Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Abortion issue creates and sustains tribal politics

In 1983, the conservative Catholic John Healy could also be a staunch opponent of the Eighth Amendment

Watching the Claire Byrne Live debate on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment this week, it was hard not to despair of the possibility of a civil public discourse on the issue. And perhaps it was always naive to expect otherwise.

One of the things that makes abortion such a difficult question is that it has been very deliberately chosen as a dividing line. It has been shaped over many decades as a wedge to be driven into a relatively small crack and hammered again and again until the crack widens into an irreparable fissure.

It creates and sustains tribal politics. We've seen what that looks like in the United States and the TV non-debate gave us a glimpse of what it might look like in Ireland.

I started thinking therefore of a figure who, if Ireland really were tribal, would be very definitely not in my tribe. When I was starting out in journalism, John Healy was a legendary reporter-turned-columnist. His 'Inside Politics' column, written under the pen name Backbencher, first for the Sunday Review and then for The Irish Times, burst the bubble of dull and reverential coverage of governments, ministers and TDs in the 1960s.


By the 1980s, when newspapers still had very few columnists, Healy's 'Sounding Off' slot in The Irish Times was a big deal, not least because it generally annoyed the paper's more left-leaning readers – like myself.

Healy pioneered a persona that, after his retirement, others would struggle to adopt. He projected himself as the contrarian Voice of Rural Ireland.

Healy was from Charlestown, Co Mayo, and wrote a famous book about it called Death of an Irish Town. He railed against urbanisation and celebrated the values of the agricultural smallholders whose way of life was wilting in the heat of modernity.

Catholic and Fianna Fáil

But he was also a political conservative. He was Catholic and Fianna Fáil. For much of his journalistic career, he acted as an open booster of the man he called, early on, the Golden Boy, Charles Haughey. He traded on rustic irreverence for the urban Establishment while being himself a great bulwark of the Establishment.

Many of the most certain voices on the No side in the current campaign think they know the answer to the WWJD? (what would Jesus do?) question: Jesus would not just vote against repeal, he would excoriate and denounce anyone who dares to vote for it.

But I wondered about the WWJHD? question: what would John Healy do? If abortion is a tribal issue, it might seem obvious what tribe Healy would belong to, and it wouldn’t be that of the young, urban, cosmopolitan repealers.

In fact, the answer is that Healy would be far more blunt and intolerant in his support for repeal than I would feel comfortable with. Here is the opening paragraph of Healy's Irish Times column of January 10th, 1983, when the prospect of a referendum on the Eighth Amendment was becoming real: "I have watched the Anti Abortion Amendment Campaign progress from a lunatic fringe on the way-out Catholic right, a sperm of an idea which was implanted in the ovum of the body politic, fertilized by vote-seeking politicians, and now we are well and truly up the pole with a bastard referendum on our hands."

Healy’s astute political analysis was that the referendum that would give us the Eighth Amendment was coming about only because of a freakish set of political circumstances. Public opinion was sharply divided between admirers (like himself) of Charles Haughey and supporters of Garret FitzGerald (whom Healy famously but contemptuously labelled Garret the Good).

This intense political competition, stoked up to a feverish heat by an extraordinary three general elections in 18 months in 1981 and 1982, meant that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were both terrified of granting the other side any small advantage.

Abortion, Healy wrote, “would never surface as the stuff of politics but for the fact that the national constituency is so finely fragmented between Fianna Fáil and The Rest that for this decade tiny groups that can hold out the promise of a fistful of first preferences to whatever leader, or party, goes along with their campaign, will get not merely a hearing but political action . . . Such is the closeness of the division in the national constituency, the promise of a nut-vote is now one to which the fearful party heads must, and will, bow . . . They are a pretty craven bunch.”

Intriguingly, Healy, who had excellent connections with TDs of all parties, suggested that the Dáil would vote for the amendment only because its members were afraid of what he called “the Shrillies of the Right”: “I know that if the Dáil were to have a secret vote on the enabling legislation, the vote would be overwhelmingly against the amendment . . .”

‘Mickey mouse campaign’

Healy declared his own voting intentions in the referendum to come: “It is as usual to be the duty of the Catholic masses to shut their mouths and troop dumbly behind the dumbos who whistled up this mickey mouse campaign . . . I am a Christian of the Catholic persuasion. I will vote cheerfully against this amendment. I never had time for organised hypocrisy and less for sloothery politics and even less again for sloothery politicians and their games . . . Count me out. A thousand times count me out. I hate the phoneys.”

Had I written any of this, it would be endlessly cited as Exhibit A in the trial of the “mainstream media” and the “Dublin elite”, proof of the sneering arrogance of liberals, their anti-Catholic bias and their contempt for the plain people of Ireland.

But Healy could never have been accused of any of these things, and yet he was enraged by the Eighth Amendment. He called it an exercise in “halo politics” and suggested that the halo would eventually slip and strangle its creators.

Healy is worth revisiting because he reminds us that the question of whether or not the Constitution is the right place to deal with a question as complex and divisive as abortion does not have to be tribal. He thought, as other conservatives like Fine Gael’s John Kelly did, that the Constitution should be a common statement of agreed principles, not a battlefield for tribal victories.

To him, the Eighth was a betrayal of Éamon de Valera’s intentions and of Fianna Fáil’s republicanism: “I’ll puke”, he wrote on September 5th, 1983, a week before the referendum, “if I see the Soldiers of Destiny in Bodenstown next year”.

You can be Catholic, rural, conservative, traditional and still think that “halo politics” are toxic and that a republic should not have what Healy feared it would get with the passage of the 1983 referendum, a “theological Constitution”.

But then Healy did not have the gift that so many of the righteous claim, of being able to speak for Jesus. His style was pugnacious and egotistical, full of sweeping judgments and pretensions to omniscience. But he never went that far.

Though he did, in that column a week before the referendum, take the Lord’s name in vain. He predicted (accurately) that the amendment would be carried by two to one on a low turnout. He ended the column in dismay at the prospect: “The spiritual Armalite and the ballot box will prevail . . . May Christ have pity on my sad sad country.”