Monday 21 October 2019

Freedom that lies at the heart of feminism is still under fire

In her final article as editor of the 'Sunday Independent', Anne Harris looks at what two scandals, 30 years apart, tell us about women in Irish society

Anne Harris outgoing Editor of the Sunday Independent
Anne Harris outgoing Editor of the Sunday Independent
Joanne Hayes became a cause celebre for Irish feminists.
Where were the placards and outcry over the treatment of Mairia Cahill (pictured)? Feminism needs new role models - will it be Mairia or Mary Lou McDonald asks Anne Harris. Picture: Gerry Mooney.

Anne Harris

The Kerry Babies Tribunal was where I came in with the Sunday Independent. Mairia Cahill's revelations about sex abuse and Sinn Fein is my point of departure. Between the two lies a chasm - not just a 30-year gap, but the erosion of a once great idea: feminism.

The Kerry Babies Tribunal arose out of the discovery on a Kerry beach of a brutally murdered baby, the subsequent arrest of single parent Joanne Hayes, who had earlier given birth in Tralee, but was found to be inexplicably baby-less, and confessions by her and her family, apparently under duress, to the murder. Police investigation revealed a second dead baby - definitely Joanne's - buried on the Hayes farm.

The tribunal had the cast of characters of an Agatha Christie novel: a vulnerable young woman, an inarticulate family who contradicted one another and a sphinx-like watchful aunt who had a very different story to tell: a tale of murder.

This was the thrust of the tribunal. The subtext was an education in the reality of rural life, of bucolic adultery, a damp eroticism acted out in steamy Morris Minors on lonely boreens in Kerry.

Tribunals of inquiry tend to uncover bodies nobody knew were buried. The Kerry Tribunal did this both literally and metaphorically.

One garda shocked the nation, saying that infanticide was a time-honoured way of dealing with unwanted pregnancy in rural Ireland.

Joanne Hayes became a cause celebre for Irish feminists. A cavalcade of women from the women's organisations descended on Tralee, offering support in every conceivable form. There were placards and pickets, flowers and Mass cards all culminating in an overflow of powerful emotion.

Always the bad feminist, I questioned some of the uncritical support for what was clearly a complex dilemma. I was roundly trounced for my temerity.

But what is retrospectively stunning about the situation was the comet that lit the south-western landscape as women blazed a trail of support for a young woman who had undoubtedly been roughly handled by our norms and our institutions.

Thirty years later, just two months ago, Mairia Cahill revealed that in the late 1990s, as a teenager, she had been groomed and repeatedly raped by a member of the Provisional IRA in west Belfast. When, over the following years, she disclosed the rape, she was subjected to a series of 'investigations' by the republican courts of the IRA (aka kangaroo courts) where she was forced to confront her rapist.

If ever there was a woman wronged by those purporting to be her advocates, it is Mairia Cahill.

Where were the feminists? The pickets, the placards, the outcry? It has been muted to the point of near silence.

So what has happened to feminism - that warm if sometimes fuzzy ideology so dedicated to the cause of the individual woman wherever she has been roughed up by the patriarchal system?

In the intervening decades two things have become clear. As Sinn Fein has strengthened, feminism has weakened. Is there a connection? Undoubtedly. Because in that tangled undergrowth where agendas and ideologies cross-pollinate, there has been a significant political shift on the women's question.

The first wave of Irish feminism flourished. Probably more than in most countries, discrimination against women was as much a function of the Catholic Church as the State. Irish feminists took them on. Punitive laws on the marriage bar, contraception and divorce all fell before the onslaught. Everywhere legislation could provide a solution, Irish feminism succeeded. Along with the women's trade union movement and the EU they clocked up stunning achievements on equal pay and maternity leave.

But misogyny has not gone away you know. Young women today are crying out for a new feminism. In the workplace, men still run the show. In the political spheres, in the artistic spheres, they make choices based on a male imperative. Which is why all these years later we still need positive discrimination. Misogyny has not gone away in the play place either: pornography, the predominance of eating disorders across all ages and the reality that women are more than ever the playthings of men, all point towards a crisis of identity.

These are existential problems and the only answer is role models.

But over the years feminists have been lulled into allowing their feminism to be absorbed into a broader movement for "social justice". In a sense then, collectivism has asserted its dominance again and Sinn Fein (along with the Socialist Party) is the most successful corporate brand of collectivism and has peddled the idea that they answer women's needs, because they pay lip service to the notion of gender equality.

There is more to reform than legislation because feminism is more than anything else a profoundly individualistic philosophy - which was never better demonstrated than at the Kerry Babies Tribunal. And the individual will always be a complex, flawed thing, like you, me and Joanne Hayes.

Which is why role models are key and a cornerstone to change for women.

Mairia Cahill's revelations revealed a shocking sub-culture of abuse within the Provisional Republican movement. As in the Catholic Church, it thrived on secrecy, submission and a central authority. But the most shocking effect of Mairia Cahill's revelations has been an unravelling of the workings of Sinn Fein.

Up until the day Mairia Cahill waived her anonymity on BBC's Spotlight programme, Mary Lou McDonald was Sinn Fein's most powerful weapon. As polemicist, as parliamentary performer, as heroine of the PAC, she chose her targets with savage precision. To all but a jaundiced eye she seemed like she could be a Taoiseach - ironically in a Margaret Thatcher mould. In short, a fabulous role model for women.

The Mairia Cahill story hit her like a stun gun. She reeled, lost her balance and for the first time in her career the nerves of steel deserted her. Like Gerry Adams, she was always behind the curve in her public statements.

As Sinn Fein deployed a scattergun of abuse at Mairia Cahill on all social media, McDonald ran for cover. Until, mysteriously, a man nobody ever heard of - Bobby Storey - instructed all Sinn Fein followers to stop the social media abuse. Tellingly, within hours of his instructions, all trolling stopped.

This was the first inkling that instructions to Sinn Fein members were coming from somewhere other than their parliamentary or cumann structure. And even worse, it was clear that this totalitarianism affected even the deputy leader of the party, the redoubtable, the up until then indomitable, Mary Lou McDonald. Because the truth is, we still have no idea what McDonald really thinks.

Nobody disputes that the long and protracted peace process demanded subtleties, special relationships and 'emergency standards'. And God knows this paper came in for its share of savage criticism for holding that process up to scrutiny, warning that our democracy walked a tightrope off which it could easily fall. But the abiding narrative in this scenario is one of turning a blind eye to individual injustices in order to tackle other bigger injustices.

The rise of Sinn Fein in the immediate aftermath of Mairia Cahill's revelations showed just how slack that rope had become.

So this also is what the Mairia Cahill affair exposed. The idea that you must tolerate one injustice in order to right another injustice. Feminists have basically bought into that toxic philosophy. The truth is, once you let one small act of bad behaviour go unpunished then the rest follows, until you're asked to turn a blind eye to more and more things, and then it's too late to turn back.

The individual's right to speak their truth - the freedom that was at the heart of feminism and is at the heart of the open society - is clearly alien to Sinn Fein. As John Deasy pointed out, McDonald's recent behaviour is a terrifying insight to what life would be like if Sinn Fein were in government.

Was it because up until now Irishwomen, of all political hues, were in awe of Mary Lou McDonald that Irish feminism has singularly failed Mairia Cahill.

Or was it because she stood up against Sinn Fein, the darlings of the left.

Mairia Cahill still walked the lonely road of the truth seeker and truth sayer. And today's Sunday Independent/ Millward Brown poll shows Irish men and women have heard her.

And as between Mary Lou McDonald or Mairia Cahill there is little doubt now which one they would choose.

Sunday Independent

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