Monday 14 October 2019

All changed, changed utterly... Welcome to liberal Ireland

The victory of the Yes side in the referendum shows that liberals reign supreme - not only in Dublin but across the country. It was a result that was 35 years in the making. Does it mark the final collapse of the old order?

Celebrations at Dublin Castle the following day as the decision to repeal becomes known. Damien Eagers
Celebrations at Dublin Castle the following day as the decision to repeal becomes known. Damien Eagers
A Dominician nun votes in the Referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution
Aibhne Symth
Marriage Equality referendum
Savita Halappanavar
Father Ted
David Norris
Sinead O'Connor
Albert Reynolds
Eamon Casey
Mary Robinson
Peter Sutherland
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Mary Robinson famously said in 1990 as she became President that she was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.

When exit polls for the abortion referendum were announced last weekend, it became apparent that the women of Ireland and their menfolk had not only rocked the system - they had shaken it to its foundations.

It was almost as if the Irish Catholic church was having a Berlin Wall moment - and much of the old order had collapsed.

When Bishop Kevin Doran turned up on radio two days later to urge the Yes voters to go to confession, the response was less one of anger, and more one of amusement.

A Dominician nun votes in the Referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution
A Dominician nun votes in the Referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution

Such was the loss of moral authority of the church that listening to Bishop Doran, younger listeners might have wondered if they had found a long-lost 26th episode of Father Ted.

It all seemed so different in 1990, when the belt of a bishop's crozier could still inspire fear - at least beyond the pinko liberal fleshpots of Dublin 4.

A socially conservative establishment with the church at its apex still seemed to hold sway over the majority in middle Ireland - in theory at least, if not always in practice.

There was no divorce, homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and Magdalene laundries for "fallen women" were still open for business during that year.

Middle Ireland may still have been in the grip of the church, but there were many signs of changes afoot, particularly among young people - even if their elders and betters thought differently.

The victory of Mary Robinson in 1990 was largely a symbolic triumph for the liberals, and in some ways she was handed a gift as the campaign of her main rival Brian Lenihan Senior imploded.

President Robinson's election marked the start of a new era in Ireland when the power of liberal Ireland began to exert itself - and irreverence towards those in clerical authority almost became a reflexive cultural norm.

"The election of Mary Robinson was a very important moment for Mná na hÉireann, and it is interesting that the term was used again during the referendum," says Mary Corcoran, Professor of Sociology at Maynooth University.

Prof Corcoran remembers campaigning against the Eighth Amendment, which has now finally been removed, in 1983 as a young 24-year-old in Dublin.

She found herself on the losing side in that referendum with 33pc of the votes, but during the recent campaign she was back on the canvass with her 25-year-old daughter. Now, the numbers have been reversed and the campaigners against liberalisation find themselves on just 33pc.

Dark period in Irish life

Professor Corcoran says in many ways the 1980s was a dark period in Irish life for young people.

"Many people left the country because they was a disenchantment - and a sense that Ireland was an inward-looking country without opportunities."

Professor Corcoran said that up until then, the Church had often dictated and people followed.

"Now, as this referendum shows our behaviour is dictated by individual conscience, and that is mediated through family relationships - and increasingly through social media."

Socially progressive liberals and left wingers may have suffered heavy setbacks in the 1980s with the defeats in the 1983 abortion referendum and the 1986 poll on divorce.

But it is easy to forget now that they already had a strong base by then: in 1983, five constituencies in Dublin voted against the amendment, and six voted for divorce three years later.

History has shown that where Dublin 4 and Dún Laoghaire have led, the rest of the country has followed - even if it takes 35 years.

One reason why the social liberals have been successful is that once they lose a battle, they tend not to give up.

The campaigners in favour of more liberal abortion laws came back time and time again.

The liberals could argue that the moral simplicity of the arguments putting the life of the unborn on the same level as that of the mother did not stand up to scrutiny - as harsh, complex realities intruded.

The pro-life side were portrayed as callous, as they seemed to disregard the suffering of a girl who had been raped in the X Case in 1992.

Their perceived lack of concern for mothers with babies with fatal foetal abnormalities in more recent times was seen as inhumane.

When Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis, and the blame was partly attributed to the refusal to give her an abortion, the claims of the absolutist pro-lifers to moral superiority looked increasingly threadbare.

In the new liberal Ireland, icons are still important - but now it is the image of Savita that seems to take precedence over the Virgin statues in village grottoes.

Unlike the liberal campaigners, social conservatives tend to pack up their tents and go home once they lose a battle.

There is nobody from the Iona Institute or other Catholic activist groups campaigning for a ban on same sex marriage or divorce, even though we were warned that the effects of both on the country would be calamitous.

This could lead one to the conclusion that these campaigners don't have the courage of their own convictions, and merely defend tradition for tradition's sake.

Freedoms of a liberal society

Abortion may be a different matter, however, and pro-lifers will take comfort from the fact that there are active campaigns against it in many western countries. But it's a long way back, particularly when 88pc of young people aged 18 to 24 voted Yes.

