Monday 22 April 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Why, like Mary McAleese, we should always reserve the right to alter our opinions'


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

When Mary McAleese was first elected as President of Ireland, doubts were expressed about her profile. At a time when it was evident that the culture was already becoming more secular and liberal, she was seen as a bit too, well, Catholic. One commentator said her Catholic identity represented a "tribal time bomb".

Things seldom turn out as expected. Mary was a president of faultlessly tactful values, and a bridge-builder with all communities. But it now seems that her symbolic grenades are against that selfsame Catholic Church, which, these days, she seldom misses a chance to lacerate. Recently, she has said that "the game is almost up" for the institution - "the clerical citadel" which is "increasingly of zero interest to many Christian women".

Hey - she's changed her mind! You don't have to agree with everything the lady says to concede that changing your mind can be a sign of refreshed thinking. It can be triggered by new experiences, or newly assessed facts.

John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century, was, according to one biographer, "never afraid to abandon one set of ideas for another of greater explanatory power". That's why he is credited with the aphorism: "When the facts change, I change my mind."

Example: I was against censorship in the 1960s and 1970s because the criteria for censoring material was Victorian - a book had been banned because it contained the word "bastard". I'm more inclined to agree with some censorship or control now because there is so much dangerous stuff available on the internet, causing vulnerable young people to kill themselves. The facts have changed.

Sometimes people change their minds because their circumstances alter. Old Trotskyists who acquire real estate - sometimes even in Dublin 4 or Dublin 6 - may wonder if uttering the revolutionary mantra "Property is theft!" isn't just a little hypocritical?

Sometimes, it's our lifestyle that has changed, but we justify the change with an intellectual argument. I grew bored with being a drunken slag, and calling it "liberation", I probably cited reading Hayek.

When a mother comes to acknowledge that her son is gay - as occurred in Mary McAleese's case - she may feel a burning desire to combat laws or prejudices against homosexual people. It may not necessarily be the political argument that is driving the conviction, but the tigress-like maternal instinct to defend and protect. (The London nightclub owner, Mark Birley, had half his face bitten off because he approached a pregnant tigress, ferociously defending her unborn cub).

Speaking of the unborn, both Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris had, in previous statements, affirmed pro-life beliefs. Taoiseach Leo had emphasised that as a doctor, he knew there was two human lives involved in a pregnancy: and he told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times in 2017 that he didn't agree that human rights only begin at birth. But politicians change their minds. Sometimes they are persuaded by different evidence. Not unusually, they go with the voting trend of the country.

Sometimes they do a complete volte-face. Eamon de Valera opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, setting up the Irish State, because it included an oath of allegiance to King George V. A brutal civil war followed. Then, in 1927, Dev changed his mind, and proclaimed the said oath nothing but an "empty formula".

He was right to change his mind. Without power, a politician can't change anything.

The novelist Kingsley Amis had been a member of the Communist Party as a young man. He changed his mind and became something of an arch-conservative. When I interviewed him, he told me that doing compulsory military service had a huge impact on his thinking. "You looked around the barracks and saw all these varying blokes, and you realised there's never going to be equality. It's a Utopian fantasy."

It's evident that the late Martin McGuinness changed his mind about engaging in what's euphemistically known as "the armed struggle" when he began to engage with the Peace Process. The late Ian Paisley changed his mind about a couple of things too.

It's not always true that people become more conservative as they grow older. Sometimes, they become more radical. Benjamin Spock, the American pioneer of child-care manuals, was a moderately-minded paediatrician as a young doctor: when old, he was a radical, and furious, campaigner against the Vietnam War. The facts had changed, for him. And, perhaps, so had his life.

Winston Churchill crossed the floor of the House of Commons not once, but twice. "I ratted - and then I re-ratted." Churchill thought consistency "the hobgoblin of small minds".

I might have agreed with Mary McAleese's castigations of a male-dominated Church in my 20s. But now I see things differently. A Catholic convert told me: "What I'm looking for in faith is holiness - and beauty. I don't give a fig if the clergy is male."

St Theresa's Church on Clarendon Street, Dublin is often very full with truly, genuinely, sincerely spiritual people and I think, "Why rain on their parade?" But then, I've changed my mind!

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