I was left wing up until I realised that the left was not what it purported to be. And that was in the mid 1990s.
Born and raised in South County Meath in 1960, I joined the Trim branch of the Labour Party in 1981. I was working in a local drapery shop at the time. It was a family business and I was not in a Trade Union. My employers were like a second family to me so I had no desire to rock the boat. I also knew that it was important for such businesses to survive in order for me to have a job. So I was never part of what was referred to then as the ‘loony left’, although I was opposed to Labour entering government with Fine Gael, fearing that (and many times since being proved correct) the party would be swallowed up by their large coalition partner.
I somewhat drifted from politics in 1985 when I moved to work and live in Dublin, even though I was still a member of Meath Constituency Council of the Labour Party as one of its two youth delegates. My employer in Dublin was pro Fianna Fail and totally anti trade union. While my wages were a bit better than what I was earning in Meath, working conditions were atrocious. No lunch breaks were allowed. You grabbed a burger in the middle of serving customers and at Christmas time you worked from 9.30am until 8.30pm without a rest. This was normal in Dublin city centre shops that were not unionised at the time.
One evening in January 1986, the fifteen lads working for this retail chain of men’s fashions decided to meet up and head for Liberty Hall to join the then ITGWU (now SIPTU). There were a number of country lads working for the chain and we had free accommodation which was owned by the boss. It was basic bedsit accommodation. Rents were affordable and flats were plentiful in 1980s Dublin, so it was not costing our boss a whole lot to accommodate us. However, he issued eviction notices to all of us unless we left the Union within a week. It scared everyone and they capitulated within the week. I did not capitulate and I refused to relinquish my membership of the union. I moved back home to live with my parents in Co. Meath, which was about 30 miles from Dublin and I decided to commute to the city daily by CIE bus, while remaining in the union. All of the other 14 employees left the union and a campaign of intimidation commenced against me, even from some of my workmates. So when I heard what happened in recent years to people like Kevin Myers, Gemma O’ Doherty, John Waters and the Garda whistleblowers I could identify with their plight so to speak.
I was dismissed in September 1986, but the ITGWU were happy to take a case of unfair dismissal on my behalf (the case was later heard in the summer of 1987 at the Labour Court and I was awarded IR£800 compensation. I was very grateful to the people in the union for helping me).
In November of 1986, my brother and I moved to Mullingar to open up our own Menswear shop. I was no longer a member of a union or the Labour party but I did have good relations with some local labour party and ITGWU people. Being a retailer in a country town brought a lot of responsibilities so I could not publicly declare my political leanings. But my political ideology was still left-leaning while also being pro-business.
In May 1988 I became a father for the first time, but I was not married to our child’s mother. This was a troubling time as my mother was terminally ill with lung cancer. I did not inform my parents that they had a grandson until November 1988. Our son’s mother and I concealed the pregnancy from everyone except one of my sisters and my brother and business partner and two of our son’s mother’s closest friends. In fact, we moved to Dublin and pretended that our son’s mother was living in London with my sister. The taboo about children born outside of marriage was still very strong in the Ireland of the late 1980s
On reflection there were only about 2 or 3 children living with their unmarried parents in Mullingar that we knew of. Adoption or abortion was never going to be an option for us, even though a social worker in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin was placing extreme pressure on us to place our son for adoption. That is not to say that unmarried women were not getting pregnant. They were becoming pregnant in great numbers but sadly the taboo about single parenthood meant that the UK abortion industry and the Irish adoption industry thrived.
My retail business failed in April 1989 and my brother and I had no option but to go on social welfare. This was a hard time as employment opportunities were scarce and the unemployment situation was getting worse. Both of us relentlessly sought work and as we had been reasonably successful eventually as my brother got a job on the railways with CIE and I got a job managing a boutique in Dublin city centre. However that shop also closed down after a short while and I was back on the dole. In November 1990 I got a job in Arnotts in Dublin. I commuted every day which was difficult because the range of provincial bus and train services were only a fraction of what they are now. But the pay and conditions were worth the early mornings and late coming home times.
