Opinion
Subscriber Only

Jennifer O’Connell: Maternity hospital row is more driven by feelings than facts

Gap between what politicians talk about and the issues that matter is widening

The row over turf-cutting rights is a pitched battle between privileged urban elites and left-behind rural dwellers. The controversy over the relocation of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) is actually about a cabal of nuns refusing to cede control over women’s bodies. The rent crisis is caused by greedy landlords creaming it while workers are hammered. Tony Holohan’s secondment to Trinity College is proof that Ireland is run by a golden circle.

There is a growing trend online and in politics – and the media are far from blameless – to project every hot button issue through the prism of American-style culture wars. There may be a kernel of truth in some of these narratives but complexities, nuances and all presumption of good faith are getting lost in the drive to win the attention and votes of a restless, easily distracted audience.

Take the turf-cutters. Despite the emotionally charged narratives about burning turf as a way of life or an act of patriotic pride – media reports invariably feature photos of decent old skins in wool hats, their brows furrowed all the way down to the marl – the less-reported story is that commercial peat extraction is still continuing on an alarming scale. How alarming we’ve no idea because there is no national database or register.

Taking turf from the Irish would be like taking wine from the French or pasta from Italians, said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar recently, as though some twee Bord na Móna-approved notion of a smouldering hearth as the essence of Irishness carries more moral urgency than what's happening to the planet. Taking palm oil from the Indonesians might have been a better analogy. Our plundered bogs are our rainforests – the world's peatlands cover 3 per cent of the globe and store twice as much carbon as all the world's forests combined, according to the UN.

Then there’s the row over the NMH relocation. The “get your rosaries off my ovaries” posters have been back out in force, but the people who took to the streets outside Leinster House cannot really believe there is a group of Machiavellian sisters pulling Stephen Donnelly’s strings behind the scenes. Many do have genuine concerns – unsurprisingly, given our history – and a rational discussion of governance and what phrases like “clinically appropriate” mean in practice should have been enough to allay them. But a rational debate on these issues isn’t what has been happening.

When the current master of the NMH, Shane Higgins, former master Rhona Mahony and many senior midwives, clinicians and hospital managers all agree that there is nothing to see here in terms of the potential for religious interference, the ongoing row is clearly more driven by feelings than facts.

Casting every political problem as a question of tribal identity is a cheap and easy way for opposition parties to score points

That’s true too of some of the anti-landlord rhetoric around the rent crisis. If greedy landlords are widely profiting off renters’ misery, why are so many selling up? Or the row over the CMO secondment. “It should have been communicated better” is a duller story than “another golden circle stitch-up”, but it’s probably a more accurate summation.

Casting every political problem as a question of tribal identity is a cheap and easy way for opposition parties to score points. Former governor of New York Mario Cuomo said politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. These days, they do both in tweets. Sinn Féin, of course, are masters at this, adept at reducing big issues to simplistic narratives. But while the Government parties love to complain about Sinn Féin populism, there are times when it suits them to have the public distracted by sideshows, rather than asking tough questions about the cost of living crisis or climate change or how thousands of Ukrainian refugees are going to be housed and educated.

You don’t have to look very far to see where this kind of artificial fracturing of society can lead. The Tory Party in Britain spotted what was happening in America under Trump, and at how social media companies were monetising anger, and wanted a lash at it themselves.

"They decided that this is a way to get people whipped up," Rory Stewart, the former Conservative MP told the New Statesman recently. Boris Johnson was elected on the promise that he would be provocateur-in-chief, a shock jock prime minister whose chief talent is to stir up the culture wars, and he's performing that mandate admirably, providing the public with a ready supply of targets of vitriol.

The chasm between what politicians are talking about and the issues that really matter to people seems to be widening

In the US, you can trace a direct line from the culture wars rhetoric stirred up by Trump to last week’s shooting in Buffalo, in which an 18-year-old gunman shot dead 10 people because he believes an internet conspiracy theory that white Americans are being “replaced” by people of colour.

Here, thankfully, efforts to drum up extremist or anti-immigration views have fallen flat. But the chasm between what politicians are talking about and the issues that really matter to people seems to be widening.

The task of running a country is still the same as it always was – it's about striking a balance between ideology, values and pragmatism. Those concepts have all but disappeared from the political culture which prizes personality, emotion and drama over the dull business of negotiation and nuance. "It is less that the policy centre ground has disappeared than the zone of ambiguity and flexibility – that zone where almost all political progress takes place – has become rhetorically insupportable… now it's 100 per cent or nothing," wrote Mark Thompson, former director general of the BBC and chief executive of the New York Times six years ago, words that feel more prescient now.

We’re losing sight of what matters in the clamour to reduce complex issues to a spaghetti western-style showdown between your side and mine. Stoking up the culture wars may suit some politicians, but it’s bad for politics.