Sunday 17 June 2018

If past really is another country, the referendum battle will prove it

Dáil Éireann. Stock picture
Dáil Éireann. Stock picture
John Downing

John Downing

This was a debate pitched in the shadow of events from three decades past.

An unexpected announcement by gardaí in Cahersiveen on Tuesday, apologising to Joanne Hayes, the woman at the centre of the Kerry Babies sorry saga of 1984/1985, set a certain sepia-tinged tone.

The early to mid-1980s also brought us the case of Eileen Roche in Wexford and the heart-buckling story of Anne Lovett in Longford. At various times in Leinster House all through the day, we were reminded that all of these happenings were from "another Ireland".

The September 1983 referendum, which aimed to guarantee equal status to the life of the expectant mother and the unborn child, sat amid those events and is now about to be revisited. There is a certain sinking feeling amid many at Leinster House and beyond.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin, who was a new senator back in autumn 1983, in a time that saw much awfulness pass for debate, pleaded for reason and respect on this occasion. "I hope that the past is another country. That it is possible for all of us to listen as well as to speak, to acknowledge difference without vile attack," he said.

Well, one way or another, we are about to find out about that in the coming weeks. The lead person in all of this, Health Minister Simon Harris, certainly tried to set a reasonable tone in a very well-received opening speech, which also evoked that "other Ireland".

"Whether it is the damp cold of the Magdalene laundries creeping into our bones, or the sundered silence of mother and baby homes being broken, or the glimpses of what was an all too acceptable culture exposed by the Kerry Babies case - all of these things are connected. Connected by the way we as a country have treated women, particularly pregnant women," he said.

Mr Harris stressed his respect for people who hold strong views on both sides of the argument. In acknowledging the work of the special committee, he also respectfully cited those who disagreed with the main recommendations. But these would form the basis of TDs' and senators' deliberations from this point onwards.

The Health Minister laid huge emphasis on the numbers of women still travelling to Britain for abortions. He also stressed the numbers of women using abortion pills bought over the internet without medical supervision or support.

Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Billy Kelleher was equally forthright. He said if the 1983 amendment was retained, every night five women would still take abortion pills, and every day 10 women would still travel abroad for an abortion.

Mr Kelleher said Ireland had changed fundamentally since 1983. Irish women now had an opportunity to put themselves at the heart of this debate.

The debate continued in an encouragingly kindly tone. Independent Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae was uncharacteristically apologetic in putting his view, as he opposed change moving towards permitting abortion.

"I want to talk about the gift of life - I just don't agree with abortion. I believe it is always wrong," Mr Healy-Rae insisted.

Fianna Fáil's Anne Rabbitte spoke of allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality - but unlimited abortion up to 12 weeks went too far for her. Deputy Brid Smith of Solidarity-PBP said the current position did not protect unborn children.

The tone was all happily measured and courteous - but there is a long way to go.

Irish Independent

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