In the summer of 1992 I was made redundant at Arnotts as the economy was plummeting. Unemployment in Ireland in late 1992 was at its highest since the foundation of the state. I rejoined the Labour Party in late 1992 because for the first time in the history of the state, Westmeath elected a Labour Party TD. Labour also had won an unprecedented 33 seats in that December 1992 election which was labelled in political and media circles as ‘The Spring Tide’, in reference to the then successful Labour Party leader Dick Spring.
Labour went into coalition with the Albert Reynolds-led Fianna Fail party. It was an exciting time to be in the Labour Party (or so I thought at the time). All sorts of reforming legislation had been proposed by Labour such as decriminalising homosexual activity, getting more equality for the children of unmarried parents (I did not know at the time that applied to mothers only, to the exclusion of fathers). Addressing the constitutional ban on divorce etc was also a Labour Party priority.
In the early summer of 1993, I separated from my son’s mother. We had been living together since before he was born in 1988. At this time I was the Chairperson of the Parents Council of his school and PRO for the Westmeath branch of the National Parents Council – Primary. To my pleasant surprise, the Chairperson of the Board of Management of the school who was also the Parish Priest of Mullingar and the Principle of my son’s school (a nun) had no issue with my unmarried status as a parent and neither of them ever mentioned the matter to me. I enjoyed a nice, enlightening and compassionate relationship with both of them. This was new to me as I had not been a very well practiced Catholic since childhood.
It was only when my son’s mother threatened to stop me seeing my then 5 year old son that I decided to get some legal advice on where I stood in this matter. I had always assumed that the ‘Status Of Children Act 1987, which gave the children of unmarried parents the same legal rights as children born within marriage, also made unmarried parents equal to married parents. How shocked I was when I discovered the truth. Basically I discovered that as an unmarried father, I had no legal rights under the law to my son whatsoever. I learned that a complete stranger had the same legal status as a parent to my son as I had.
Still in shock I embarked on a campaign while going to court to rectify my situation. Under the Status of Children Act 1987, the only option open to an unmarried father was to ask a court to award him joint guardianship. But this would be at the court’s discretion and had to be “in the best interests of the child’. So being naive as to how the law worked in Ireland (I always believed that when one had right on their side that Justice would prevail) I went to court. It was at this stage I began to suspect that radical feminism was controlling government policy in Ireland and this was in 1993.
To cut the story of the court proceedings short, access was withdrawn from me in the summer of 1994 and the courts kept adjourning the matter. I was not allowed to see my child and it was at this stage that I got what can only be described as a shocking awakening as to what I was up against. I made contact with the national media on a relentless basis in an effort to publicise this blatant lack of human rights in Ireland, where fathers were being discriminated against by reason of their male gender. The RTE 1 TV programme Family Matters spent 2 days in Mullingar with me and the programme all set to be broadcast when RTE capitulated to legal threats that the report would ‘break the in camera rule’.
I can understand RTE being afraid to go ahead but still they should have stood the law down. It may have created more publicity about the very fact that there were human rights abuses surrounding unmarried fathers in Ireland. However in March 1994 I had an article published in the Irish Times which drew attention to the legal anomalies surrounding this issue. I was told that I was the very first person in the history of the state to have an article published in a national newspaper which brought attention to discrimination against unmarried fathers. But alas, only a couple of weeks later and in the interests of “balance”, The Irish Times had Senator and Cherish co- founder Mary Henry write an article attempting to debunk the contents of my article. I was disappointed with RTE and the Irish Times and from then onwards I distrusted them to genuinely embrace this issue, an issue which was an example of blatant sexual inequality in Ireland.
