How X case was exposed despite authorities' wishes
The newspaper’s legal advisers gave the clearest advice. It would not be open to us to plead inadvertence or error. The only possible defence would be to invoke the public interest. That would be to tell the president of the High Court that the newspaper was putting its interpretation of the common good above his. The range of possible penalties could run from imprisoning the editor to a massive fine or even to an order for closure for a time.
None of these was an attractive prospect for a newspaper getting back on its feet after the deep recession of the late 1980s. But the chairman of the Irish Times Trust, Major Tom McDowell, and the other members whom he consulted stepped up to the plate. If the editor was satisfied that the facts were correct, he should publish. If there were to be a citation for contempt it would be resisted all the way to the Supreme Court.
The news report was published the following day. To the surprise, not to say relief, of The Irish Times there was no reaction from the court. Meanwhile other news media started to pick up the story. But two days later when Declan Costello granted the application to prohibit the girl from travelling, the lid blew off.
The international news media seized on the story. There were angry demonstrations in Dublin. Harry Whelehan made a plea for the “publicity and public controversy” to cease. The president, Mary Robinson, issued a statement on the “very deep crisis within ourselves”. “I hope we have the courage, which we have not always had, to face up to and to look squarely and to say ‘this is a problem we have got to resolve’.”
Costello’s decision was quickly overturned on appeal. The Supreme Court determined that a threat to the life of the mother, including a threat of suicide, could be sufficient grounds for abortion. Miss X was free to travel.
Over the 20 years since the X case, the debate on abortion in Ireland has gone to and fro. Successive governments shirked Mary Robinson’s exhortation to square up to the problem.
But at least there has been a debate. Had the State had its way in 1992 no one would have heard of Miss X. Today, in her mid-30s, she lives a normal and private life. We owe her and her family a debt for their courage. And public discourse owes something to the members of the Irish Times Trust, nearly all now deceased, who knew where the newspaper’s duty lay.
* Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002