Irish people have moved on in a way that is genuinely impressive. Dr. Lara Kelly’s testimony on abortion is one example. But there is a new honesty among Irish politicians too that gives cause for optimism.
This is a different country now. If you want confirmation, all you have to do is read the interview with the Minister for Training, Skills and Innovation, John Halligan, (page 46 of the new issue of Hot Press).
There was a time when politicians here would do anything except say what they really thought. Every form of denial and obfuscation was par for the course. Ducking and diving were de rigueur. Frequently, the result amounted to downright hypocrisy.
You knew that they were spoofing. That they were afraid that to tell the truth might bring down on them the wrath of the conservative mob or the priests. That staying onside was more important than speaking from the heart. And they knew that you knew. But a nod was deemed to be as good as a wink. The men - and they were mostly men - were all for riding as many women as they could get their paws on. But in their public utterances they doffed their caps to the bishops and stuck to the RC script: family values ruled. In private, it was all pork-swords and banging whoever was available and having a laugh with the lads. All on the QT, of course. In public it was holy communion of a Sunday and deference to the bishops. And so what we got was so much retch-inducing, pious, empty posturing. Jesus, over the years, some of them’d make your skin crawl. And they did.
We might as well be realistic and acknowledge that it will probably not be possible to rid ourselves entirely of that particular scourge. But there can be no denying this much: in Dail Eireann right now, and in Seanad Eireann, at last we have a significant number of politicians who genuinely put a commitment to saying what they really mean and meaning what they say above any other consideration.
Over the past few issues of Hot Press, we have seen Senator Lynn Ruane and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohue, pulling no punches in two very personal, revealing in-depth Hot Press interviews. In totally different ways, they both came across in those set-tos as people of genuine substance, who were honest, real and direct in the way they answered. And underlying all of this was a feeling that, to both of them, the idea of public service - of representing people in a meaningful way - is at the centre of what politics is all about. They are not alone. Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Richard Boyd Barrett, Catherine Murphy and Senator Aodhan O Riordain - to take just the first five names that spring to mind - are cut from the same cloth. For decades, a culture of cute-hoorism dominated Dail Eireann. Well, the message is that this is on the way out. It is a spent currency. The sooner we ditch it completely the better.
The Hard Questions
No one represents the new reality better than the Waterford independent TD, John Halligan.
At the beginning of his Hot Press interview, with Jason O’Toole in this issue, he pledges that whatever he is asked, he will give an honest and a straight answer, and promises not to bullshit. And, as Jason says in his introduction to the piece, he is as good as his word. There are things about which you might or might not agree with John. But it is a powerfully impressive interview that puts the old way of doing things to shame. It helps that, in fact, he is right in the vast majority of what he has to say.
It isn’t just that he is honest and outspoken. It is that there is a thread running through what he says that is connected to the real-politick of how people live their lives in 2016. He is on the side of ordinary men and women. But, of equal importance is that his perspective is generous and inclusive. And his views are intelligent, compassionate and shot through with an appreciation of everyday humanity. He talks about love, sex and music with as much humour and passion as he discusses politics. He is not afraid to deal with the big issues, including the right to assisted suicide. Above all, John shows that by freeing himself from any sense of religious or pseudo-religious obligation, he is better able to find the right answers to the hard questions. You do not need a belief in God to have a moral compass. On the contrary: it is an advantage not to.
What emerges from the interview is that it is the real stories and the real experiences of citizens of Ireland that matter. This is how it should be, all the time.
In many ways, the John Halligan interview fits with a wider shift that has taken place in Irish society. Ask Dr. Lara Kelly. She is the 35 year-old Dublin-based GP, who spoke out last week about her experience of traveling to Liverpool for an abortion.
She had planned to have a child with her husband, Mark. In March of this year, they were told that their baby’s brain had not developed properly, that it had only half a heart and that it would die shortly after birth. It was a case of what has been termed Fatal Foetal Abnormality. Knowing that there was no hope, the couple decided to have an abortion, but under Irish law the procedure could not be carried out here. They travelled to Liverpool, where the termination took place, just two weeks before their first wedding anniversary. Dr. Kelly made the decision to speak out, after the bill proposed by Wexford TD Mick Wallace, which would have allowed for abortion in the case of Fatal Foetal Abnormalities, had been blocked.
She is one of a growing number of supremely brave Irish women, Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle among them, who have told their personal stories about abortion. Lara Kelly explained that she wanted to take the foetal remains home to be cremated. It was, it turned out, a deeply traumatising experience. She described carrying the remains in a plastic bag to Liverpool Airport. There, she and her husband had to declare the foetal remains. The security man didn’t understand, and so they were forced to explain, in full hearing of anyone who was close, that what they had was their baby in a box. Dr. Kelly described the entire process as an ordeal - which has to be putting it mildly.
She explained that she had lied throughout because that was what she and her husband felt that they had to do, in order not to draw attention to themselves and what they were going through. But there were further surprises in store. On her way back, Lara asked a woman at Liverpool Airport for advice about what to do when she got to Dublin. The girl was Irish, she told the Guardian, and she said something astonishing to me. It’s fine, she said, you need to go over to the gentleman at customs, and declare the remains at security. It’s fine. I did it a few weeks ago. It was said with such normality.”
It is truly appalling that Irish women are routinely subjected to this kind of institutionalised humiliation and abuse. It is perfectly clear that someone like Dr. Lara Kelly should be entitled to have the procedure, necessary to bring a tragic pregnancy to an end, carried out in Ireland. Instead, she is forced to leave the country of her birth, where she pays taxes and plans to raise her family - to have the termination that she desperately needs.
The difference in 2016 is that courageous women like Lara are finally feeling sufficiently empowered to speak out. The shame is gone. They are unwilling to take the bullshit and the hypocrisy any more. And all the polls say that an increasing number of Irish citizens feel the same.
It is because of cases like Dr. Lara Kelly's that the Repeal the 8th campaign is such an urgent one. There is no excuse whatsoever for subjecting Irish women to cruel and degrading treatment any longer. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Irish people now recognise that abortion is a clear and undeniable right in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.
Ultimately, I believe in a woman's right to choose. But whatever you might feel about that, it is possible to create, in the short term, the circumstances in which Irish women can have an abortion, if they choose to, here in Ireland in the cases of those three pre-requisites at least.
I think most activists realise that the censorship row over the Mazer 'Repeal the 8th' mural which blazed brief last week, when the mural had to be removed from the exterior wall of the Project Arts Centre, is a side show. The real issue is about how soon we can frame the referendum, in order to put it to the Irish people, to remove what was always a totally misguided, insulting and discriminatory article from the constitution.
To blithely state as the 8th Amendment does in effect that the life of a woman, or a mother, is merely 'equal' with that of an 'unborn child' was always indefensibly pietistic, stupid and wrong. Not to allow abortion under any circumstances, except where it could be construed as an accidental result of saving the life of the mother, was offensive in the extreme to women who were the victims of rape - or who learned early in their pregnancy that the child they had conceived in love would not and could not survive.
Our politicians have a duty to ensure that, as soon as is humanly possible, individual Irish women can be freed from the trauma and the pain imposed on them, individually and collectively, by the 8th Amendment. The sooner they do the right thing the better. Listening to both Dr. Lara Kelly - and to John Halligan - would be a good start.