Eight hundred years of colonisation was bound to have an effect, but 20th century Ireland, the Ireland I grew up in, poor though it was, nevertheless had the look and feel of an independent country. In economic and foreign policy, we sometimes did things differently. We established semi-state bodies such as ESB, Bord na Mona and Aer Lingus. We remained neutral during World War II. At the United Nations we sometimes resisted pressure from the western super-powers. We never joined NATO.
But we did join what became the EU. It started out as an economic arrangement, forced upon us by the British decision to join, Britain at the time being far and away our biggest export market. Painful economic adjustments had to be made, but did eventually result in greatly increased prosperity and massive diversification of exports. An aggressive grant and corporation tax policy was pursued, which was successful in attracting a host of multi-national companies to Ireland, leading to huge growth in employment and exports. Progress was sometimes marred by self-inflicted wounds, due to some really bad economic management, but overall, our EU membership has been associated with economic expansion, increased living standards and a reversal of decades of involuntary emigration. Not without cost, though – we sacrificed our fishing industry, and our small farmers, and rural Ireland generally. And we made a complete mess of housing provision.
Somewhere along the line, the soul of the nation got lost. Scandals in the Catholic Church accelerated this process, no question, but it was happening anyway. With a long, long history of grievances against the British, we were always likely to show some resistance to British influence; in the 19th century, for example, pressure to convert to Protestantism was fiercely resisted for the most part. But colonised peoples will inevitably conform in some respects to the ways of the coloniser. In Ireland we surrendered our native language, for example. But we did not surrender our Catholicism. Not to the Protestant British.
But the habits of conformity were there, and there were no counterbalancing forces when the pressure to conform was coming from American multi-nationals or powerful European neighbours. We caved in completely after the 2008 crash, for example, implementing in every detail a “rescue” package which was in some respects insane. Paying back secondary bondholders 100%, for example, and paying exorbitant rates of interest on rescue loans. Thirteen years later, capitulation on taxation policy now also looks inevitable.
And we caved in to the subtle, but no less real, anti-Catholic pressures. We were out of step with Europe and the U.S.A on abortion, in particular. One of the most striking features of the 2018 referendum was the tens of thousands of young Irish adults, working abroad but returning here to vote for repeal, and saying quite openly that they were ashamed of our Irish anti-abortion culture. Desire for conformity magnified to the nth degree. We are prepared to kill our own children rather than stand out as different.
The reasons given for changing our abortion regime were spurious. There was no women’s health issue with the Eighth Amendment. Savita Hallapanavar died from undiagnosed sepsis. If sepsis had been diagnosed in time, and if termination had been deemed the most appropriate method of treatment, then that termination could have taken place under the Eighth Amendment. Every obstetrician in the country knew this; some had encountered similar situations in their own practices, and had gone on to perform terminations. Obstetricians pushing for change were motivated by ideology, not evidence-based medicine. Not one of them at the time cited a single maternal medical condition whose prevalence was higher in Ireland than in countries with liberal abortion. Not one of them has subsequently cited evidence of reduction in prevalence, of any medical condition, since we legalised abortion here. We were and are a safe country for a woman to give birth in.
We are supposed to be having an “independent” review of the abortion legislation this year. The state did its best to ensure that there would be precious little official data available about our abortion regime, on which to base such a review. But we do know that abortions were running at an average 550 a month here in 2019, rising to 640 a month in the early months of 2020, and declining only in late 2020, this decline almost certainly a result of Covid restrictions on social activity. That is to say, the decline looks temporary, the basic trend is still upwards. We also know that nearly 1000 lives were saved in 2019 because of the 3-day reflection period. We know that our birth rates continue to fall and are now well below population replacement level. We know that there is no provision for pre-abortion counselling in the current legislation, and that more than 1 in 3 women are seeking post-abortion counselling. We know that abortion providers are paid an exorbitant €450 per medical abortion (i.e. for dispensing abortion pills) and that €20m in total was spent on abortion in the first two years, but that nothing was spent on assisting women to keep their babies.
We know these things, but they will be ignored. Our decisions will not be based on statistical evidence, they will be based on ideology. Other people’s ideology, imported into Ireland and slavishly followed. Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.
It does not have to be that way, as the Hungarians and Poles continue to demonstrate.
But we Irish find it so much easier to conform, than to stand out. On paper, we had finally made the great escape from British rule but, in reality, we never really got away.