With a referendum looming, we must learn to tolerate open debate

The Irish media should be championing the right to freedom of expression in a democracy, writes Feargal Quinn

Dáil Éireann. Stock picture

Feargal Quinn

The celebrated playwright Brian Friel had a unique ability to portray a sense of Ireland and Irishness. He portrayed Ireland in a way that no others before or since have and seemed to presciently define its people as a nation forever restlessly seeking to redefine its identity.

Contemporary Ireland is a nation that seems determined to find issues which tear us apart at regular intervals. What lies beneath our obsession with major social issues?

Think back to the various referendums on abortion - on the Eighth Amendment in 1983, the Fourteenth Amendment in 1992, the failed Twenty Fifth Amendment in 2002 - each of which has been both vicious and divisive. Not to mention the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 which ended some political careers.

We were immersed in all matters concerning marriage and separation when presented with the Tenth Amendment in 1986 on divorce (which was rejected), and in the age-old tradition of referendum questions being re-put until voters produce the correct answer, we went through it all again in 1995 with the Fifteenth Amendment. If the Taoiseach keeps his promise to Josepha Madigan TD, we will run this issue one more time.

Continuing on the theme of marriage, the gay marriage referendum brought modern Ireland's new form of liberalism to the fore - the kind of liberalism which dictates that it is okay for you to have your opinion so long as it is the same as mine.

This so-called liberalism permeated all aspects of the gay marriage referendum campaign. Even the dogs (and cats) in the street were enthusiastic advocates of a yes vote and the general consensus was that anyone who opposed the referendum was a backwards, selfish cave dweller. The effect of this, of course, was that many of the voters who were opposed to the referendum felt unable to partake in discussions or debates on the topic.

This type of environment stifles debate and is a challenge to our democratic values. The media bears some of the blame for this.

To take one media outlet - some time ago The Irish Times liked to be known as the 'paper of record', and so it ran a marketing campaign picking up on that theme: 'We look at life, you live it.'

This theme suggested that the media would serve as observers and objective analysts of the world around us. But that is not always the case in the Ireland of today.

Today, the wider media see themselves as champions of the cause du jour. The objectivity has long faded and has been replaced by cheerleading. The one thing that the media should certainly be championing is the right to freedom of expression.

It is a healthy thing in a democracy such as ours that we are all free to hold our own views. But this right is of little worth if we take away from others the right to passionately advocate those views even if we disagree with them.

Abortion is easily the most divisive policy question of our time. The extremes of the debate range from those who wish to see the Eighth Amendment repealed in its entirety and not replaced, to those who hold the view that the Eighth Amendment should remain in place - and also a range of views in the spectrum between those two positions.

When kicking a can down a road, it is usually helpful if the can is heavy and the road long and straight. So it seemed like a good idea at the time - to entrust the State's most heavily charged policy matter to the Citizens' Assembly forum. As chair of the Assembly, the formidable Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, faced with a task on the scale of the charioteer in Plato's allegory of the two winged horses, seems to have been drawn towards conclusions with which even the most liberal members of the Cabinet seem ill at ease.

Such is the complexity of the issue that while we know the approximate timing of the referendum, we do not yet know the question which will be put to the people. The task of deciphering the proposal has been placed in the hands of an Oireachtas Committee. Its deliberations, to date, have been turbulent, to put it mildly.

The least one should be able to expect from an Oireachtas Committee charged with examining all aspects of the proposed referendum on abortion is that there would be balance brought to bear in terms of the people invited before it and balance in terms of time allocated to each side. The various referendums that have been held over the past 30 years could be viewed as staging posts in the evolution of our country. But one would have to question whether these campaigns must always be so divisive.

As we continue on the journey to redefine our identity as a people and face into an abortion referendum next year, we would do well as a society to remember that true liberalism must by its nature encompass an openness to, and respect for, the views of those whose views are not aligned with our own views.

Feargal Quinn served as a member of Seanad Eireann for 24 years and is president of Sencheer Holdings