Anti-abortion movement trusts politicians only when it suits them
Diarmaid Ferriter: Eighth Amendment was result of efforts in 1983 to politicise abortion
Vote No supporters launch the official Save the Eighth campaign. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Over the decades, champions of the Eighth Amendment have been conveniently selective in their assessments of the usefulness of politicians. During the Seanad debate on the abortion Bill on Wednesday, Senator Ronán Mullen was adamant that “politicians simply can’t be trusted on this issue”; indeed the Eighth Amendment, he insisted, was originally designed to “take this issue away from politicians”.
But it was the politicians who the orchestrators of the Eighth Amendment found extremely useful in 1983. Emily O’Reilly’s 1992 book, Masterminds of the Right underlines a secret world of a very small group who plotted the 1983 amendment and got the politicians to do their bidding. Its chief strategist was John O’Reilly, who in 1988 wrote, in relation to the secret Catholic organisation the Knights of Columbanus, that the organisation needed to be politically active because a “network” of people in positions of influence “could do wonders quietly without coming out openly as knights. An organisation or a group is never more powerful than when it influences events without itself being regarded as the initiator.”
This was part of a deliberate attempt to politicise the issue of abortion by manipulating the political system, which renders the current assertions decrying the politicisation of the abortion issue hypocritical in the extreme. The 1983 politicisation was also a ploy to contrive a polarisation rather than a reaction to a widespread demand for a constitutional amendment on abortion. Such a general demand did not exist, and procuring or having an abortion was already illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act.
In the Seanad in May 1983, Mary Robinson pointed out that when she asked social workers about discussion on abortion in their areas of work, the response was “What discussion? What amendment? It never comes up.” If there was such a preoccupation with it, surely the turnout in the 1983 referendum would have been much higher than 55.6 per cent of the electorate? Nonetheless, the campaign, from the Pro Life Amendment Campaign’s perspective, “succeeded” in reducing a complex issue to a simplistic “pro” versus “anti” life stance, a contrivance that has done great damage.
Mullen’s words also drip with irony because he is on record as decrying the reluctance of politicians to speak about moral and social values and has expressed the view that “the job of politicians is to consider policy and legislation”. That is what they are considering now in relation to abortion. Would Mullen prefer that the current debates be conducted without any input from the politicians and that the shadowy methods of 1983, which he has previously acknowledged ill-served Ireland, are returned to?
As revealed in the National Archives, Fine Gael’s commitment to holding the abortion referendum in 1983 generated tensions between minister for justice Michael Noonan and attorney general Peter Sutherland who complained that Noonan was expending his energy on trying to draft a wording for the amendment that would satisfy the demands of the anti-abortion lobby rather than focusing on the relevant legal advice from the AG’s office. Noonan, it appears, was more concerned with what would be acceptable to the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign than with confronting the consequences of flawed wording.
Noonan, however, later seemed conscious of this mistake; in 1995 in the Dáil he called on all deputies “to reject the pressure put on them by various interlocking organisations, both overt and covert, which constitute the pro-life movement. I call on all deputies tonight to reject those who would reach back into the mists of history and try to pressure us with the ghastly weapons of bell, book and candle . . . I call on all Fianna Fáil deputies to stand for the primacy of Dáil Éireann.”
There are further Mullen ironies. In April 2013, he called on minister for health Dr James Reilly to attend the Seanad to discuss the government’s plans on abortion: “it seems this issue is being debated everywhere except in this house . . . I am not happy or impressed by the manner in which, on the one hand, the government is not communicating with many interested stakeholders but, on the other hand, we are being subjected to the raising of hares, leaks and counter-leaks about what the government intends to do.”
To his credit, Minister for Health Simon Harris has been admirably open and clear about what the Government intends to do and he articulated this in the same debate where Mullen expressed his distrust of politicians dealing with this issue. If Senator Mullen does not trust politicians on this issue, does he trust the citizens those politicians represent? It appears not, judging by his dismissal of the Citizens’ Assembly; it was not necessary, he insisted, because the Dáil and Seanad “were the citizens’ assembly”. But if the Dáil and the Seanad and the citizens’ assembly cannot be trusted with the abortion issue, where, according to the logic of Mullen, who opposes the holding of a referendum, does that leave the citizens?