The laid-back Irish are confronted by a life or death choice

The laid-back Irish are confronted by a life or death choice

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 22, May, 2018

“THERE ARE so many children and young people around here” is an observation I’ve heard frequently from other visitors to Ireland.  

The Irish Republic has one of the highest birth-rates in the EU – 1.92 births per woman. The fertility rate for the EU is 1.52 and in countries like Germany and Italy it is much lower. After Sunday Mass it is normal to see fathers strolling up the main street with their children, each enjoying an ice cream, while their mother may have gone home to prepare Sunday lunch.   

Last weekend was spent in one such place, the market town and tourist hub of Westport in Co. Mayo. The hen parties and waves of upmarket tourism have not disrupted the tempo of an older Christian Ireland: at the 12 Noon Mass perhaps 2,000 people crammed into St Mary’s church with many standing at the back. Nowadays when Irish religious devotionalism is acknowledged in the mass media it usually finds itself lampooned, as in the classic Father Ted’ television comedy series.    

It is the heavily urbanised and fast secularising Ireland to be found in and around Dublin which has become the pace-setter. The power of left-leaning professionals in the media, higher education and the Third Sector has eclipsed that of the Catholic church and provincial Ireland.    

How advanced and modern radical individualists are is open to question. They have bought heavily into a global, progressive model based on open borders. But it is being challenged and overturned in one country after another on mainland Europe (Italy just being the latest example).   

The new Irish establishment has also heavily invested in the ultimate triumph of a sovereign European political order. There is quiet confidence that as an English-speaking country with a well-educated population, Ireland will be a major influence. A conformist media rarely examines the downside of the European project and prefers to forget how the first major crisis arising from the flaws of the single currency experiment drove the Irish economy onto the rocks from 2008 to 2012.        

One anomaly which disturbs Ireland’s radical intelligentsia is the existence of a clause in the 1937 Constitution that bans abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is threatened. On 29 January, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar announced that the government would be holding a referendum aimed at deleting the pro-life 8th amendment, from the document.

Contrary to the media narrative, this clause allows the mother to be saved where her life is in danger, even if that means the unborn child will die. It does not make allowances for otherundoubtedly hard cases like rape or babies with illnesses that mean they are likely to die soon after birth (so-called fatal foetal abnormalities).   

The proposal is to be voted on this Friday and it has the support of the leaders of all the main parties. Politics continues to be dominated by two  with their origins in the  civil-war which disfigured the birth of independent Ireland 85 years ago. Fine Gael, currently in office, tended to be more urban and tilted towards Britain so it is no surprise that under a newly-installed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar a medic and a gay man that, it took the initiative.     

But even as medical and legal professionals who would have to deal with the effects of the abortion law began to criticise its wording, many were shaken when Michael Martin, the leader of the opposition threw his weight behind the government proposals. His party Fianna Fail has had a more overly Christian conservative orientation deriving from its agrarian origins. But to win back power, a minority in the party including its leader feel that the secular liberal outlook of the Dublin elite has to be accommodated.    

The pro-abortion side started out with a commanding lead in the polls. It has since narrowed considerably perhaps in part due to what has been an evasive and often hectoring campaign for change. Varadkar, health minister Simon Harris and Simon Coveney, the foreign minister have emphasised the hard cases, insisting that women’s lives are at risk under present circumstances. This brought an open rejoinder from the former head of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Ireland Dr Eamonn McGuinness who asserted that maternal health care should rather be a matter of national pride and that Ireland has been one of the safest places on earth to be a pregnant woman.

The government has heavily relied on his successor Dr Peter Boylan who assertedin one of the television debates that a baby isn’t developed till after it’s born. It has insisted that abortions will remain rare while relying on campaigners who clearly wish for access to abortion that will be as liberal as to be found in Britain or France. The government’s credibility in the area of safeguarding the health of women took a bad knock when it was found that the cervical smear service in Ireland was appallingly managed and that many women with cancer had wrongly been given the all-clear. 

In the aftermath of this disclosure, two hundred senior judges and lawyers published a letter claiming that the government was going to introduce a UK abortion system allowing termination of pregnancy up to the sixth month. 

Nearly all of the Irish media is firmly pro-change. It has thrown a blanket of protection behind a government whose ministers have often seemed shifty when talking about their own retreats from a pro-life to a pro-change position. Television debates have seen victories for proponents of the right to life who are often women with few overt links to the Catholic Church (which except for doughty clerics like the Rev Padraig O’Baoill in the West of Ireland has kept a low-profile).    

Largely frozen out of the mainstream media, the pro-life side came to rely on social media to warn the large number of floating voters about what a Yes vote might entail. It warned that there would be a massive reduction in Down Syndrome births and that the legislation would allow for abortion (not early delivery) up to nine months on healthy babies for mental health reasons. The former Attorney General Michael McDowell endorsed this view but it became a restricted one when Google decided to withhold adverts on the issue on 9 May. 

By doing so, it removed perhaps the only media outlet where the pro-Choice side could get a hearing.     

It is surprising that, as was remarked upon in the New York Timesby one of its regular columnists, Ross Douthat, the government failed to pause and reflect that Ireland might have a policy to be quietly proud of. He wrote that it underpins “pro-life and pro-family goals without compromising women’s health or female opportunities relative to countries with abortion on demand”.   Instead Varadkar and his allies appear to be embarrassed by “an an all-but-unique experiment inWestern public policy: an attempt to combine explicitly pro-life laws... with a liberalized modern economy and the encouragement of female independence and advancement.”

There seems to have been a clumsy, ill-thought-out drive to make Ireland a poster-child for global progressive opinion. The Dublin elite values the leverage which Ireland possesses in the United Nations which is in the vanguard of the pro-abortion drive. Nor is any other EU government  as enthusiastic about the open borders stance of the EU elite: Varadkar has lost no time in unveiling a plan to boost the 4.7 million population by an extra million over the next twenty years by mass migration.

The impulsive Taoiseach seems unwilling to learn from the grave missteps that occurred in Britain during the Blair years from such an approach.  He is backed by landlords, lawyers, third sector professionals, and other service providers linked to Fine Gael who stand to profit from the €116 billion he plans to spend on promoting this demographic upheaval.    

This referendum is likely to be an important staging post in what looks like becoming an escalating struggle to define the direction which Ireland takes in the future. There are competing rights at stake. On the one hand there are those of a segment of Irish womenhood who insist that they have the right to autonomy  over their bodies in what should be very private decisions.  On the other hand there are those who say that a pregnant woman's body is also her child's body and that having autonomy over your own body should not extend to killing those that dwell within.  

If the amendment is passed then it means that politicians will be the ones who determine the human rights of the unborn rather than the citizenry at large thanks to the constitutional protection granted by the constitution. Most of these politicians have not acquitted themselves with credit in this campaign. There is the fear that they will be willing prisoners of well-connected campaigners like Amnesty International and a host of other NGOs who demand that Ireland become an outrider by accomplishing a radical liberal makeover.    

It is quite likely that Ireland’s extensive system of religious health institutions will find themselves required to carry out abortions and that they will become even more accessible than the proposed change permits.   

Many legal and health-care professionals fear Ireland is on the verge of an ugly and destructive set of conflicts that will replace the old civil-war cleavage with  a worse one. It remains to be seen whether there is a majority likely to defy the political establishment and the media by concluding on Friday that what is being proposed is simply a step too far.   

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who lives in Edinburgh. He published ‘Scotland Now – A Warning to the World’ in 2016. His 14th single-authored book and debut novel, ‘Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue’, came out in March. He can be followed on twitter at @Cultfree54 

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