Cables, Cowards and Contraception

In Blog, History, Politicsby Oireachtas Retort3 Comments


Oireachtas Retort has been digging in wikileaks and takes a look at the McGee case as seen from the US Embassy in 1973.

Most people are familar with the tale of the condom train or how the Virgin Megastore started selling rubber johnnies on behalf of the Irish Family Planning Association in 1990. But what about the young woman who bravely stood up and went about kicking stultified social policing out of the bedroom for the first time? Her name was Mary McGee and the judgement defending her use of spermicidal jelly led to a chain reaction that reverberates to this day.


In the wake of the judgement the Embassy observed that:

Anyone living outside Ireland would find it difficult to understand heat generated by this issue. In recent months, it has been leading item of public and political debate, only occasionally overshadowed by recent breakthroughs in north-south relations.

and noted:

Some arguments mustered are remarkable. For example, the one dissenting supreme court justice argued that prohibition on importation of contraceptives did not necessarily infringe plaintiff’s civil rights, because she could have analyzed chemical composition of contraceptive jelly and manufactured it.

The plaintiff was the wife of a poor fisherman. Doctors testified that her life would have been endangered by another pregnancy.

The opposition

Fianna Fáil, has been showing signs of coming down against contraception as a matter of political expediency. Editor of Pro-Fianna Fáil Irish Press told us he has been instructed to oppose contraception.

and the other opposition

A statement by catholic bishops seems clearly to have frightened some politicians away from legalization of contraception. Some observers think bishops tipped scales against a bill pending in senate. Two protestant churches made statements urging freedom of conscience, further politicizing the church/state issue and high-lighting its significance for north/south rapprochement.

In general, leaders on both sides of border who are cool to north/ south reunification have argued that measure would have no practical effect. On other hand, those who want unity, including SDLP, have argued that defeat of legislation to legalize contraception would at lease have important negative effect.

While under the heading on ‘constituency pressure’ we are told of one woman who is:

violently opposed to legalization of contraceptives, even though she had used them herself, because she did not want permissive climate for her children.

and that:

Hot debate will continue until legislation is passed. As a practical matter, the supreme court decision has probably determined that contraceptives will be readily available to those sufficiently determined, educated, or wealthy.

Full family-planning services may still be inhibited and objective observers will not yet be convinced that republic is fully secular state.

The Bill:

Contacts close to government tell us drafters realize bill’s restrictions will present enforcement problems. The government of Ireland believes, however, that it must table most restrictive bill possible to minimize defections when vote comes. Government’s posture is that supreme court decision has already legalized contraceptives and that bill is needed to restrict availability. Argument has apparently not made much impression on hard-line opponents of contraception, who have arranged substantial grass- roots campaign against bill. Government has thus offended both liberals and conservatives. For first time since it took office a year ago, Cosgrave’s government is drawing widespread criticism.

3. Most deputies want whip to be imposed so that they can take refuge from complaints under party discipline. Some opponents of contraception have genuine moral objections, however, and have opposed imposition of whip. After much wavering, both government parties have decided to allow “free vote”. After 8-10 Fine Gael deputies are expected to vote against bill, plus two or three from Labour.

4. With so many government defections, opposition Fianna Fáil party will probably be able to defeat bill if it decides to impose whip against it. We see signs that Jack Lynch favours free vote, but there is a very good chance that he will lose argument to hard-liners. Fianna Fáil is split on issue of contraception but absolutely united on desirability of embarrassing government. If the coalition cannot pass a law to implement supreme court decision, it will indeed be seriously embarrassed. Everyone is conscious of parallel with 1951, when another coalition government fell after failing to push through an earlier social reform (“mother-and-child” health care) against opposition of Fianna Fáil and church hierarchy.

5. Some observers actually think Cosgrave could call election if defeated on this issue. Our contacts in Fine Gael do not think this is likely. They reason that Cosgrave would not think it proper to call an election after short term in office unless issue of grave national importance were involved. He does not see contraception bill in this light. His friends suspect, in fact, that he is personally opposed to legalization of contraceptives, although he will vote for bill as leader of government. If bill is defeated Fianna Fáil will probably call for vote of confidence, but government will win it. Next step in scenario would be for government to arrange for some further decision from supreme court. Modified bill then would be introduced on basis of decision. Even more likely, perhaps, Cosgrave will try to drag whole debate out for several months, hoping for change in circumstances before vote.

