Thursday 17 January 2019

Yes won, so why this awful desire to shut down all opposition?

Those who voted No to abortion are part of what we are as a nation, too, and must not now be expected to shut up, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'Those who voted No to abortion are part of what we are as a nation, too, and must not now be expected to shut up.' Photo: Fergal Phillips
'Those who voted No to abortion are part of what we are as a nation, too, and must not now be expected to shut up.' Photo: Fergal Phillips

Eilis O'Hanlon

'Not impressed I am with the people of Donegal," declared Ivan Yates on his Newstalk show last week as he mulled over the result of the abortion referendum, mangling grammar in the manner of Yoda from Star Wars in his determination to show maximum indignation at Ireland's most remote and northernmost constituency for voting No.

It was as if Donegal was on the naughty step and had to explain itself to the rest of the country. The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment carried the day. Why this need to still try and whip everyone who voted No into line?

Sadly, many Yes supporters took up the challenge to explain Donegal's No vote in a way that would pacify those determined to take offence that they couldn't carry the whole country for Yes. All the young people have moved away to Dublin and other more enlightened urban places, some pointed out. The county had suffered disproportionately from the downturn, others chipped in. They meant well, but in defending the good people of Donegal who voted Yes, or who weren't back home to do so, they reinforced the idea that the ones left behind who did vote No were, ipso facto, bad.

Donegal shouldn't have had to justify itself at all. It voted No. Get over it. A mature democracy ought to be able to cope with dissent.

But isn't that what always happens? First comes the result, and the winners are radiant, carefree. Then the high wears off and they start seeking the next fix of self-righteousness.

Campaigners have already set their sights on loosening the Catholic Church's hold on Irish education, and that's not a dishonourable cause by any means.

But why that? Why now? It's because overcoming their enemies in the abortion referendum by a margin of two to one was still not enough to satiate the aching discontent that the self-styled agents of liberalism feel when they survey the social and political landscape. The existence of any resistance whatsoever seems to somehow cast a shadow over their satisfaction, even when those opponents have, quite literally, zero power.

None of this is unusual. Experiments in social psychology have long observed that people "can enter into us-versus-them thinking in seconds, and they will do so over just about everything".

More pertinently to the Irish situation, the same research also shows that, once sorted into rival groups, they'll immediately think of the others as morally and intellectually inferior. The differences don't even need to be that great to stimulate tribal loyalty. Even randomly sorting people into groups can set it off.

It's also undoubtedly true that much of this backlash was thoroughly deserved. The campaign to retain the Eighth was not restricted only to supporters of the Catholic Church, but it would be foolish to deny that the recent history of the Church played a part in shaping people's thoughts on the referendum.

For that, the Church has only itself to blame for undermining its own authority so thoroughly as a result of the institutional cover- up of clerical child abuse and its treatment of vulnerable women in the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes that, when it was needed, the Church found that it had squandered all its moral capital and had none left to spend in support of the unborn.

A more exemplary church probably wouldn't have made a difference to the result, but its ignominy was part of the picture. But even if the Church has been the author of its own downfall, it doesn't mean we're not in danger of losing something integral to Irish life and society by casting all those who hold socially conservative points of view as enemies of the State, or by talking of them as if they are somehow "other" - a race apart.

What happened to respecting the opinions of minorities? More than 700,000 people voted No. That's more than the number who voted for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail at the last election. It's more than twice as many as voted for Sinn Fein, which that party celebrated as a stunning electoral mandate.

That those people are now unrepresented by any major political party is worrying enough. Of greater concern, though, is the growing feeling among the pro-repeal majority that it doesn't matter if those people are unrepresented, because they ought to be crawling into a hole somewhere and shutting up. Forever.

That's not some fanciful interpretation of the mood. It's what was actually being said after last weekend's Yes vote. It can be called many things, but the march of liberal tolerance is not one of them. Even Leo Varadkar was not immune. As the results came in, the Fine Gael leader hailed it as "the day we came of age as a country, the day we took our place among the nations of the world".

He can be forgiven a little hyperbole. Every Taoiseach who calls a referendum lives under the shadow that it might be defeated. A No vote would have damaged his credibility and authority. Perhaps what Varadkar really meant was that this was the day he came of age as a leader, and any quiet satisfaction he might feel at that is entirely forgiveable.

What's less so is suggesting that Ireland was somehow a second-rate, second-tier nation before the vote to repeal the Eighth. That's verging on insulting. Ireland already had a place among the nations of the world. Like Donegal, it didn't need to justify its existence to the neighbours, or apologise for any national character particularities.

Leo's words smack of cultural cringe. If that's what he felt when he thought about Ireland before last weekend, then it says more about him than it does about the country.

Was all this just about making sure he didn't have to feel embarrassed next time he meets Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or French President Emmanuel Macron, both leaders who've made a habit of using social justice campaigns as projections of their own egos?

It was telling that he ended his short speech to the media after the referendum by reading lines from "one of my favourite poets", Maya Angelou. Quoting Angelou, who recited a poem at the inauguration of President Clinton and was awarded the Medal of Honour by Obama, is just shorthand to signify that one is enlightened enough to join the club.

In his first speech to the Dail as Taoiseach, Varadkar performed the same box-ticking exercise by quoting Seamus Heaney. These gestures are every bit as cringeworthy as his gushing about Love, Actually when he visited Downing Street for the first time, though, unlike on that occasion, he tends to get away with the poetic cliches. It would be reassuring if political leaders actually listened to what those poets they're name-dropping have actually said, instead of just using them as props. Visiting Belfast for the first time as Taoiseach, Leo quoted another poet (spotting a pattern yet?).

That day, it was John Hewitt, whose multi-layered sense of identity, as an Ulsterman, Irishman, Britisher and European, was adopted by the Taoiseach as a template for future peaceful co-existence.

But the same must go for the spectrum of identities within the Republic itself. Social conservatives and No voters and Catholics are every bit as much a part of who we are as a nation.

It's easy to declare that "real unity comes from respecting different traditions and values, not by trying to obliterate them" when talking about Northern Ireland. Practising that creed closer to home would make a far greater contribution to the civility of public discourse than implying that No voters were the ones holding the country back from taking its place among the international community.

It's that rhetoric which makes those who won the abortion vote feel justified in demanding silence from the minority they failed to convince.

Sunday Independent

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