It’s been a year since crowds held images of Savita Halappanavar outside Leinster House. Oireachtas Retort wonders if we are starting to leave ‘vanity Ireland’ behind?
On the 18th February 1992 An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds stood in Dáil Éireann to outline details on Ireland’s injunction of a fourteen year old girl.
He was followed by a brief statement from each opposition leader. As the Chair called time two deputies from the backbenches rose to their feet. Two of the thirteen women who made up a parliament of one hundred and sixty-six. Before both were ruled out, Monica Barnes remarked “May I comment on behalf of the women of Ireland and the women in this forum who have been excluded from making statements on this issue, that this is a reflection of the exclusion of women in all structures of our society”.
This isn’t a point of order responded the Cheann Comhairle.
“No. This is a protest” replied Madeleine Taylor-Quinn
The House moved on.
An afternoon last February and photos were beginning to zip across Twitter. One saw five women, each wearing the mask of a Taoiseach. Four Xs and one question mark. Striking to see the detached heads of these five men on the body of women. Anonymous on a cold Kildare Street.
There had been some online chatter leading up to the anniversary of X and her injunction. What made it to the papers had the feel of blowing away cobwebs, a reminder of a past that was distant but present, in the shadows.
Later the following night Clare Daly moved the Medical Treatment Bill in an empty Dáil chamber. Always destined for defeat, but perhaps not failure. It did succeed in drawing the government out earlier than planned. While all the usual invective was on display, several senior figures expressed mutuality with the opposition. “While I note that no action has been taken by six successive Governments, I assure Members this will not be the seventh” was the line that sent shockwaves through Capel Street. The Minister for Health had some very alarming ideas about “citizens” and “obligations”.
Within weeks the Pro Life Campaign were directly targeting Fine Gael with opinion polls claiming overwhelming support for a promise nobody had heard off. Not to be outdone, Youth Defence advertisements were appearing on the side of buses, billboards and barns across the country. In one spectacularly backfiring show of strength, Youth Defence managed to raise questions about their funding, our privacy and what way this debate should be conducted.
Abortion. People were talking about it. Pro-choice. People knew what side they were on.
When the Dáil, Councils, Advertising Standards and Liveline offered a collective shrug, people promptly corrected billboards at two in the morning. Online sleuthing drew out stock-photo copyright, foreign Facebook followers. Questions about funding were starting to appear in newspapers and Google trends for “Youth Defence” increased fourfold in a month.
“The billboard campaign last year was my entry point into politics and without it I may be an entirely different person today. I know that the same is true for a lot of people” one activist told rabble. “It has been my experience that Youth Defence are the biggest recruiter for Ireland’s pro-choice movement”
If the early part of the year had blown away cobwebs, summer dealt with any remaining reluctance. There was a vibrancy in Pro-choice activism and the dominant mood of September’s march was confidence. The anger was turning into action, solidarity and pride. Every part of it was soon needed.
There are books to be written about the death of Savita Halappanavar and the last few days of her life. History books. We may never see an Irish paper break something of such global impact.
Outside the Dáil that night Kerry Guinan told TradeUnionTV “We’ve had X. We’ve had A, B, C. We’ve had D. And now we have a woman who has a name and face”. That sentiment was palpable across the country. One minister who passed though Kildare Street told how he was “amazed” not just at the size of demonstrations but that they were “ordinary people, not agitators with an axe to grind”. Perhaps.
Gone were the masks of February. Two weeks later when Derek Keating took issue with a leaflet condemning “the hypocritical politicians that have failed to act”, he asked if Clare Daly “is prepared to deny that she is in favour of what I consider to be walk-in, walk-out abortion”. She wasn’t and responded by putting pro-choice views on the Dáil record before calling for repeal of the Eighth. Not one heckle was raised. Absolutely unthinkable a few months earlier.
Looking back in 1994 Nuala O‘Faolain observed that “often at meetings, I would see that a certain kind of educated, middle-aged man in particular was enraged at being forced to listen to plurality of voices when no one was listening to him. I’m not saying that their anti-abortion feelings weren’t absolutely sincere but the rage was even bigger then the issue. They would still have been angry, even if travel and information and the whole lot had gone as they had wanted. It is Ireland they are disappointed in and their own place in it. It is the erosion of certainty that is threatening them. A lot of people in this country want to go back to the simplicities of an authoritarian era”.
It is interesting to unpack why the choices of women are viewed as so central to an Ireland found only people’s heads. You can speak with absolute certainty about other people’s business when your fictional island is contingent on dubious ideas of purity. Underlining the pervasiveness of this domination is the body remaining such a site of struggle. That, along with everything else, women are caught in some sort of proxy war for the soul of an Ireland which doesn’t exist.
