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Gaybo was right - this is about women and sex

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Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne, as he often does, got straight to the nub of the issue. "This has to do with sex specifically," he said, "and there's a feeling that these girls are getting away with something, [that] this is promiscuity, rampant in our society, and they are being paid to do it." It's 1986 and Gay is interviewing Marianne McArdle, an "unmarried" mother with two children, and Mary Higgins, Information Officer with Cherish (now One Family) on his RTE radio show.

Ireland was a cold house for women who got pregnant "outside of wedlock" then, as if it was something that they managed to do all on their evil-minded ownsome. Their children, if they were allowed to keep them, were often called "bastards" and the women themselves (Byrne's excellent description of societal attitudes, that they were "being paid to do it", captured it perfectly) often thought of as little better than whores.

Why? Because, people felt threatened by ''women getting by without men". "Irish women," Marianne explained, "had a particular role in society - to bring up children within the family."

"People," she said, "have a difficulty with women being sexually active outside marriage," and of course "the only public evidence of this is a pregnancy, followed by a child." Byrne noted that many married women were critical of these "unmarried mothers" getting "money for nothing" while their husbands worked hard for every penny. This was just two years after the nation had wrung its hands over the tragic death of Ann Lovett and her baby. Changing Victorian attitudes to women who became pregnant without a ring on their finger was obviously proving a slow lesson to learn.

Twenty years on, and we're all bathing in the glow of the recent Marriage Equality Referendum. Times have changed. Today, more than 40pc of our young children are born to unmarried parents and yet…. the stigma of the 'unmarried mother' lingers on.

Nonsense, I hear you say. Today, 'unmarried mothers are actively encouraged to keep their babies. And after the scandals of the Mother and Baby homes, the Magdalene Laundries, the Industrial Schools, what else can a Christian country do, except support these women and their children in every way it can? Particularly a Catholic country where all forms of abortion (bar to save the life of the mother and even that is contentious) are currently illegal?

I've been deliberately using the term 'unmarried mother' instead of the more politically correct 'lone parent', because facts show that the vast majority of 'lone parent' families are headed up by women. These women are my heroes. Actually, they are super-heroes. Over the years I've met so many strong, enthusiastic single women, devoted to their children, managing to give them the best possible lives against all the odds they face in modern day Ireland. They are up against obstacles that many of us can't even imagine, let alone try to cope with. Why do they do it? They do it for love.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that in a country which treasures its children so much that a foetus has the same constitutional rights as a grown, sentient woman, that we would do everything in our power to help these women care for their children? You'd think there would be a seamless continuation between the care and attention we have for the unborn, right through to the upbringing of the born child.

You'd think wrong.

As writer Katha Pollitt so pithily phrased it: "You would think Ireland would reward single mothers for doing the right thing, since it is so keen to force the pregnant women to give birth, but no. The Government is much the same as a callous boyfriend who drops you once the baby's born."

And by God has this Government dropped lone parents. They have suffered the deprivations of austerity far more than most other groups. A whopping 63pc of lone-parent families live without basic necessities. Currently, 60pc of those seeking urgent housing are lone-parent families. The deprivation rate among this group is 230pc higher than in the general population. No civilised society can tolerate such barefaced injustice, can it?

So, what do we do? We tell them to go out and get jobs, that's what we do. Or more education. But many lone parents are already in jobs - a lot of part-time, badly paid jobs to be sure - but still jobs. Well, in that case we need to make them spend more time working - thus earning more money. How do we do this? We punish them if they don't. Next month, almost 12,000 parents, (98pc women) many of them already in employment, will lose out massively under proposed cuts to the Lone Parent Allowance.

According to Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids (SPARK), a lone parent with one child, working 20 hours per week on minimum wage will lose €50.72 per week, even with the Back to Work Family Dividend (BTWFD) and increase in Family Income Supplement Payment (FIS). This will rise to €80.52 by 2017, when they lose their BTWFD. And this in a country where childcare costs are twice the average of the OECD - where solemn promises were made that the Government wouldn't introduce these measures unless the necessary childcare provisions were introduced. This is insanity. So, why are we doing it?

As impoverishing families is just going to put further pressure on emergency services, housing, social welfare, hospitals etc, the only rational reason I can think of is that it may prove popular with a soon-to-be-voting public. Why? Because it's still all about sex. And punishment. And controlling 'promiscuous' women. We must still believe these women are 'getting away with something' because they haven't knuckled down with a man in the house. We feel threatened so we make sure single parents don't get 'money for nothing'. Old prejudices and mentalities die hard, it would seem, and where 'unmarried mothers' are concerned, ours are still stuck somewhere in the 1980s.

@carolmhunt

Sunday Independent