News Liz O’Donnell

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Some timely reminders of just how backward and hypocritical we were

Published 31/12/2013 | 02:30

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Des O’Malley with Charles Haughey. He has recalled being protected by Dail ushers to walk from the Dail members’ restaurant to the plinth
Des O’Malley with Charles Haughey. He has recalled being protected by Dail ushers to walk from the Dail members’ restaurant to the plinth

I have to admit it's a tad depressing when state papers released after 30 years relate to one's living memory.

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The 1983 files make for interesting reading. Back then I was newly graduated from Trinity law school so was aware of the vast range of legal reforms being advocated to modernise Irish society. But I had not yet become politicised or involved in any party.

It was a time when it was a crime to be homosexual. Condoms were only available on prescription. There was a constitutional ban on divorce. The pro-life movement was in its heyday, having secured a commitment from the outgoing Fianna Fail government to insert a prohibition on abortion in the Constitution even though it was already a criminal offence in Irish law.

The incoming Fine Gael/Labour coalition had to draft the wording of the now famous right to life of the unborn amendment. Attorney General Peter Sutherland clashed with then Justice Minister Michael Noonan on the wording. However, any dissent was overruled by the tide of public opinion and a vigorous pro-life lobby.

The papers released reveal correspondence with one obstetrician, Dr Meehan, who, with some prescience, anticipated the medical and ethical quandary which could arise when life-saving treatment to a pregnant mother was denied because of a foetal heartbeat -- as was the case in the Galway hospital tragedy last year.

In retrospect, Sutherland's proposal, which was an amendment giving constitutional protection for a legislative ban on abortion without affirming the right to life of the unborn, would have been a preferable option.

The undue deference to the Catholic Church was evidenced by the fact that several drafts of the wording, along with the Attorney General's advice, were shared with the hierarchy by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

Looking back now, Ireland was a backward and repressed place. It was a time when the official position on so many social issues was deeply hypocritical. Politicians supported one thing in public yet condoned quite the opposite in their private lives. Thousands of people had second non-marital families due to a ban in divorce, yet there was no appetite to remove the constitutional prohibition.

It would be 10 years before divorce was permitted. The ludicrous requirement for a doctor's prescription for a packet of condoms was widely ignored. In Trinity they were on sale in the students' union shop in open defiance of the law.

Phone-tapping of journalists' phones and abuse of power under Fianna Fail were revealed when the Fine Gael/Labour coalition came to power in the November 1982 General Election. The first issue on the cabinet agenda was how to deal with the fact the phone-tapping was ordered by then Justice Minister Sean Doherty. The scandal resulted in the resignations of the Garda Commissioner and his deputy. It was to lead ultimately to the resignation of Charles Haughey as Taoiseach 10 years later when Doherty spilled the beans and implicated him in the whole affair.

There were men of low degree in politics. Low standards in high places were the order of the day. Single-party government with an autocratic leader like Charles Haughey was a fertile breeding ground for corruption. Intimidation was rife; anyone who challenged the leader's view was seen as the enemy.

Des O'Malley recalls having to be protected by ushers to get from the members' restaurant to the plinth. There would be FF heavies roaming the corridors, particularly during the Arms Trial in the late Seventies. Being on the wrong side of the leader was bad for whatever business you were in; but those loyal were looked after.

Geraldine Kennedy, whose phone was tapped, recalls the climate of fear and intimidation. She was warned not to go to the FF Ard Fheis as her security could not be guaranteed. Conor Cruise O' Brien memorably described the political events and atmosphere of 1982 as Gubu (grotesque unbelievable bizarre and unprecedented).

The new coalition government struggled to improve British-Irish relations with a reluctant Margaret Thatcher, who was described as an "emotional unionist".

The first signs of a collaborative peace process were represented by the New Ireland forum, which encouraged dialogue with Northern Irish politicians. Even at that stage, the SDLP felt under political pressure from Sinn Fein for nationalists' hearts and minds.

Gerry Kelly, now a Sinn Fein MLA, was in the Maze Prison and was to be one of 38 IRA prisoners to escape in 1983. The Section 31 ban on interviews with Sinn Fein spokespersons was renewed by Posts and Telegraphs Minister, the late Jim Mitchell, on the grounds that a 1982 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis motion reaffirmed the party's ambivalent support for the armed struggle

The 1983 state papers provided a genuine blast from the past but the events of 30 years ago continue to cast a shadow over the present.

Irish Independent

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