In the last issue of rabble we saw the 1930s crusade against dancehalls, jazz and we find identical rhetoric embedded in the abortion debate. The “tsunami of the culture of death” racing towards Erin’s untainted Isle. England and California are talked of in the gravest of terms. The incalculable damage outside influence will have on the purity of Gaelic morality. It really is either Ireland or Satan still.
One interesting trend to be gleaned from the sham McAleese Report was the changing nature of incarceration. Even from incomplete data it appears the laundries were predominantly penal for the first few decades, but became something very different. There is an evident shift or entrenchment of attitudes and what was seen as the solution problems needing to be swept out of sight.
As an Irish woman’s public visibility increased, ever so incrementally, so widened the grounds for ending up inside a laundry. In the same way a nuns’ labour camp supports an elaborate conceit, the notion of “keeping Ireland abortion free” erases the reality of women and couples seeking abortion abroad, daily. And of course those other procedures. The ones that happen in Irish hospitals. Those aren’t abortions. Not a bit. No, ours is a pure health service, the envy of the world. Why wouldn’t it be while surrounded on all sides by mills, floodgates, packs of marauding women and their demands.
On publication of the Heads of Bill in May, while Dr Rhona Mahony was on Newstalk talking about “a good day for Irish women“, William Binchy on RTÉ lamented “a bad day for Ireland”. Perfectly highlighting the vanity which runs through the entire anti-choice campaign. Vanity, and the rivalry it spawns, is both essential driver and greatest weakness.
Speaking on Drivetime Sean O’Domhnaill proclaimed Dublin “looked like the pro-life capital of the world” during July’s rally as if it held any significance to anyone beyond Life House backroom boasting. A mark of the kind of fantasy that has sustained these groups for years and crucially how important status is considered. Youth Defence define themselves somewhat definitely as “Ireland’s pro-life organisation” while over at the Pro Life Campaign we find the not ambiguously pointed “positively protecting life”.
This battle to hegemonise anti-choice politics – and it’s prestige – has produced a self-defeating quest for purity. In the effort to outdo each other both groups turn more and more fanatical while claims to represent any sort of critical mass slip further and further away. This ‘who needs support when you possess the crown of truth’ approach culminated in the 2002 split. Still casting a bitter shadow with both Youth Defence and Pro Life Campaign maintaining, or rather refusing to admit mistakes.
Only briefly did the two sides meet for the ‘Unite For Life’ demos in December and January before returning to separate events and even clashing meetings within weeks. Much blame is laid at the door of Youth Defence and their tactics, rightly, but it is they who having been mopping up since John O’Reilly’s legal hotshots landed the Attorney General in the Supreme Court. There will remain far too much ego in either camp for cooperation.
Everything was thrown at the campaign over the last year. More than will probably come to light but most politicians and their staff will enjoy the summer break. There is little doubt that anti-choice lobbying strengthened the resolve of previous ‘sincere’ views or those that “evolved” the minute public opinion was blowing the other way. One rural Deputy says after her face and phone number were put on the poles around town she received nothing but calls of support, urging her not to be bullied. Another was on his second round of such representations having being threatened with kidnap and with having the house burned down when his father was a TD during the first divorce referendum.
Difficult to see how the public face of anti-choice politics will shake these excesses, of what is essentially their core support, as they continue the slide somewhere beyond the fringe. No amount of institute after your name will be enough distance from the Taoiseach receiving letters in blood. As early as January the Fine Gael leadership sought to highlight the more extreme contact. The Taoiseach’s revealing of “Herod” and other remarks appeared part of a very deliberate strategy to put the Party on some sort of middle-ground while isolating the hardline element within.
Bertie, Haughey and rest had vocal critics, very vocal, but nothing approaching the nature of vilification directed at Enda Kenny over the last few months. Most of it borne from a sense of betrayal. There was a good solid lad from Mayo, a Fine Gael Taoiseach and he legislating for the X Case. How could this happen?
To see Boston based ‘Students for Life’ on Sixone declare him “the number one promoter of abortion in Ireland” showed the ludicrous level that talk had reached in some corners. There was anger, lots of anger, on the surface but behind it is betrayal and the sinking reality that if Enda Kenny can do it with nothing near the promised rebellion, what chance now.
The final Dáil vote passed by a greater margin than most Bills and part of the opposition was TDs who know it won’t go far enough. If all those warnings of swift and permanent culture change are true, vanity Ireland really is in trouble.
Repeal the Eighth.