6. One of the main arguments being used by proponents of bill is that its defeat would provide further fuel for loyalist arguments that south has hopelessly sectarian society. Unfortunately, converse is not true; passage of bill would not be expected to make much impression on people who have long had legal access to contraceptives. 7. In terms of media coverage, this continues to be probably the hottest single issue in Irish policies. To keep matter in perspective, we think government’s performance on economic issues will be much more interesting to public in long term, and government itself certainly assigns higher priority to NI solution. Government is also being criticized in these areas, however, and is especially sensitive to accusations that it is not making security improvements necessary for NI solution. One minister recently told a friend that he was much more floomy than at any time since taking office.

The vote:

Government Bill to legalize sale of contraceptives was defeated on “second reading” in Dáil late July 16. 75 deputies, including all opposition Fianna Fáil deputies and some govt defectors, voted against. 61 members of governing coalition voted in favor.

Prime minister Cosgrave joined those voting against bill. As far as we can discover, there is no precedent for this in Irish history. On contrary, there is rigid tradition of party discipline and collective cabinet responsibility. PM’s leadership role has great importance. Closest parallel is mother parliament in Westminster, but Irish system has placed even more emphasis on discipline.

Govt (but not opposition) classified vote as an issue of conscience and allowed “free vote.” technically, thus, Cosgrave can justify his vote. He need not consider this matter of confidence requiring new general election. In practice, however his action has raised serious questions about his leadership. He kept his intentions secret from all including even his colleagues in cab- inet. Some of them have not hidden their anger and embarrassment.

3. Cosgrave makes no secret of his conservative opinion on many issues. One possible explanation is simply that he voted with his conscience. Explanation is made less credible, however, by his own Government’s case for bill had argued, first, that bill would actually restrict availability of contraceptives in aftermath of supreme court decision legalizing importation. Second, government spokesman had pointed out that bill would not force contraceptives on anyone but would merely allow freedom of conscience for non-catholics and dissenters.

Recent public opinion polls show that majority of public seems to desire legalization of contraceptives and there were no significant demonstrations against bill. Main pressure group against it was church hierarchy.

4. Education minister Burke also voted against bill, as did four Fine Gael backbenchers. Some, however, merely followed PM’s lead, so actual margin of defeat is not as meaningful as it looks.

5. Contraception bill had been considered most significant test of govt’s willingness to make reforms necessary to achieve non-sectarian society and north/south reconciliation. First reaction reported from north is therefore predictable: regret from moderates and glee from hard-line loyalists.

6. A source who is high in Fianna Fáil, but usually objective, tells us Fianna Fáil is delighted by Cosgrave’s gift but will avoid crowing in public. Same source can find no rational motive for Cosgrave’s behaviour. Best explanation is that he was trying to show overpowering cabinet colleagues who was boss. Source adds, however, that Cosgrave chose an “extraordinary” means of demonstrating authority. Fianna fail expects that some ministers will make fuss in next cabinet meeting — especially Keating and Cruise O’Brien of Labour, and Cooney of Fine Gael. On balance, however, source thinks Cosgrave will survive as leader and avoid general election in near future. He has, however, created an issue which will create major strains in relations with Labour party, and source expects that strain will force elections next year..

7. Dublin press is as surprised as Cosgrave’s cabinet colleagues. “Irish times” calls PM’s vote “farcical” and “low comedy.” “Irish press” calls it “almost incredible” and “ignominious.” “Irish independent” columnist accuses PM of betraying trust of party colleagues who had taken hard decision to support bill tabled by their cabinet.

8. It would be hazardous to make future projections until we have better explanation of Cosgrave’s behaviour last night. At minim- um, his behaviour will strengthen claims of his adversaries that he lost his touch, and his authority, during post-Sunningdale depression. He may have made serious error and created leadership crisis that he will not easily live down. If so, he may well have shortened his govt’s life expectancy. Nevertheless, if he can now keep his cool — and he has usually been good at that — he still has the means to stay in control of party.

