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Sunday 26 May 2019

Don't misrepresent the older generation's referendum vote

You are wrong to think that only people over 65 voted No in the poll on the Eighth Amendment, says Tom MacSweeney

Tom MacSweeney

"We all have souls of different ages..."

- F Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and Damned

Fitzgerald's summation of life and age underlines for me that there are two facets of a good relationship - establishing the similarities and respecting the differences.

Understanding between the different ages of the Irish population will be essential in the nation's future.

Experience of life forms a base of decision-making. Being "over 65" is reached through a lot of experience.

So I challenge the reportage that 'Only those over the age of 65 voted against repealing the Eighth Amendment' which could be read as indicative of a socially regressive block of older people opposing the will of the majority.

In my 50 years as a journalist, I have reported events which wrought substantial changes in Irish society. One of those happened 47 years ago, interestingly close to the date when Ireland went to the referendum polls.

On Saturday, May 22, 1971, members of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement arrived back at Connolly Station from Belfast, displaying contraceptives they had bought in the North but which were banned in the Republic. 'The Contraceptive Train', as it was labelled, was a protest against the law prohibiting the importation and sale of contraceptives. In front of a huge crowd of supporters and media, they waved contraceptives and some swallowed what were thought to be birth control pills, but were actually aspirin. It was a landmark moment in the Irish women's movement and had widespread media coverage in Ireland and overseas.

The women put themselves at risk of being prosecuted and stigmatised. Predictably, sections of Church and State condemned them. Those women would now be in the "over 65" age group.

I remembered that and other instances of what it was like to live in Ireland at that time, when my reading of the Sunday Independent saw the line 'Only those over the age of 65 voted against repealing the Eighth Amendment'. It niggled me because it was not correct.

I am in that age bracket, and during assignments in Belfast as a reporter in the 1970s, I also bought contraceptives and brought them back south, even filling orders for married friends and relatives. In such ways, some "young people" in that time fought state restrictions.

There were other personal experiences.

As a young married man in my early 20s, I saw my wife 'churched' - something of which the younger generation may not have heard.

This was the Catholic practice, based it seemed to me on the approach that the woman was "unclean" after giving birth and had to be brought back into the Church. This attitude from a Church which indicated that sex among married couples should have the focus of "procreation". At a side altar after Sunday Mass, kneeling before a priest, she had to answer questions such as whether she rejected Satan, and was then blessed and considered 'clean' again. It happened twice in our lives, before this distasteful, insulting practice was ended.

In the throes of labour with our first child as she was taken to the labour ward in a religious-owned hospital, she was reminded by a nun that she would not be in such pain if she had thought about what she was doing nine months before.

My wife, Kathleen, went through the trauma of a miscarriage. In a later birth, she suffered a broken pelvis. In those days, medical decisions were not publicly challenged as they are now.

An arrogant gynaecologist dismissed my requests for information. He sent his bill. I refused to pay. He threatened legal proceedings. I told him to go ahead as a court hearing would extract information. He did not proceed, but I never got an answer from him or the religious-run hospital.

Incidents frame one's life. I remained a Catholic and became acquainted with priests and nuns who did not share the attitudes of the higher-level, ruling clerics. Meeting missionaries, I was struck by the difference in their attitudes, compared with domestic clergy who seemed to be overly concerned with sexual practices and birth control. Any priest who spoke out was dealt with by superiors.

The socially progressive Father James Good was silenced in Cork in 1968 by Bishop Cornelius Lucey because he criticised Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae on birth control.

Walking the floor with a crying baby at 3am one morning during the coverage of that story, I remarked that "If the Pope or the Bishop had to do this, they might understand family life better".

We experienced the trauma of a baby's death, born to our daughter and her husband, two weeks after birth. With courage, they had another child.

We have experienced a lot of what was argued about during the referendum. We saw the issue, not as for or against abortion but as "over 65s" what to do for those younger than us and particularly for women.

Some 723,632 people voted against and, allowing for the secrecy of the ballot, the RTE exit poll showed No percentages in every age group. In the 18-24 age group, 12.4pc voted No. Among 25 to 34 year olds, 15.4pc said No. What did happen is that a majority of those - 58.7pc - in the over-65 age group voted No. That indicates that 41.3pc of the over-65s said Yes.

I emailed the Sunday Independent requesting a correction of the line that 'Only those over the age of 65 voted against repealing the Eighth Amendment'.

I had a prompt reply from Jody Corcoran. A courteous discussion ensued, the culmination of which is this article.

There are social implications in the 41.3pc Yes vote of the over-65s. To ignore that will be as sizeable a mistake as the failure of media and political and societal commentators to recognise that the perceived differences they declared between urban and rural attitudes was not correct.

In regard to Bishop Kevin Doran's comments, I won't be going to confession because I voted Yes. In conscience, I voted for the welfare of people.

Tom MacSweeney is a broadcaster and columnist

Sunday Independent

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