independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Martina Devlin: We're finally leaving past behind – but no thanks to politicians

Lucinda Creighton’s credibility at stake if she stays in government

I keep expecting some of the anti-abortion politicians speaking out this week to turn misty-eyed over the removal of the marriage bar. Or to invoke the name of the judge who issued a fine and a stern warning about condoms being sold in Dublin's Virgin Megastore 20 odd years ago.

They are out of step with public opinion. But perhaps that is no surprise. One of Dail Eireann's least appealing characteristics – conspicuous during the abortion debate – has been the microclimate bubble occupied by some of its members.

Lucinda Creighton mentioned groupthink in her speech outlining her opposition to the legislation, suggesting a lack of independent thought was pushing it through the Oireachtas.

But a number of those at cross-purposes with the bill give the impression of being nostalgic for the genuinely undemocratic era of groupthink, when the so-called permissive society was kept outside Ireland's borders.

You would swear they were regretful for the days when a family planning guidebook could be banned by the Censorship Board, as happened in 1976. Or when a woman could be demonised for revealing a bishop had fathered her child – Annie Murphy was attacked unmercifully for tearing down the veil of hypocrisy in 1992.

Just when we start believing Ireland might be a secular society at last, along comes the abortion issue to remind us the dateline is only nominally set to 2013. The results from this week's first vote in the Dail are proof that change comes dropping slow. Fianna Fail, in particular, with no party whip imposed, revealed itself as anything but a reforming party.

We hear a great deal about the forward march of civil society, but the march tapers off to a dawdle in Ireland. The legislation currently going through the Dail is relatively restrictive, yet some TDs and senators are reacting as though it is the final showdown between the forces of good and evil.

I should have thought a worthier battleground was the continuing impoverishment of Irish citizens, which contrasts with dilatory and possibly under-resourced attempts to deal with those who caused the economic collapse.

Anyhow, it is clear our leaders are inherently more orthodox than the general population. Conservative Ireland's changing face has been met with public acceptance, proving that the people are more liberal, informed and tolerant than legislators and others seem able to credit.

In recent decades, changes to the status quo – flagged up by opponents as dangerous – have been received with ease. Looking back, we wonder what all the fuss was about.

As recently as 1990, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) was convicted and fined for selling condoms in Virgin Megastore in Dublin. It seems laughable now – it was no joke at the time.

It was 1993 before restrictions on the sale and supply of condoms were lifted. Until 1993, homosexual acts between consenting adults were criminalised. That is only 20 years ago. It was not until 1994 that the Department of Health published its first contraception leaflet. And 2003 before emergency contraception was licensed – on a prescription-only basis, just to make access more difficult.

Marital rape did not exist in law until relatively recently, meaning a husband was legally entitled to force his wife to have sex with him under all circumstances. Primitive? Yes. Legal? Yes again. It was not defined as a crime until 1990.

Consider the marriage bar, when female public servants and bank employees were obliged to hand in their notice as soon as a man put a ring on their finger. It sounds archaic, but this human rights infringement was only removed from the public service in 1973, while it was 1977 before the Employment Equality Act prohibited discrimination on gender or marital grounds.

Until 1974, men earned more than women for doing the same job: in areas covered by a statutory minimum wage, the female rate was two-thirds of a man's. Legislation on equal pay finally happened as a result of a European directive.

And it is no coincidence that progress often came about following appeals to European courts – Europe has been on Ireland's case over its failure to put abortion on the statute books. Pressure as a result of a European Court of Human Rights judgment is partly influencing the Government, although Savita Halappanavar's tragic death certainly concentrated minds.

The result is that history is being made right now in Ireland. Not before time. But no thanks to politicians voting against the bill.

They have a right to be conscientious objectors, of course. But they are not the only ones with scruples – TDs voting for the bill also examined their consciences. Backbencher Regina Doherty, for example, has spoken with clarity, conviction and humanity about her evolving position.

All eyes are now on the Minister for European Affairs, who would need to execute a 360-degree turn to avoid resigning her junior ministry. Lucinda Creighton's credibility is at stake if she remains in government.

As for speculation about her forming a new party, I see no particular public appetite for another right-wing grouping in Irish politics. If a gap exists, it is on the left.

In a short space of time, people will look back in bewilderment at the intensely bitter nature of this debate. Opposition to the legislation will seem as misguided as laws prosecuting retailers for selling condoms, or disbarring married women from certain jobs.

It will simply be a given that in 2013, an overdue law to protect women and afford clarity to doctors was introduced – and another time warp was closed off.

Irish Independent

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