brand of social conservatism, which is indelibly associated with the Catholic Church, was so authoritarian.
In truth, therefore, Ireland today is not so very different from the Ireland of 1983. Our political system hasn't changed that much. Our Government is still deferential to whoever or whatever is powerful. We are still well capable of messing up our economy and we still over-invest in whatever is the dominant morality of the day, just like we over-invested in property.
As the hoary old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.