Don’t you envy people who carry an air of certainty on great social matters? Strong, straight-talking, authoritative, authentic. No wussy agitation. No chance of a stray nuance breeding some catastrophic intimation of compromise.
When was a politician or public debater last heard saying they were not entirely sure about something? Ever? Anyone who seems not absolutely certain is perceived as weak and slippery. The public demands that certainty. Unless you have certainty on the airwaves you are dead space where two panellists could be yelping into parallel universes instead. We all own it.
People of Certainty: noisy, seductive and widely available near you right now.
Despite perceptions about metropolitan folk, abortion is not a straightforward yes or no for many. There is nuance and context. This is the space where they are waiting, waiting to understand.
So how does one lay to rest any uncertainties, say, about the current abortion proposals? Easy. One Fianna Fáiler does it by comparing a woman’s bodily autonomy to livestock management. “What farmer would abort a calf? You’d always give it a chance to live,” the anonymous TD told Hugh O’Connell in the Sunday Business Post. If I were that deputy with a farming interest and my objective was to stir visceral emotion, I would be very loath to invite scrutiny into certain dairy farming practices.
And yet could I resist the brilliant stroke of making a gentle farmer and dear little calf (imagine the farmer in Babe but with a calf rather than a piglet) the lovable faces of the campaign against repeal? Too cute. Of course, I would have to add a disclaimer in tiny letters: “The nice farmer will probably send this healthy newborn bull calf for slaughter in a few days but there are sound reasons for that and we are happy to allow for nuance and context in this instance because. . . well, because where would we all be without nuance and context. And anyway, who owns the cow? Hah!”.
Say what you like about Micheál Martin’s unillustrious record on the subject, but last week’s speech suggested a world of nuance, context, realism, personal grief and – above all – empathy, had accompanied him on this particular journey. Say what you like about Lucinda Creighton, but she took an equally brave stand a few years ago, basically torching a high-voltage political career for the anti-choice views that had evolved with her.
While those on opposite sides may fail to appreciate such radical U-turns, the point is that they have clearly come about as a result of long, troublesome, deeply challenging process. A striking aspect of Martin’s journey was the influence of expert contributions at the Oireachtas committee. How startling is that? That a man in a position of influence over women’s lives listened respectfully to a variety of experts and acted on his conclusions? How much easier to identify as the farmer with total control over Daisy the cow, her fertility cycles and perpetual pregnancies.
Fianna Fáilers have never been shy of head-butting the people’s intelligence but surely their thought processes are a little more sophisticated that this?
Yesterday, in Sarah Bardon’s report on some parliamentary Fianna Fáilers’ reaction to Martin’s statement, of the 14 names mentioned 12 were men. In Kilkenny (home of the lead Fianna Fáil dissident, Bobby Aylward), a party activist, Seán D Rafter, has set up an online petition demanding Martin’s resignation. The language is suitably belligerent –“We have been betrayed by our leader...This is ordinary people taking Fianna Fáil back”.
Rafter’s characterisation of Fianna Fáil as “not just another left-wing party” is intriguing. “We are not Labour lite, nor PBP for ordinary people, nor are we Fine Gael for the poor. We don’t read The Irish Times. We don’t care what south Dublin thinks. We are disinterested in the RTÉ/IT/Sindo/Newstalk liberal groupthink bubble.” So what are they?
Some of the language is familiar, echoing the Trumpist rhetoric about the “coastal elites” in the US, much of which was devised and peddled by elements of the rich elites themselves, as was the case with the notorious Brexit campaign.
The point about Rafter is that he is not an economically anxious, rural Fianna Fáil activist with only Daisy the cow for some gender role-modelling. He is a young barrister on the southeastern circuit, a former Leinster House Fianna Fáil intern, ardently anti-abortion, opposer of same-sex marriage, Brexit fan, Irexit supporter ("if things continue the way they are going for the UK", he blogged last March) and so on.
While he indulges in much disdainful pigeonholing, he is entitled to air his views and that enviable certainty about everything. Where it gets interesting is his belief that “1 in 2 (you and me) don’t agree with the narrow elitist worldview of the D4 ideologues and their media puppets”. Whether that means half the Fianna Fáil party or half the electorate is not clear.
On the first score, we may get an inkling today when Martin meets his party colleagues.