Thursday 17 January 2019

Eoghan Harris: Fail naysayers must re-examine consciences

Eoghan Harris june 3
Eoghan Harris june 3
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

The Irish Times is coolly giving credit for the referendum result to Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael and dismissing Fianna Fail as totally out of touch. Here is a more accurate summary.

Fianna Fail was the first party to take a public stand for abortion up to 12 weeks - but thanks to a tranche of No members, it threw away its winning position.

On Friday, December 8, 2017, at an Oireachtas Committee, Lisa Chambers, Billy Kelleher and Senator Ned O'Sullivan moved that termination up to 12 weeks should be acceptable.

On January 18, 2018, Micheal Martin was the first leader of a political party to come out in favour of abortion up to 12 weeks - a courageous move that had a huge effect on the centre ground.

On January 27, over a week later, on a BBC programme, Leo Varadkar came out for abortion for the first time.

But the bravery of Micheal Martin and his supporters was betrayed by two regressive actions by Fianna Fail naysayers.

In March 2017, no fewer than 21 of them brazenly voted against allowing the Irish people to have a referendum at all.

On May 3, the eve of the referendum, some 31 TDs and senators posed with a No photo - which was eagerly circulated by the party's media enemies.

The naysayers did this, not just on the eve of a referendum, but on the eve of a general election.

They did this devastating damage to their party because they equated the life of a grown woman with that of a foetus - a position which a massive majority of the Irish people rejected as callous and cruel.

Some of the naysayers claimed religious motives. Others said it was a matter of personal conscience.

Both of these reasons were rejected by the Irish people, and rightly so, as I shall show.

Let me first ask the religious group a rhetorical question. How can you accept advice from the repressive remnants of the Roman Catholic Church?

How can you put aside a century and more of cruelty on a massive scale to Irish boys and girls - particularly to poor Irish girls?

How can you put aside the sadism and sodomy in industrial schools, the foul mistreatment of pregnant girls in Mother and Baby homes and Magdalene laundries, the trafficking of babies, the sheer sustained contempt for human dignity and decency?

To ignore all that you'd have to be what my father would call "a crowd of clerical craw-thumpers".

But compliant laypeople was why the hierarchy could hide out from its history during the referendum.

The bishops did not need to turn up in television studios. They could depend on blindly loyal laity to convey their message.

Let me now turn to those politicians in Fianna Fail - and Fine Gael - who claim that it's not religion but their personal conscience that compelled them to support the No camp.

But as Jim Cogan's cartoon shows, the JFK test does not distinguish between religious or personal conscience.

What matters, as Kennedy said, is whether you are prepared to pay the price for your conscience.

JFK told the Southern Baptist ministers that if his private conscience came into conflict with his public duty as president, he would resign his office.

If Kennedy found himself in the same position as those who voted No he would resign his seat - not sit safely tabling amendments - rather than vote for abortion.

So far, not one of the 'photo opportunists' have said they are ready to resign their seats. Logically, they should now reflect on the revelation that their conscience was not as rigid as they thought when they posed for their No photo.

Naturally, I am glad most will park their previously inviolable conscience to pass the abortion legislation.

Even gladder to learn they will now entrust themselves to the conscience of the Irish people.

But these gyrations give me the right to put two rhetorical questions.

Given the naysayers are not resigning their seats, should they not at least resign their rubbery "personal" consciences and get some rigid ones?

Given the result of the referendum, don't the religious naysayers have a duty to review the Roman Catholic Church's peculiar obsession with women's reproductive systems?

Naysayers should also note the alleged "triumphalists" at Dublin Castle were not gloating about abortion but celebrating the end of clerical repression.

Be clear, I am neither an aggressive atheist nor a snotty secularist. My two plays, The Pope's Gig and Souper Sullivan, are on religious themes.

Like Karl Marx, I believe that religion is not just the opium of the people but also "the heart of a heartless world".

But I also believe the old institutional Irish Roman Catholic Church must be completely retired from the public sphere before a future Reformed Church can rise again from the ashes.

Fianna Fail, too, needs to retire some of its recent reactionary beliefs, both religious and hibernian nationalist, and return to its secular republican roots.

Luckily, the party still has stalwarts such as Niall Collins, Timmy Dooley, Stephen Donnelly and Jim O'Callaghan who remain loyal to a long tradition of scepticism about clericalism and craw-thumping.

I come from that Fianna Fail republican tradition. It began with my great- grandfather Old Pat Harris, a Fenian and an IRB man who supported Garibaldi against the Pope.

Like all Fenians, he felt the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church. He was refused Confession. He was excommunicated.

As he lay dying, his wife bravely followed his strict instructions, and called no priest to his bed.

Interment in a Catholic cemetery was temporarily denied. He was buried in a field near Inniscarra, wrapped in the bright blue sunburst flag of the Fenians.

My father did go to Mass, but he was no craw-thumper and hated the screams he heard from Greenmount and Upton orphanages.

Coming to adult life in the 1960s, like tens of thousands, I rejected the Church's teaching on contraception, divorce and abortion. That long fuse was shortened by a new generation of Irish women.

Time those with tender consciences in Fianna Fail took the advice of Thomas Aquinas who believed political authority was a service to the people.

The Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that this means poor people.


Last week we lost Pat Pender, the Sage of Seapoint.

Pat in his prime moved in London's financial fast lanes, and played rugby for London-Irish.

Retiring home, he spent his time swimming at Seapoint, a fount of wisdom on politics, media and sport.

A fluent Irish speaker, Pat liked to stand smoking after a swim, back to the Martello Tower, sharing the folklore of Anglo-Irish politics with myself and Liam O Muirthile.

Pat had no time for narrow nationalism. He believed the roots of our recession began with our giving up the punt as a finger to the Brits.

His humanist funeral was a happy reunion of his relatives from the real Ireland with roots in Tipperary and Carlow.

Gwen and myself, and our two dogs, Posy and Dolly, will miss him badly.

Sunday Independent

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