Are we living in an Ireland of two halves? One looking towards a future of equal rights for all, free from the clutches of a church bathed in controversy, the other with more of a medieval take on things: anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-choice. Oireachtas Retort investigates the proportions and finds that it appears to be the minority making the most noise.
It would be easy to think of the Iona Institute as a painfully Irish phenomenon. True, it is a response to the dilemma of declining clerical credibility but tactically and rhetorically much of their method is straight from a playbook of ‘culture war’.
In the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s death, politicians, like lemmings, repeated the claim that abortion is a ‘divisive issue’. That maybe true for some backbenchers, but throughout the following months an overwhelming majority just wanted women to stop dying needless deaths in Irish hospitals. Yet day after day we were subjected to a fringe view presented as the credible side of an argument.
As legislation made its way through the Oireachtas, we saw dire predictions for Fine Gael’s future, but they actually went up in opinion polls after the final vote.
So key to Iona, is presenting themselves as representative of broader public opinion. Like Ronald Reagan’s silent moral majority which has since evolved to FOX News and where we find American society ‘polarised’. The truth is most people are far more moderate and flexible than well- placed commentators with deep pockets would have us believe.
Keeping the anger on ‘wedge issues’ like gun control serves a particular purpose for the Republican Party and it has been taken up by a certain breed of newspaper columnist everywhere. A kind of assumed mandate is relatively easy to attain within narrow Irish media debate.
As old authority ebbs we see this supplemented with a posture of victimhood. Siege mentality against an alleged ‘consensus’. In this way it really doesn’t matter how events unfold beyond the opinion pages. The more you lose the more you stand as the brave lone voice willing to speak out.
In a country said to be abandoning religion faster than almost any other nation who does the Iona Institute represent?
There’s common concern about their access to media – with weekly national columns they have more than most of us. Regular broadcast appearances are down to complacency at RTÉ rather than anything sinister.
Iona know how to play the media game and were more or less established for this purpose. ‘Balance’, as it presents itself on RTÉ, appears as where information on issues will always lose out to ‘two sides’ across the table between ad breaks.
Iona are almost always available for an argument and the more you are available the more the phone rings. Simple as that. Why else would someone like John McGuirk be on television?
Is it not telling that when they went off the radar in January their argument was left to people like Paddy Manning? Several appearances on RTÉ, TV3 and TodayFM in a matter of days by someone whose view would be considered a minority within LGBT circles, nevermind the wider public.
Lolek Limited, as Iona would be known to revenue – if they paid any – is a reference to Karol Józef Wojtyła. A Polish boy left so disadvantaged by a lone parent household that he went on to become Pope John Paul II.
On Marian Finucane recently, Breda O’Brien became quite defensive when pressed on basic details of their operation. Curious reluctance descended, and we are led to believe the odd “tenner from grannies in Donegal” is paying for an office on Merrion Square, two salaries, ‘research’, polling, advertising, a website and poxy youtube animations. Lolek’s most recent accounts show income approaching half a million euro over two years.
On its launch in 2007 Breda claimed that ‘patrons do little more than lend their name,’ though her own level of involvement suggests a bit more. It is worth noting that private hospital kingpin James Sheehan saw profits of €40.3m in Dublin alone between 2010 and 2012.
In an interview last year the founder of Blackrock Clinic said that “with the religious orders largely withdrawing from health care due to lack of numbers, I felt it was important that those of us in the laity took up that role, to propagate the culture of Catholic hospitals”. This is a mirror image of Iona’s wider motivations but also in a country where an Archbishop remains, albeit reluctant, chairman of the National Maternity Hospital.
The unrelenting focus on women, wombs, sex, contraception, sex, abortion, IVF, homosexuality and of course sex would suggest more than a passing interest in birth rates and indeed the issue is a regular feature in columns and website. Typically this is couched in secular concern about pensions and healthcare but the occasional press release like ‘demographics show world set for religious resurgence’ hint closer to the truth. ‘Islam set to become country’s second biggest religion’ hints perhaps even closer.
Attention to all things conjugal began its modern incarnation with Pius XI and Casti Connubii, or ‘Chaste Marriage’, which laid the ground for Humanae Vitae. Without quoting too much out of context a flavour goes ‘from this union of souls [matrimony] by God’s decree, a sacred and inviolable bond arises. [..] From this it is clear that legitimately constituted authority has the right and therefore the duty to restrict, to prevent, and to punish those base unions which are opposed to reason and to nature’, and earlier, Leo XIII “to take away from man the natural and primeval right of marriage, to circumscribe in any way the principal ends of marriage laid down in the beginning by God Himself in the words ‘Increase and multiply’, is beyond the power of any human law.”
Unfortunately Iona tactically avoid quoting old Popes but you can trace an easy line from 1930 encyclicals to the opinion pages of Saturday’s Irish Times. Writing in 2006 Breda claimed ‘on average married people are physically healthier and have lower mortality rates. They live more regular and secure lives, suffer from less anxiety, depression and other mental ailments. Serious violence among married couples is uncommon while violence of all kinds is much less frequent than among cohabiting couples’. If this is what she truly believes then this is the stability and wellbeing she actively campaigns to deny others.
Columns often come with a token two-sentence acknowledgement of the difficulty that comes with being gay in a straight world, as if the Iona Institute are somehow removed from it, but it is notable that in almost fifteen years writing about obsessions with LGBT, kids, marriage and religion, O’Brien’s only real examination of Rome’s ‘hard teaching on homosexuality’ was a 2005 column on the difficulty faced by gay priests. Looking back from 2014, it’s interesting to read that ‘given the danger of stirring up homophobia, those who present His teachings today have responsibility to reflect that compassion unambiguously in word and deed’.
With barriers around guardianship and adoption due to be addressed in the recently published Children and Family Relationship Bill, all we are left with is marriage.
Months ahead of any referendum there will be no legitimate question of children and only the right of two consenting adults to live their own lives. Breda is perhaps more frank in a column from 2006 stating ‘simply because there are changes in society does not mean we need to enshrine them in law. Laws are more than rules: they also set standards that influence behaviour’.
So surprise surprise, if these are the standards our society sets, the more our society is at odds with the Iona Institute.