Tuesday 22 January 2019

'Christianity is being eroded and despised' - Ireland's moral minority rise up

Liberal, secular Ireland has seemed to conquer all in recent decades. But there are signs that the faithful who voted No in the abortion poll are fighting back, writes Kim Bielenberg

Picket: abortion protesters including Charles Byrne, second left, outside Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Picture by Ciara Wilkinson
Picket: abortion protesters including Charles Byrne, second left, outside Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Picture by Ciara Wilkinson
The long march: protesters take to the streets of Drogheda to save the name of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Picture by Paul Connor
New society: Peadar Tóibín says there is now a ‘cold house’ for religious people. Photo by Tom Burke
Oil and water: Dr Ciara Kelly says healthcare and religion should not mix. Photo by Kyran O'Brien
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Charles Byrne, a piano teacher from Drogheda, believes there is an agenda to erase the memory of Catholic Ireland, as if it never existed at all.

"We are being swept along by a tide where Christianity is being eroded and despised," said the musician who normally teaches classical works by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.

Byrne told Review how he took part in two high-profile protests in Drogheda this week. On Monday, he was joining hundreds of others in marching through the Louth town to stop the name of the local hospital being changed.

Management at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital have suggested dropping the name and replacing it with a title that has been stripped of religious connotations. The suggested options for the new name include Drogheda Regional Hospital or Drogheda University Hospital.

The long march: protesters take to the streets of Drogheda to save the name of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Picture by Paul Connor
The long march: protesters take to the streets of Drogheda to save the name of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Picture by Paul Connor

Then, after his march to save Our Lady of Lourdes, before sunrise on Monday morning, Byrne was out protesting again.

This time it was a much more controversial demonstration, after reports spread on social media that the first abortion was about to take place at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital.

The piano teacher was one of a group of seven who held highly provocative placards outside the hospital with slogans such as "Abortion is murder", "Let him be born", "Killing in progress", and "Let her be born".

The introduction of the first abortion services in Ireland at the start of the year may have been heralded as the most significant defeat of those who believe Catholic doctrine should still hold sway in our laws.

In recent years, the onward march towards a more secular, liberal Ireland has seemed relentless. In earlier decades, the Church suffered heavy losses with the legalisation of contraception and divorce.

And more recently, with the enthusiastic backing of Fine Gael, the Government has introduced same-sex marriage, an end to the baptism barrier in Catholic schools, and its most significant measure - the introduction of abortion.

New society: Peadar Tóibín says there is now a ‘cold house’ for religious people. Photo by Tom Burke
New society: Peadar Tóibín says there is now a ‘cold house’ for religious people. Photo by Tom Burke

Liberal Ireland has won all the big battles against the Church in recent decades, but now there are signs of a fight back. Charles Byrne and others with similar views say the abortion poll has been a "wake-up call".

The high number of protesters marching against the hospital name change is seen as another manifestation that the move towards secularisation is not universally popular.

Part of the concern about the name change may simply be down to local tradition rather than pure religious conviction, but the man who led the march, Drogheda Mayor Frank Godfrey, warned that it was part of a national trend.

Mayor Godfrey was reported as saying: "There is no good reason to remove religious names and icons from institutions such as the Lourdes hospital.

"Is there an agenda to remove religion from Irish society? We must respect our own Irish culture and way of life."

If the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris thought the introduction of abortion would be easy once the referendum was won, they were sorely mistaken.

Quite apart from the practicalities of introducing abortion services, the Government, doctors and possibly even patients have to face the ire of protesters, who show little sign of giving up their campaign.

Taking their cue from activists in the United States, they have shown in recent days that they are quite prepared to picket clinics and hospitals.

In recent days, activists have been publicising the names of doctors offering abortion services using information from a government helpline.

On Sunday, a message was reportedly posted by anti-abortion activists on Facebook: "The first abortion in our Lady of Lourdes hospital is scheduled for first thing tomorrow morning, Monday 7th. The priests in Drogheda have asked for prayers that the woman will have a change of heart overnight and not go through with the procedure. Please spread the word."

