Sometimes when there’s internal conflict, it can be helpful to find an external voice that can cut through the mess of allegation and counter-allegation, and pick out important points that we might need to consider. Above all, someone who can be trusted to be fair-minded.
George Mitchell famously filled the role as he gradually and patiently edged both sides in the North of Ireland, knee-deep in conflict, towards the Good Friday agreement.
No such middle ground was available in the recent abortion referendum, so there was no chance of creating a meeting of minds between the polar opposites of ‘right to life’ and ‘right to choose’.
So maybe the most we can hope for is a clear still voice from outside that can, with the benefit of hindsight, adjudicate on a difficult campaign that divided families, communities and the country.
At first sight, Matthew Parris, the columnist in the London Times, doesn’t fit the bill. He supports women’s ‘choice’ up until a late stage of pregnancy; he doesn’t believe human life is sacred and he doesn’t believe it’s always wrong to kill the born, let alone the unborn. Predictably, as someone whose moral attitudes could hardly be farther removed from the No campaign in Ireland, he welcomed the victory of the Yes side.
But strangely he has, I think, unmasked a certain mentality that has left the No side reeling, not just because they lost the vote but because their position, defeated in the poll, is being rubbished by the Yes side. The lack of respect being shown by the Yes side to the No side is palpable.
Parris noted the comment of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when the result was announced: ‘Today (we now) have a modern constitution for a modern people. And we’re saying as a nation that we trust women and that we believe that women should be respected. The burden of shame has gone’. Ireland, he concluded, was now ‘more tolerant, open and respectful’.
Parris pointed out that Varadkar’s remarks lacked, in themselves, tolerance and respect. Because if you read his words again what they are effectively saying is that the 33% who voted No, didn’t believe women should be trusted and that they had voted for shame, intolerance and disrespect.
Taoiseach Varadkar, as befits his position, could have been more generous. It was clear that the Yes side was going to win. He could have chosen his words more carefully. He could have decided, in Parris’ words, not ‘to stigmatise’ hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens whose beliefs were as deeply held as his own. Instead he chose the kind of moral triumphalism that unfortunately has characterised the response of the Yes side in the wake of what they see as a great victory over the regressive and reactionary forces of medieval theocracy.
An example was the discussion on RTE television some days after the referendum. A panel of six, four unapologetically on the Yes side, one half-hearted No and David Quinn, a confirmed No, debated the outcome. On it Fintan O’Toole lectured David Quinn on the importance, in the new dispensation, of folding up his tent and going away. I carry no can for either the Iona Institute or David Quinn but if this is the new Ireland then God help those who disagree with the emerging consensus. It won’t hold a candle to the control and oppressiveness of the Catholic past, and that’s saying something.
Another straw in the wind of the new Ireland is the current belief that the populist swing that delivered marriage equality and abortion has created a momentum that will deliver other key elements of the new Ireland, like divesting the Catholic Church of any perceived role in education.
Interesting too that a campaign has been initiated on Twitter to expel from An Seanad, Senator Ronan Mullen, a robust activist on the No side. Imagine if in the wake of 1983 referendum the No side, who also won by a 2 to 1, had targetted Senator Mary Robinson then on what is now the Yes side. This is moral triumphalism and political totalitarianism and has no place in public discourse. We need our leaders to do more than watch what way the wind is blowing.
During the abortion debate, a contributor on Twitter asked whether what was at issue was deciding on an amendment to the constitution or dismantling the Catholic Church. It was a telling contribution.
The space that the vast majority of No voters now find themselves in is that they feel disenfranchised both by the media and the political parties. None speak to or speak for the vast majority of No voters. Indeed Alison O’Connor, on the same Claire Byrne programme referred to this when she posed the question whether in fact the majority of people who voted no in the referendum were happy now to have the Iona Institute represent them anymore.
Equally unlikely are they to be happy, with Sarah Louise Mulligan, the chief executive of the website ‘Irish who love President Trump”, whom Sky News, invited to discuss with Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty the views of No voters, the day before the referendum.
The problem now for the non-extremists on the No side is that they have no place to speak their voice (no media) and no place to have their views represented by politicians (no representation).
Neither ‘Renua’ or ‘Alive’ are the answer to their problem. A parishioner verbalised this on the evening of the result when she pondered why it was that anyone who spoke up for God was now regarded as somehow extreme, old-fashioned or out of touch with the ‘real world’
In the vacuum the No middle ground are further alienated by being dismissed by the Yes extremists who are ticking off their perceived enemies and in the process effectively seeking to disenfranchise a third of the population. This is not just troubling but dangerous and fundamentally regressive.
More nuanced comments from Taoiseach Varadkar might indicate that being gracious in victory is just as important as being gracious in defeat.