In truth, many citizens of Ireland were already seeing some of the freedoms of a liberal society, as early as the 1970s. Increasingly the strictures of Catholic morality were observed in the breach by young people from that time on.

The pace of change began to accelerate in the 1990s as it became apparent that the church had not lived up to its own standards.

The news that Bishop Eamonn Casey had fathered a son with Annie Murphy (prompting the remark "Bless me sinners for I have fathered") now seems innocent compared to the reports of child abuse and church cover-ups that followed.

It is a mark of how the reputation of the church has fallen that Father Ted now seems like an affectionate portrayal of the clergy 23 years after it first went on air.

For generations under the age of 60, their impressions of the church are more likely to be formed by the wisdom imparted by Father Ted Crilly than from the homilies or lenten pastorals of bishops.

The Jesuit theologian Father Gerry O'Hanlon says it was noticeable in the RTÉ exit poll taken at the referendum that religion was only a factor influencing their decision among 12pc of voters.

That was in a poll where up to 68pc of Yes voters categorised themselves as Catholic.

"The church is no longer a central reference point for decisions," says Fr O'Hanlon. "On issues such as sexuality and gender the church's teaching is not received by the ordinary baptised Catholic. That is on issues like divorce and contraception."

Fr O'Hanlon, who is former provincial of the Jesuit Order, says: "I agree with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that the church is in danger of becoming a culturally irrelevant minority."

The church might take comfort from the fact 74pc of voters still define themselves as Catholic - but what does that mean in the liberal Ireland towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century?

The exit poll showed that 29pc of voters attend a religious ceremony hardly ever or never, and a further 27pc turn up just a few times a year.

Some of the figures hidden away in the exit poll are even more stark for the future of the Catholic church. Just 11pc of young voters aged 18-35 attend religious ceremonies once a week, and 1-2pc in this group attend more than that.

Like many in modern Ireland, Professor Mary Corcoran sees herself as a cultural Catholic, and defines this in the same way as the Australian feminist Germaine Greer.

"I love the singing, I love the ritual, I love pageantry. I just don't believe in God. The church still has a function in terms of rites of passage and standing up with your community. But it doesn't mean you have to buy into the dogma. I think that is the real sea change that we have seen."

To those campaigning on the ground, it also became apparent that many devout Catholics were grappling with their conscience in the abortion referendum - and they faced a moral dilemma.

Gerry O'Hanlon said: "It is my experience anecdotally from talking to people that many voters on both sides were conflicted."

On the one hand they wanted to be compassionate to people in crisis pregnancies, but they also had respect for the status of the foetus and the unborn.

The theologian criticised Bishop Kevin Doran for immediately coming out and urging Yes voters to go to confession.

Fr O'Hanlon says: "It doesn't respect the conscience of people, and it adds to the notion of the Church as anti-woman. It fires up anger in reaction.

"The church needs a space where women, young people, men, priests and bishops could talk about these issues so that we don't have these surprises. Anybody who followed the debate realises that many adult Catholics were torn about this. They didn't see it as a black and white issue."

New liberal overlords

The next front in the war between orthodox Catholics and the new liberal overlords is likely to be in education, where 90pc of State-funded primary schools are still under the patronage of the church.

Already the church has conceded that it needs to surrender some of these schools, and the government has moved to ban the "baptism barrier" to State-funded Catholic primary schools.

But emboldened by the referendum, secularists will seek a more radical overhaul of schools and a non-denominational model of education. It is a mark of how the country has changed that the move to repeal the eighth amendment came at the behest of Katherine Zappone, an Independent TD, who turned the holding of a Citizens' Assembly about abortion into a condition for supporting Enda Kenny's government.

Zappone, a lesbian from Seattle married to an ex-nun Ann Louise Gilligan (who is sadly deceased), convinced a conservative Fine Gael Taoiseach to set in train the process that will lead to a liberal abortion law - ultimately defeating the once mighty Catholic Hierarchy.

Back in 1983, nobody would have predicted that.


Repealin' In the Years: milestones in liberal ­thinking


'Ambiguous and unsatisfactory'

The wording of the proposed Eighth Amendment to the Constitution - according equal rights to a mother and the unborn - was controversial. Then-attorney general Peter Sutherland (below) said it was ambiguous and unsatisfactory.

Peter Sutherland

"Far from providing the protection and certainty which is sought by many of those who have advocated its adoption, it will have a contrary effect," he warned the government.

After a toxic and divisive campaign, and a turnout of 53.7pc of the electorate, the referendum was passed with 66.9pc in favour.


Prescriptions no longer needed

Until 1985, the sale of contraceptives was restricted to those with a prescription. The Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act liberalised existing law by allowing condoms and spermicides to be sold to people over the age of 18 at pharmacies, doctors' surgeries and health clinics. The measure was opposed by the Catholic Church, which warned that easing access to condoms would propel us into moral turpitude: its defeat marked the first victory for a secular society. The then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and President Patrick Hillery were inundated with letters begging them not to pursue the legislation.


'Instead of rocking the cradle (women) rocked the system'

Mary Robinson

Independent candidate and liberal campaigner Mary Robinson (above) delivered a major shock to a male-dominated political system when she defeated odds-on favourite Brian Lenihan (at the time, a Fianna Fáil candidate had never lost a presidential election) after an action-packed campaign.

