- 26 Apr 18
As the Repeal referendum comes into view, the No campaign's unscrupulous tactics have become apparent; Facebook still haven't addressed the abuse of their platform; Maser's Project mural has been removed; and the Catholic Church have reverted to their utterly predictable conservatism. You could say it's been an eventful fortnight.
The clock is ticking. The referendum is getting closer. Contrary to the old biblical aphorism, we know both the day and the hour, when the people will decide whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the constitution of Ireland.
And yet, just four weeks away from polling day, it is difficult to get an accurate feel for how the campaign is progressing. What we can say is that, so far, there has been a singular absence of decisive leadership on the ‘Yes’ side.
The Citizen’s Assembly did the hard graft, recommending Repeal, and the freedom to terminate a pregnancy without limitation as to reason up to 12 weeks; the Oireachtas Committee followed suit and – for a short while – the momentum was clearly behind the Repeal movement.
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, seemed to take all of these developments effectively in his stride. He had been resolutely anti-abortion, in an old fashioned and dogmatic religious way. Now, he has confirmed that his views have changed radically. In particular, he has recognised that we must end the gross hypocrisy that forces thousands of Irish women to fly to the UK, or further afield, every year, to secure terminations.
The modern Leo Varadkar understands that we need to allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality. And he also acknowledges that the abortion pill has changed the landscape dramatically; that we have to be pragmatic, accept what is happening among women on the ground, and provide for the legal, medical use of the abortion pill in Ireland.
The leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, has also emerged in a far more progressive and positive light than might have been anticipated. Given the history of his party, to see him standing up in the Dáil and giving a personal commitment to the Repeal cause represented a stunning victory for common sense.
With Sinn Féin and Labour also supporting Repeal, you might assume that most of Ireland’s best-known politicians would be out there, going hammer and tongs, individually and collectively, to secure a victory. But that hasn’t happened, or not very visibly at any rate.
In contrast, the ‘No’ campaign have been very well-funded, organised and focussed. That is hardly surprising. The ring-leaders are zealots. And so, they have gone about the business of lying to the electorate in exactly the way that was forecast by Hot Press.
We said that they would be utterly unscrupulous in their tactics, and we were right. In this issue of Hot Press, Dr. Peter Boylan, the former Master of the National Maternity Hospital, deals specifically with the deliberate untruths that are being peddled by the anti-choice brigade. There is no need for me to repeat his rebuttal of those lies here. But I do want to state the facts.
1. The 8th Amendment seriously undermines the decision-making of doctors, as they attempt to deal with the health and safety of women who become sick as a result of problem pregnancies. Any suggestion to the contrary is either an exercise in self-delusion or a deliberate lie. Mostly it is the latter.
2. It is incontrovertible that the 8th Amendment has specifically and directly led to the deaths of Irish women. To suggest otherwise bends the truth beyond breaking point.
3. Emotive suggestions that a foetus can see, think and maybe even pray (that’s a joke) at 12 weeks are without any foundation whatsoever in scientific fact. Trying to persuade people to vote ’No’ on that basis is despicable.
4. As long as the Eighth Amendment remains in place, there is – and will be – no way of dealing with pregnancy as a result of rape except to force the woman to ‘have the baby’. The only alternative is to Repeal the Eighth and allow affected women decide, conscientiously, on their own terms, if they want to continue the pregnancy or to terminate it. 5. It is at best a misrepresentation of the figures, and at worst a blatant lie, to say that one in five pregnancies in the UK ends in abortion.
6. It is also a lie to say that 90% of foetuses with Down Syndrome in the UK are aborted. They are not.
7. Even more importantly, Down Syndrome is not – and will not be – diagnosed inside 12 weeks, and therefore falls outside the timeframe during which abortion will be allowed under the Government’s proposals.
8. The legislation proposed by the Government specifically precludes a diagnosis of Down Syndrome as a basis for terminating a pregnancy.
9. These facts are known to the ‘No’ campaign and yet they insist on claiming that Repealing the 8th will lead to pregnancies involving Down Syndrome being terminated. They know that this can’t and won’t happen.
10. They also know that any suggestion that there will be abortion ‘up to birth’ in Ireland is a downright lie, and scare-mongering of the most pernicious kind. But the anti-choice mob persist in making the claim anyway.
Will the electorate in general see through this campaign of disinformation? We don’t know.Equally, we have no idea what other grotesque lies might already be being peddled by the ‘No’ campaign, via Social Media – and via Facebook in particular. It is genuinely shocking that a trans-national Surveillance Capitalist monopoly like Facebook has been allowed to run political advertising in different jurisdictions, including Ireland, without any regulation whatsoever. The effect in the US Presidential election was to skew the result significantly to the right, and win the race for Donald Trump. That process was repeated in the UK during the referendum on withdrawal from the EU.
Knowing this, we must recognise that there is a real danger that fake Facebook advertising might just help to win the upcoming referendum for the ’No’ side.
• All the evidence suggests that the ‘No’ campaign will spend big on Facebook.
• There is evidence too that they will use disreputable companies – who may have acquired data illegally – to target the most vulnerable voters.
• And they will use Soviet-style propaganda, disinformation and distortion to stir up irrational fears, about the effects of change.
And the State machinery, and the Government, are allowing this to happen under their noses.
A few weeks ago, Hot Press challenged Facebook to do its bit to safeguard democracy in Ireland by refusing all advertising to do with the Referendum. They have chosen not to do so.
They have tried to create a fig leaf, by advising readers and users ‘how to control their settings’. “Ha ha,” you might post as a Facebook comment in response. This is transparently evasive, self-serving stuff. The bottom line is that they have chosen to take the money and run.
And the reality is that this creates a black hole, where the democratic process is put in mortal jeopardy. Clearly, Facebook’s attitude is: democracy be damned. Our profits matter more. So why aren’t Facebook’s Irish staff walking out? Are they all happy to collude in the subversion of democracy here?
It gets worse. A couple of days ago, the news emerged that the Charities Regulator had instructed the Project Arts Centre to remove the famous Maser ‘Repeal the Eighth’ mural from the wall of its premises in East Essex Street, in Temple Bar.
Let’s think about this for a minute.
I was at a memorial mass in a Catholic Church recently. From the altar, the priest gave a sermon telling people that they should vote ‘no’ in the referendum. Similarly, a friend attended a funeral. The grieving family were preparing to bury their beloved – and the priest delivered a sermon urging people to vote ’No’ in the Referendum.
Now, my understanding is that the entire edifice of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland depends on the charitable status accorded to a variety of institutions. Hospitals, schools, hospices, NGOs of various stripes and religious orders are run as or owned by so-called charitable institutions. That in itself is entirely unjustifiable. But it is the way things are.
So, is the Charities Regulator seriously trying to suggest that none of the above are taking any kind of position on Repealing the Eighth? Clearly, this is not true.
And so, we want to ask the Regulator the following question: will every Roman Catholic charity be pursued remorselessly, and have their charitable status stripped from them, if they express any view whatsoever in relation to Repealing the Eighth Amendment? Because in a spirit of equity, this is what should happen.
A huge amount remains to be done by campaigners for a ‘Yes’ vote in the final four weeks of this campaign. But even more urgently, the authorities have to ensure that there is a level playing field.
Peddling lies via social media should not and cannot be allowed. Threatening to remove the charitable status of ‘Yes’ campaigners, and leaving ’No’ charities to carry on proselytising is inequitable and wrong: that too must be reversed.
If the apparatus of State fails to protect democracy, then we are all the losers. Oh, except the liars and the bullies.