The message was amplified on Twitter by the well-known economist and pro-life supporter Professor Ray Kinsella, who told his followers: "Please pray hard that the #mother will recognise the #baby as a gift from God."

Simon Harris this week described social media posts claiming to identify the location where the first abortion was to take place under new laws as "despicable".

Harris argued that, in his view, the posts were effectively an attempt to "incite harassment of women".

The minister is to bring in legislation for safe-access zones that would ban protests in the vicinity of medical facilities offering abortion services.

The doctor and Newstalk presenter Ciara Kelly expressed alarm at the protests outside clinics and hospital.

Oil and water: Dr Ciara Kelly says healthcare and religion should not mix. Photo by Kyran O'Brien
Oil and water: Dr Ciara Kelly says healthcare and religion should not mix. Photo by Kyran O'Brien

"I fully support the right of people to make their own choice and be facilitated if they decide not to have an abortion.

"But it is absolutely wrong to try to harass and intimidate people if they use these services. They should not have to run a gauntlet."

The number of protesters outside Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital may have been small, but the demonstrators are unlikely to be deflected by any criticism.

Charles Byrne says the demonstration was organised through a WhatsApp group. It started at 8am and continued for three hours.

"It wasn't intended to be a massive protest with chanting and shouting. It was very quiet. I may have got a few rude comments, and I may have answered back, but that was it."

Byrne says that the campaign on abortion is likely to continue, and is now likely to become more militant.

"People were heartbroken by the referendum result, but they are more determined now and there is a new energy about the campaign."

A new political party

While pro-life campaigners and those who hope to reaffirm traditional Catholic values will continue to protest on the streets, there is also a growing realisation that they need political representation in order to succeed.

One-third of the electorate, over 700,000, voted against abortion in the referendum, but their views on the issue are not represented by leaders of any of the political parties in the Dáil.

The social conservatives trying to resist the onward march of secularism are now pondering who they will turn to in an election.

Do voters feel strongly enough about abortion and other issues to do with secularisation that they would support a party standing for the pro-life cause?

Many will pin their hopes on Peadar Tóibín, the articulate Meath TD, who fell foul of Sinn Féin on the abortion issue, and recently left the party to form a new pro-life republican movement. Tóibín told Review he already has 1,400 people signed up for his fledgling party, which has yet to be named.

"We already have nine elected representatives and 20 cumainn," the SF defector says. "We plan to have 100 cumainn by the end of February, and I am talking to 30 elected representatives."

Tóibín speaks in much more moderate terms than some of the strident campaigners in the pro-life movement.

On economic issues such as housing and health, his views are little different to those of Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.

But as well as standing against abortion, he is opposed to the type of secularisation taking place in the country under the Fine Gael government.

"I support a secular society where a diversity of religious and cultural experiences is allowed to flourish.

"But we have seen the emergence of a secular society that seeks to delete religious expression from the public domain," says the TD.

Tóibín argues that there is now a "cold house" in Irish society for religious people.

He says some people have used the term "neo-sectarianism" for the widespread anti-religious feeling.

"I know a lot of people of faith who feel afraid to communicate a very important part of their lives," says the Meath TD. "They have to keep their heads down as regards their Protestant or Catholic feelings."

Tóibín says the march through Drogheda to oppose the change of name to the hospital was a backlash against the removal of religion from the public domain.

"We should be able to appreciate who we are and where we came from - and the religious aspect of it."

Tóibín's party is likely to target areas with a high pro-life vote, including Donegal, the only area where a majority (52pc) voted No to abortion.

While the reversal of the abortion vote is an uphill task that seems almost insurmountable, Tóibín is confident that his party can succeed.

"If we can build a political movement to challenge the political parties, I have no doubt that we have the ability to change the legislation," he says

With Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael determined to wrap itself in a liberal flag, reflecting a shift in public opinion, there are likely to be more battles ahead.

While social conservatives argue fervently that religious values should not be eliminated from public administration, many others feel just as strongly that the beliefs and symbols of religions have no place in state-run institutions.

They may be offended by crucifixes and religious statues - and the fact that 90pc of state-funded primary schools have a Catholic patron and ethos.

