Apart from delivering Cherish leaflets and attending a small number of meetings and the final rally, most of the huge effort that went into trying to trying to save the 8th amendment was unknown to me.
I had been with Sinn Féin in Leinster House for many years and I am afraid to say I was of little assistance when Peadar Tóibín was attempting to organise resistance to that party’s plans to force all representatives and members to accept the volte face on abortion under pain of internal isolation or expulsion.
My response regarding any attempt to mount a meaningful opposition within Sinn Féin was that it was a lost battle. The commissars would have the Ard Fheis managed to ensure that pro-life members and cumainn were sidelined. The supine manner in which some TDs and other leading figures switched overnight to the pro-abortion side confirmed my pessimism.
So this book is a revelation to me with regard to the heroic campaign that was mounted by those who had more faith than I. It was against insuperable odds but if nothing else, as Van Maren states in the concluding line of the book, it serves as a hope for the future that ” … with this defiance, the last Irish patriots will tirelessly seek to reclaim their nation – even if all the odds are against them.”
And they certainly were. We were all aware that the pro-abortion side had persuaded every party in Leinster House, and all but a small number of TDs, to back their campaign. Besides that, there was a mass media that was not only heavily biased in favour of the Yes side, but which brazenly suppressed pro life arguments.
While they like to portray themselves as the vanquishers of a repressive obscurantist Ireland, it was the pro-abortion campaign that was unable to cope with a coherent intellectual opposition because it did not comply with the stereotype they wished to use to persuade the electorate. So of course, they simply resorted with the aid of the mainstream and social media to measures to silence those voices.
The part played by RTÉ, as detailed in the book, was particularly egregious given that it is not meant to be a partisan advocate. It is after all paid for by the citizens to provide a public service. Clearly the Eoghan Harris mentality previously deployed against nationalism in general had seamlessly segued into a generalised liberal intolerance of all “dissident” opinion. Perhaps Sinn Féin might ponder this, now that they signed up to the same agenda.
Patriots details how the legal protections against abortion were made part of Bunreacht na hÉireann after pro-life advocates realised the possible implications that the Roe v Wade United States Supreme Court decision of 1973 might have in Ireland.
They understood that the absence of a specific constitutional protection for the unborn would leave us open to the same assault by a liberal political and judicial establishment which in America had discovered a spurious “right to privacy” in the 14th amendment to their constitution. That foresight led to a comprehensive victory in the September 1983 referendum that led to the adoption of the 8th amendment.
The liberal assault did come, but was held off by the 1983 victory. That then led to a prolonged “culture war” in which a series of legal and medical cases were basically exploited in order to undermine the existing constitutional protections with the overall objective being to remove the 8th amendment altogether.
A quote from ÚnaNnic Mhathúna succinctly summarises the clear dividing line that was drawn: “They hated us but we were relevant.” The book describes how younger activists in Youth Defence took the battle to the enemy who were obviously banking on the wearing down of opposition through their domination of the media and with the political parties capitulating one by one.
Sinn Féin serves as the example I best know but its desire to move in on the liberal left vote formerly dominated by the Labour Party and Democratic Left was melded to another fear that also gripped the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaderships.
They were all terrified that being seen to oppose abortion in virtually any circumstances would make them appear “uncool” and repellent to the younger vote which they allowed themselves to be persuaded was in favour of “change,” which slogan has become the meaningless justification for anything.
The shinners, having already accepted partition and helping to administer the British controlled part of Ireland, no longer had any inhibition when it comes to jettisoning everything associated with “backward Catholic nationalism.” So like a whipped pup grateful for a pat on the head from people who still basically despise them for what they once were, they crawled into line.
I have to say, as someone who whose first record purchases were the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers way back in 1977 that the quote I most enjoyed in the book was the description by Van Maren of Youth Defence as “punks with a traditional twist, irreverent revolutionaries advocating a return to the values of their ancestors rather than demanding that they be thrashed in the vein of left wingers the world over.”
The old adage “hard cases make bad law” is applicable to the manner in which the X and C cases and the circumstances of Savita Halappanavar’s death through medical incompetence were used to bolster the campaign for abortion on demand.
The testimony of the woman at the centre of the C case, then a 13 year old rape victim, is perhaps the saddest part of the book. Lied to, forbidden to see her parents, and then abandoned when she was of no further use, she details how the abortion impacted on her life and how she came to oppose the campaign to get rid of the 8th amendment.
From a republican perspective I could see how the mounting political and media pressure was bearing fruit within Sinn Féin. TDs who I had known to be strongly pro life went along with the orders of the commissars and obeyed the whip in support of pro abortion private members motions such as Clare Daly’s in April 2012.
That committed Sinn Féin to supporting abortion several years before an Ard Fheis changed party policy. Indeed, Sinn Féin effectively imposed a whip on all elected representatives and members to support the Yes side in the May 2018 referendum a month before the Ard Fheis voted in favour of abortion and to force TDs to vote against their conscience.
Jonathan O’Brien who had opposed abortion was appointed to the loaded Oireachtas committee which inevitably supported the campaign to remove the 8th. Not only that but he was dragged humiliatingly in front of cameras and microphones to explain his “journey.” O’Brien did not contest the 2020 general elections, although I have no evidence that that had anything to do with abortion.
Pearse Doherty made a similar “journey” it seems, although the strength of the pro life response he met on the doors in Donegal apparently made him less enthusiastic at home than he had been among the politically righteous in Dublin.
I only mention the shinners at length because I was witness for a time to the moral and intellectual surrender of the party, but clearly the same processes were at work within Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with a similar lack of backbone displayed in contrast to those TDs who refused to be bullied, and most of all to the massive effort of those whose story is told in the book.
The pro abortion side won the referendum, but while activists were bloodied they remain unbowed. Predictions regarding the numbers of abortions, the exteme nature of the legislation, and the ongoing campaign to push for even more extreme provisions have been confirmed.
The fight is not over. All of the TDs who voted against legalization retained their seats in the general election and that at least ensures that the political opposition has not been completely silenced by the elite. It is a global battle and there are signs that the liberal position is not unassailable. Perhaps in a way the Irish campaign even in defeat has proven to be an inspiration, just as Van Maren describes how past victories were.
Having a political majority for anything does not mean that it is right. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote: ” …. the rules of natural law are valid, no matter how often they are violated.”
Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach.
Patriots – The Untold Story of the Irish Pro-life Movement can be bought here