The fallout:

1. Until July 16, PM Cosgrave had enjoyed remarkably long honeymoon with press. Main subject of praise was his hand- picked cabinet, which contrasted very well with that of previous Fianna Fáil govt. Cosgrave also enjoyed high personal credibility. With his surprise vote against his own govt’s contraceptive bill, the honeymoon ended with a jolt, and papers now emphasize his “betrayal” of cabinet. “Irish times,” usually pro-coalition takes this line. It also accuses him of a “perverse action” in misleading his colleagues; says that “only dictators can afford the luxury of such a neurotic sense of privacy;” predicts “disarray on the back benches;” and expects that effects of his “selfish blunder” will last a long time. “Irish independent” expects major strain between Labour and Fine Gael, quoting Labour deputy Thornley who say Cosgrave has “forfeited any right” to speak of Irish unity.

2. Local papers also quoted critical reactions from NI. Loyalist “amusement” hurts, as Irishmen above all hate condescension and ridicule.

Local press carries editorial from moderate “Belfast telegraph,” which said: “the bill was inadequate in its efforts to allow people the right to use contraceptives if they so wish and, had it become law, many of its provisions would have been repressive. But it was defeated not on these grounds, but because it was still too liberal for the dial… …While the south is ready to ask us to accept revolutionary political change without a quibble, there is not thought of reciprocation in the field of basic human rights.”

3. In a flap over political consequences of Cosgrave’s behaviour, substance of issue has been almost forgotten. Local family planning service, however, has released statement welcoming defeat of “repressive” and “negative” bill. Director of service told us that she had been genuinely worried about bill, since it would have allowed distribution of contraceptives only to married people, and service has no means to verify marital status of clients. Bill might also have forbidden direct distribution of contraceptives by family planning clinics. In present state of legal limbo, a clinic operates effectively in poor region of Dublin and is able to serve many low-income women.

4. Cosgrave himself has not explained his vote and is not expected to do so. We have talked to contacts in all three parties, and all concur that substance of vote (but not use of secretive tactics) is explained by Cosgrave’s fundamentalist, pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Sources believe he just did not want to subscribe to measure on contraception, even if its effect was to restrict availability. This presumed motivation doubtless increases indignation of liberals, but it is nevertheless widely respected as matter of conscience. All sources, however, fail to find adequate explanation for Cosgrave’s behaviour toward his own ministers and backbenchers. Most widespread guess is that he was reasserting authority after recent criticism that Conor Cruise O’Brien was wearing the pants. Even in his own party, however, contacts agree that Cosgrave picked an amazing method.

5. There have been no resignations yet, and while they are not quite ruled out, most contacts expect that government will rock along — for time being. Coalition deputies are keenly aware that a government collapse over this “farce” could return Fianna Fáil to power indefinitely.

Priorities in Fianna Fáil’s attack are interesting. General public must certainly be most interested in economic issues, but Lynch has not exploited these very successfully. On the whole, the opposition does not seem to have the talent to hold its own with government on substantive issues. When it comes to political attack, however, Fianna Fáil discipline gives it an advantage, and there is less need for brilliant thinking. Cosgrave thus gave opposition and ideal issue. Lynch has handled the opportunity well and must be delighted to see that he has been getting better media coverage than government for first time since Cosgrave took office. When legislature resumes after recess, senator Mary Robinson will reintroduce her private members’ bill to legalize contraceptives, and it will give Fianna fáil another good chance to put Cosgrave on the spot.

At same time, many think Cosgrave has made greatest blunder of any Irish PM in recent times, surpassing Lynch’s worst. There appears to be general expectation that loss of confidence in Cosgrave will give coalition continuing trouble. In this sense july 16 may prove to have been a turning point.


Thanks as always to Chelsea Manning.


  1. Great work from Oireachtas Retort. Is this from a new cache of cables or from the original batch? Really good find regardless, just wondering out loud if there has been additional unreported cables from Ireland.

  2. Pingback: More from wikileaks | The Cedar Lounge Revolution

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