They bemoan the fact that the Catholic influence in education may affect how students are taught about sexuality and issues such as gay relationships.

Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland says: "The population has moved on and it is not controlled by the Catholic Church in the way that it used to be.

"But there are still hangover controls from the time that the Church had power and this is enshrined in laws and the constitution."

Nugent also points to divine intrusions such as a Christian prayer at the start of Dáil proceedings as well as the Angelus on RTÉ.

Education is likely to be the next big battleground between those who believe a Catholic identity should be preserved in State institutions and those who prefer a more secular model.

In a major victory for the secularists, the Government abolished the "baptism barrier", which allowed Catholic state-funded schools to turn away children who were not baptised as Catholics.

But moves to divest a significant number of primary schools from Church control to non-denominational control have been extremely slow.

Peadar Tóibin and the Archbishop of Dubin Diarmuid Martin support the divestment of a number of schools.

However, Tóibín opposes moves to remove the churches and what he regards as parental choice from schools.

"It would be a mistake if we didn't have any diversity in schools and the patronage of Catholic and Protestant schools was replaced by the patronage of Ruth Coppinger - and every school was uniform."

Sex education is likely to be a fraught area in the coming months, as the Government considers reforms to the Relationships and Sex Education programme.

It was recently reported that a draft report from the Oireachtas Education Committee calls for a radical overhaul of how sex education is taught in both primary and secondary schools.

If the plans were implemented, Catholic schools would have to teach children about gay, lesbian and transgender relationships.

The reports says the sex-education programme should be "fully inclusive of LGBT relationships and experiences, including sexual orientation, gender identity and the spectrums thereof".

Implementing a uniform sex-education programme in schools has proved difficult until now. How do Catholic schools teach pupils about artificial contraception and gay relationships when the Church itself believes both are inherently sinful?

"There is a big push to have uniform sex education in schools, but there is a danger that we create an orthodoxy that is a mirror image of the past. We should have a plurality of views," says Peadar Tóibín.

As well as controversial areas in education, there are still aspects of healthcare that need to be resolved, according to Dr Ciara Kelly.

"I don't have strong opinions on the name change of the Our Lady of Lourdes hospital," says the Newstalk presenter. "But my view on healthcare and religion is they are oil and water apart from giving comfort to those who want it in times of distress.

"The churches should have no business in attempting to influence clinical practice."

Secularist tide

It remains to be seen if the new political party led by Tóibín can make serious inroads and succeed in reversing the secularist tide. The size of the task is immense, given the scale of the Yes victory in the abortion referendum.

Traditionalists in the Church such as Father Brian McKevitt, editor of the staunchly conservative Catholic paper Alive!, hopes that Tóibín, or a party like Renua will be successful.

"They are challenging the secularist groupthink that has possessed the political establishment," says Fr McKevitt.

Some pundits might argue that the plight of Renua in the last election does not augur well for Tóibín's party.

Like the ex-Sinn Féiner, Lucinda Creighton broke away from her party to lead a movement in the last election on an anti-abortion ticket. But the party failed to win a single seat.

But Tóibín argues that abortion is now a much more crucial issue for many voters now that the referendum has been passed.

He says Renua stood on a right-wing economic agenda that was out of step with popular opinion after a period of austerity.

Creighton also tried to retain her seat in leafy and liberal Dublin Bay South, which is hardly a bastion of pro-life sentiment.

The future success of pro-life politicians and those espousing traditional Catholic social conservatism is by no means guaranteed.

But the grassroots campaign against abortion will continue for the foreseeable future, whatever happens in the Dáil. After past campaigns on divorce, same-sex marriage and divorce, the traditionalists licked their wounds, packed up their tents and left the battlefield once the struggle was lost. But Fr McKevitt says that this will definitely not happen on the issue of abortion.

Anti-abortion activists have taken heart from a thriving pro-life movement in the United States.

After his protests in Drogheda, Charles Byrne is more determined than ever to continue with the campaign to stop abortion and "the creeping secularisation of Ireland".

"We are not trying to start a war, but a war has been started," he says.

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