Friday 28 October 2016

Time to grasp thorny issue raised by a Rose

Published 27/08/2016 | 02:30

Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins dancing on stage with host Dáithí Ó Sé during the Rose of Tralee. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins dancing on stage with host Dáithí Ó Sé during the Rose of Tralee. Photo: Frank McGrath

'Don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it" - Basil Fawlty

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The divisive and emotive issue of abortion raised its head this week in the most unlikely of arenas. Had Paddy Power been taking bets on the talking points for the Rose of Tralee in 2016, the odds on any reference to repealing the Eighth Amendment would have been huge.

The Rose of Tralee, our 'lovely girls' competition that we know and love, is hardly renowned for its sparking political repartee. Priding itself on being 'politically neutral', the pageant's mood music is of motherhood and apple pie, where goodness and wholesomeness are the order of the day. In terms of taxing yourself cerebrally, it's probably only a step away from anaesthesia.

This year, the 'A' bomb was dropped on prime time TV - and not by a politician or a campaigner. All bets were off as Brianna Parker, the Sydney Rose, said that she "would love to see a referendum on the Eighth coming up soon''.

When Dáithí Ó Sé frantically flicked through his memory bank for the handbook reference of how to deal with awkward situations, he found no mention of how to handle what is arguably the most problematic political subject of our time. Wishing he was back dealing with the man posing as a priest protesting about fathers' rights, our horrified host endeavoured to ensure that his eyes remained in their sockets, as he moved the conversation along to safer territory.

Fearful that next year's outing might eclipse the Magill Summer School for politically provocative discourse, chair of the Rose of Tralee judging panel Mary Kennedy declared the festival "was not the place'' to broach the subject of abortion. Maybe not, but it does pose the question - where is the right place to discuss abortion, and why shouldn't a Rose in full bloom express her views?

The supposed incongruity of the abortion debate entering the Dome was only heightened by another extreme, as two Irish girls took to Twitter to document their journey to the UK for an abortion for all the world to see. A GAA club banned a meeting on the topic and high profile celebrities across the globe commented in wonder as we engaged in a national shoulder shrug that said "sure it's happening every day''.

The Government is determined that the substantive issue of the Eighth Amendment will not be on the agenda any time soon. That's why they have set up a Citizen's Assembly under Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. Its purpose is to put the issue into outer orbit for now. However, a civilised convention to help define the parameters of the issue may set a civilised tone. Not with one side shouting down the other but an informed exchange that hopefully will produce more light than heat. A debate which has a practical and pragmatic purpose at its core.

That is to provide the clarity that medical practitioners need to save lives, and simply to find out exactly what the majority view of the people of this island is about abortion now.

It is not easy to invoke change in a country built on a bedrock of secrecy. When it comes to the abortion debate in Ireland, people who do not see themselves as being 'involved' tend to switch off due to the sometimes caustic nature of the debate and the vociferous campaigning by both sides.

Some fight to hold on to the status quo, while others argue to allow freedom of choice. Within the two extremes rages a fight for morale supremacy. Historically, campaigns around referenda on this issue have alienated many, preventing them from even listening, never mind persuading them to commit to either side.

The challenge is to win the hearts and minds of the undecided. But drowning us all in a red mist of fury again will serve no purpose. In the 1980s, the hate and anger unleashed made any real discussion or decisions almost impossible.

This fragile Government does not need any more headaches than it already has, so must box very clever. Problems are not simply confined to the Government's own agenda. Strategists will be acutely aware of the platform the abortion debate creates for the Opposition.

To many, the Mick Wallace and Clare Daly 'Private Memberss Motion' looked more like political opportunism than any meaningful attempt to address the issue. Pursing it did not further any cause, other than propelling the two sponsoring deputies into the limelight. Immediately challenged by vehement arguments from the Attorney General surrounding the legality of proposed legislation, it was always doomed to fail. But not before it had driven a divide within Government by delivering an embarrassing blow to Enda Kenny. A public humiliation that may be forgiven for now, but is certainly not forgotten by many in Fine Gael.

Ultimately, no Irish politician may ever be able to come up with a solution to satisfy all sides. What political leaders can do is change the climate of debate by not using the issue to score political points.

A positive change would be to ask everyone involved in the debate to think and act in a more enlightened way. A moral code agreed to by all political leaders which would be more tolerant of others' views and accepting of the decision of the majority, whatever the outcome.

Should such a debate occur, we might be less susceptible to the suspicion that lurking beneath the campaigns are either religious beliefs which constrain medical treatment on one side, and an uncaring liberalism which will not be contained on the other.

Bringing abortion into the Dome in Tralee proved a talking point that was perhaps an indication of our glacial capacity to move with the times. Maybe this is the moment for other people who are not immersed in political advantage to play a more prominent role in the debate about the Eighth Amendment.

In that regard at least, it was a good year for the Roses.

Irish Independent

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