Wednesday 23 October 2019

It was the best of times, the worst of times

Political change came via the small parties, during a five-month procession of horrors

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Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

If there was no Repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign, the past five months would still have been emotionally exhausting. It remains an extraordinary period, and a depressing one.

Yet, in that same period, forces came together to work relentlessly for change. They included people who fought against the Amendment in 1983 and lost, and young people of extraordinary energy and commitment.

On the one hand, the first five months of 2018 saw damaging eruptions of misogyny and institutional dysfunction. On the other hand, the forces fighting for repeal not alone deleted a destructive Constitutional clause, they undercut what passes for politics in this odd little country.

Look first at the waves of misogyny.

The Belfast rape trial stretched from January to the end of March. The accused were found not guilty.

A jury's decision on the issue of "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" is due respect. We can't ignore the evidence revealed to all.

It wasn't the sex that shocked, it was the medieval attitudes. The careless and gross disrespect of women, treated as casually as a used tissue.

Any individual man - or woman - can be a gobs**te. The WhatsApp messages revealed in that case showed the male group boasting of predatory victories over a sub-species that exists to be used at will.

How Did Your Constituency Vote?

Final Results Constituencies declared: 40/40

Map Key

Yes 55% 50% 55% No

While such boasting is hardly new, these were not furtive pleasures indulged in by giggling boys. This was adults basking unashamedly in the semi-public applause of sexist sycophants.

The trial process was brutal. We saw that a woman claiming she was raped not only has her evidence tested, as it should be. She can be legally pummelled on the witness stand, day after day.

Already, the Weinstein revelations in late 2017 had raised questions about the behaviour women are expected to tolerate. The #MeToo phenomenon followed. We had one revelation after another about behaviour common in matters of gender, sex, position and power.

On the same day in March that the Cabinet agreed to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, Mary McAleese denounced the "empire of misogyny" that is the Catholic church. The Vatican had sought to sideline a conference of Catholic women - the list of speakers didn't meet the approval of the dominant males.

Constituencies with the strongest Yes/No vote

The table below shows the top five constituencies with the strongest vote for or against repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Dublin Bay South 78.49% 21.51%

Dún Laoghaire 77.06% 22.94%

Dublin Fingal 76.96% 23.04%

Dublin Central 76.51% 23.49%

Dublin Rathdown 76.10% 23.90%

Donegal 48.13% 51.87%

The following month, the CervicalCheck scandal exploded. A system that saved innumerable lives, set up by idealistic, hugely capable people, grossly failed some of its patients, with tragic effects.

In the drip-drip of information, the relentless assault on anyone daring to bring the State to court, and in the neglect of the rights of the women involved, there were echoes of the Hep C scandal.

And, again, as in that scandal, women were the victims.

The two women who initially went public about the scandal displayed uncommon strength and dignity. And that heightened the emotional response to the scandal, as it deserved to.

Meanwhile, old ghosts haunted us. DNA results shattered the last foolish claims from gardai that Joanne Hayes was the mother of the baby at the centre of the notorious Kerry Babies case.

And in the first week of May, there were ripples from another iconic 1980s case about women, sex and motherhood - the death of Ann Lovett.

Not two weeks later, we endured the killing in unimaginable circumstances of 14-year old Anastasia Kriegel. Gardai were interviewing children.

And a week after that, the random murder of a young woman, Jastine Valdez. A man steeped in his own furies grabbed a vulnerable woman and used her to relieve his need for dominance, then tossed her away.

The Eighth Amendment was always negative. The right-wing forces that created it had nothing to say about the misogyny that blights us. Nothing - not one word - to say about the complex humanity that results in crisis pregnancies.

To them, it is sin - and there's nothing more to be said.

That was made plain in the Pat Kenny TV3 debate, where a young woman spoke of the pressures surrounding her when she had to make a decision about a crisis pregnancy. When she finished, Senator Ronan Mullen offered her Christian love, "regardless of what you've done".

It was, for some of us, a shattering moment.

After subjecting pregnant women to the overwhelming power of the Eighth for 35 years, with three days to the vote, the anti-choice side feared they were losing. They suddenly announced that if the people voted No they'd see what could be done about reforming the Eighth.

In the irrefutable terminology of the young: Yeah, right.

The political impetus for Repeal came not from the major parties but from the small left-wing groups - TDs derided as powerless. They refuse in principle to prop up FG or FF, they argue for genuine political change.

In the Dail last Wednesday, Leo Varadkar had the grace to acknowledge this. He spoke of those responsible for "putting this matter on the political agenda and raising it in this House, perhaps at a time when many of us would have preferred not to deal with it. It is only right, now that this question is being put to the people, to acknowledge the early role of Deputy Coppinger, Deputy Clare Daly and others in that regard".

Brid Smith, Joan Collins and numbers of leftie men who won't object to remaining nameless, would doubtless agree.

They put the issue on the agenda, they argued it powerfully. That chimed with the beliefs of the forces who became the Repeal campaign.

These were people who looked at your ideas, not your party label.

The issue grew, until the political parties had to take a position.

Labour had long had feminist activists. Sinn Fein had a mixture of Yes and No, mostly tending towards Repeal.

In Fianna Fail, despite the efforts of Micheal Martin, a majority of TDs clung to their core principle - How Best to Hold Onto The Seat.

As with other issues: no thought, no empathy, no leadership, just suck your thumb and guess which position is least risky.

And this time they guessed wrong. Let us remember that.

Fine Gael had attracted women who weren't cool with the notion that a Constitutional Amendment from 1983, with the imprimatur of the Catholic Bishops, could tell all women, whatever their circumstances, that they had no choices.

Others, such as Simon Harris, were won to Repeal by the arguments of activists. Harris was brilliant in the Prime Time debate, totally on top of the facts, always remembering it was about trusting women.

How come the brilliance of such FG talent has so totally failed in areas such as housing and health?

On the repeal issue, unable in a changing country to stick to the old certainties, they took their lead from the likes of Coppinger and Daly. On other issues, they slip more comfortably into their familiar right-wing market solutions, which fail and fail and fail again.

As the exit poll results came in, one anti-choice activist announced: "I no longer have a country. This is not my nation, State or land."

It was his country, these were his people, as long as they obeyed the edicts to which he subscribes.

Meanwhile, any advance, even this one, must be measured against the horrors of just the past five months. And that is sobering.

Sunday Independent

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