Haughey's Irish solution to an Irish problem


OPINION:The facade of a decision was made to appease both sides in the contraception debate

I WAS BORN in 1978. Numbered among the government files, released under the 30-year rule yesterday by the National Archives, were documents relating to the contraception debate surrounding the 1978 Health (Family Planning) Bill. These were, well, consequently of some special interest.

The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, received enough correspondence on the contraception legislation to fill four large dossiers that year. What a different Ireland we were. Going through the files was akin to unearthing a long-lost family album with unfamiliar photographs of a distant generation of relatives.

The church laity opposed this "devilish legislation" for reasons varying from the "immaturity of so many of our people" to "the sake of National Unity!" A Donegal man ("big noise in Opus Dei" and "in charge of resistance movement in Italy during the last war" according to the ceann comhairle, Joseph Brennan) urged the Fianna Fáil government to reject the legislation on the grounds that "the Protestants, atheists and agnostics will never vote for you. They have been accustomed to vote for Fine Gael."

Married women were particularly exercised and advocated the Billings natural contraceptive method because it "costs nothing" and "it will make for a great improvement in relations between husband and wife".

Charles Haughey, the then minister for health, proposed that funding should be provided to research the "efficiency of the method". The government files do not reveal if such research was conducted or any resulting findings.

An internal memorandum by Haughey's Department to the Cabinet helpfully defined condoms as "a device used by a male" which did not "require any professional intervention in relation to their use." (What civil servant came up with that explanation?)

Uncertain of the sexual habits of the Irish nation, the Department of Health estimated that the provision of free contraception "could be of the order of one million pounds a year." This, however, was offset by unquantifiable savings "on maternity and other health services needed had the births not been avoided."

Exasperated by the debate, Vivion de Valera TD, wrote to Lynch in no uncertain terms: "I am being bombarded with all sorts of well meaning, but ill-informed representations on contraception, very largely from virgins of both sexes, whether by design or default."

In the end, Haughey sought to appease conservative Ireland and the emerging liberal agenda with the facade of a decision. Contraception was legalised but only through the restrictive means of a medical prescription. Irish politics tends to applaud itself with such practical approaches to difficult decisions where we substitute pragmatic politics for decisive decision making. Haughey's contraceptive legislation became known as the "Irish solution to an Irish problem".

This phrase, indicative of a prevaricate compromise which allows us to temporarily reconcile our consciences, was first used in 1971 by minister for external affairs Patrick Hillery, in a Dáil debate on the nature of Ireland's possible membership of the European Community.

On the occasion of the 1978 visit to Ireland by the president of the EEC Commission, Roy Jenkins, Jack Lynch acknowledged that the "transitional period, the honeymoon" of EEC membership "was over".

Lynch told Jenkins that the commission's attitudes to Irish steel, processed foods, refineries and export tax relief were "highly detrimental" to Irish national interests. What an innocent honeymoon we thought we had.

In a speech at Clonakilty to the Fianna Fáil Youth Group, David Andrews, minister of state at the Department of Foreign Affairs, futuristically noted that: "At present, many people feel that the EEC is the sole concern of 'experts' - politicians, civil servants, economists, industrialists and academics - and that it is far removed and remote from their everyday lives".

Andrews expressed the hope that Europe's first direct parliamentary elections in 1979 would help voters to understand the workings of the European institutions and "foster a sense of more personal participation in European activities". That initial optimism has yet to be satisfied. More than ever before, the 2009 European elections, which precede the second Lisbon Referendum, provide an opportunity to exercise Andrew's original expectations.

How many correspondence files has the Lisbon Treaty already filled?

Ireland was characterised by a phobia of the unknown and an apprehensiveness of external influence, however wildly defined.

Indeed, in this Ireland, the fear of communism prompted an anonymous correspondent from the Rockville Centre to warn Lynch in 1972 that the Limerick-born, New York radio host and "champion of permissiveness", Malachy McCourt, "is gathering together a group of tourists to 'invade' your Republic." It is unclear if Malachy's brother, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Frank McCourt, partook in the invasion.

The letter-writer urged Lynch to "have a multitude of decent people ready to line the highways, hold up signs and boo this traitorous Irish man until he takes cover".

I did not recognise this Ireland when reading through these government files. Will we understand ourselves even less in 30 years time?