In her acceptance speech she promised to be a President for everyone, but in particular for the women of Ireland "who are still struggling on the long march to equality and equity".


The X Case

The problems raised by the Eighth Amendment came into sharp relief with the X Case, in which a 14-year-old girl, who was pregnant after being raped, applied to travel to England to have an abortion. The Attorney General elected to apply to the High Court for an order preventing the child from travelling. The High Court accepted on the basis of the evidence it heard that the teenager was at risk of suicide should the pregnancy continue; it ultimately granted her the right to travel. The case provoked outrage and demonstrations by pro-life and pro-choice groups.


Bless me sinners, for I have fathered

In a sensational unmasking, the popular Bishop of Galway Eamonn Casey (below) was revealed to have fathered a son by a young American woman he was supposed to be mentoring, Annie Murphy. His son, Peter, was then 18 and it emerged the bishop had been making payments from diocesan accounts for his upkeep for years. Bishop Casey had been one of the most prominent members of the Catholic Church in Ireland for more than two decades. He was quickly moved to a post in Ecuador and remained outside Ireland until 2006.

Eamon Casey


More referendums

Albert Reynolds

Three amendments to the Constitution were proposed by an Albert Reynolds-led government later in 1992 as a result of the X case. Two were passed: one granting women the right to travel outside the State for an abortion, and another allowing the dissemination of information about abortion availability outside the State. The votes were, respectively, 62pc and 59pc in favour.

A third proposal, which would have tightened up the Supreme Court ruling and would have removed the threat of suicide as grounds for allowing an abortion, was rejected by 65pc of voters.


'Fight the Real Enemy'

Sinead O'Connor

In October 1992, Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor (right) appeared on the huge US TV show Saturday Night Live as a musical guest singing an acapella version of a Bob Marley song as a protest against child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Surprising producers, she presented a photo of Pope John Paul II directly to the camera at the end of her song and proceeded to rip it into pieces before declaring, "Fight the real enemy".

The studio audience reacted by saying nothing at all while thousands of viewers contacted network NBC to complain. O'Connor was subsequently ordained a priest by an independent Catholic bishop.


The legalisation of homosexuality

David Norris

In 1992, homosexual acts remained technically criminal in Ireland despite several decades of activism aimed at changing that. Senator David Norris (above) took a case to Brussels in 1988 arguing that Irish law was in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was successful and in 1993, the bill decriminalising homosexual acts was signed by Mary Robinson.


'The money was just resting in my account'

Father Ted

A Channel 4 sitcom written by Irish writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan started its run, focusing on the fictional lives of three Catholic priests on the extremely remote Craggy Island. While the writers said it was not meant to be anti-religious, as such, the characters clearly had no interest at all in religion and the plotlines had one common theme: the strangeness of the priesthood.


'Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy'

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed for divorce, was passed by the narrowest of margins on November 24, 1995 with 50.3pc of voters in favour. The Catholic Church strongly opposed the amendment, but failed to prevail. The then-taoiseach John Bruton argued that it was important that "we show the State respected the minorities in its own midst".


States of Fear

Investigative journalist Mary Raftery produced this groundbreaking series of documentaries about extensive child abuse in industrial schools managed by clergy but funded by the State that ran in April and May 1995. Her later work included investigating a cover-up of clerical child sex abuse allegations in Dublin's Catholic archdiocese.


No to tighter abortion laws

A coalition government led by Bertie Ahern tried once again to tighten up rules on abortion by removing a risk of suicide as grounds for abortion.

It was favoured by the Catholic Church but was defeated very narrowly, with 50.4pc of voters opposed to it. At the time it was reported that 7,000 women each year were travelling to the UK for abortions. The No vote was particularly strong in the Dublin area.


Savita Halappanavar

Savita Halappanavar

A young Indian dentist died at Galway University Hospital after contracting sepsis when she was 17 weeks pregnant. Savita Halappanavar (abovet) was told the foetus would not survive but was refused an abortion. Her death proved a wake-up call about the downsides of the Eighth Amendment beyond the obvious, triggering marches and protests across Ireland after news of the circumstances of her death emerged.


Love is Love: the Marriage Equality vote

Marriage Equality referendum

Under an international spotlight, Ireland went to the polls to vote on same-sex marriage in 2015. The Yes campaign had been effective, featuring many moving human stories. Among the influential voices was that of the then-Health Minister Leo Varadkar (above) who came out on national radio. "I am a gay man - it's not a secret - but not something that everyone would necessarily know, but it isn't something I've spoken publicly about before," he said. The referendum passed easily with 62pc in favour.


The Eighth repealed

"My heart is full to the brim," tweeted veteran campaigner Ailbhe Smyth (below) as the electorate delivered a landslide vote last week to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Aibhne Symth

The vote followed a campaign in which dozens of Irish people told intensely personal stories about crisis pregnancy, fatal foetal abnormality and more. Key moments that led to the vote included a surprise early move by Fianna Fáil party leader Micheál Martin to back the Yes campaign. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would confirm his support soon after.

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