I brought my concerns about this blatant and hypocritical sexist legislation to my ‘colleagues’ in the local branch of the Labour Party. This was the party of reform and if any party was going to row in behind me on this, then it was going to be the Labour party. How wrong I was going to be in my naive assumption. In early 1995, I addressed a Labour Party meeting in Mullingar, which was attended by the then Minister for Equality and Law Reform Mervyn Taylor, I attracted so many blank stares of shock that it was a response one would have expected from a hall full of zombies in a horror movie. But these blank stares of shock were not at being told that a growing number of a certain type of Irish parent were second class citizens. These blank stares of shock were at the audacity of someone like me challenging the status quo of women’s rights, single mothers’ rights and or politically correct left wing Labour Party group think on women’s’ rights.
I had compiled a document which was approximately 15 pages long, setting out what I believed to be the best and most sensible way to legally amend the Status of Children Act 1987 to erase the blatant anomaly which pertained to unmarried fathers. I presented this document to Minister Taylor who I witnessed at the end of the night placing it in a small paper bin beside the stage. It was at this stage that I became aware with shock, that it was more likely to be certain left wing media outlets and left wing politics that I was up against and not the Catholic Church as previously imagined by me. It was obvious to me at this stage that the law, the courts, the lawyers were on the same page as the social justice warrior left and some sections of the media in maintaining this anti father agenda but I could not fathom the reasons why.
I believed at the time that the only way to get the mass Irish media interested in this topic and indeed what was being done to me in the top secret family court, was to have it discussed in Dail Eireann. Labour were still in Government but since the previous December they were in a rainbow coalition with Fine Gael and the Democratic Left. Fianna Fail was in opposition. I had asked my local Labour and Fine Gael TDs if they could raise this matter in the Dail. After all, they were backbench TDs and not in the cabinet or junior cabinet. However they too could not bring themselves to ask any awkward questions of the Minister for Equality & Law Reform. Blank stares of shock beamed from their faces also.
For someone who always had a dislike for Fianna Fáil due to my mother’s family being Labour and my Father’s family being a mix of Fine Gael and Labour surely I could not ask a Fianna Fail TD to help me with a Dail question. I personally knew Noel Dempsey a Meath Fianna Fail TD. We attended the same primary school outside Trim in County Meath albeit at different times as Noel was about 5 or 6 years older than me. But his younger brothers were in the same school at the same time as me. I decided that I would write to Noel Dempsey and also to the sitting Westmeath opposition TD Mary O’ Rourke. I was pleasantly shocked when Mary O’ Rourke phoned me and set up a meeting with me in Mullingar. She raised my case in the Dail one day and Noel Dempsey also spoke up on the topic, as did the Progressive Democrat’s Liz O’ Donnell who I had also written to. The media were all over the story like a rash, to such an extent that it became known as the ‘Westmeath Case’ in May 1995. I gave interviews to the Irish Independent, Evening Press, Irish Times, a number of radio stations and then the Pat Kenny Radio Show contacted me. My identity throughout this was concealed due to the In- Camera Rule which meant that ongoing family law cases could not be discussed in public if they could lead to the identification of a child or children in such proceedings. I went on the Pat Kenny Show in studio and my interview was pre-recorded. I found Pat Kenny to be a gentleman and the interview was not adversarial or a planned hit piece on me.
Around this time the Sunday World wrote an article condemning Mary O’ Rourke for having the audacity to speak up for single fathers in the Dail. The article was written by Micheline McCormack who thrived on hyperbolic articles each Sunday. If it was not men she was attacking it was Catholics or priests. My lifelong left leaning ways were now being stretched to the point that I could not identify with anything which the left stood for anymore. I resigned from the Labour Party in June 1995 and in the 1997 General Election I voted for Mary O’ Rourke,
Fast forward to the present day and I can safely say that over the past 20 years or so, I have had numerous bad experiences of people who were feminists, social justice warriors, socialists or charity employees. The media agenda was always pushing a left agenda of Women’s rights, Travellers rights, Gay rights and rights for everyone who felt aggrieved at society except men like me who lost his child to the corrupt and totally secret family law courts, perpetuated by the anti equality legislation governing men like me. My moment of shock came a few years before that of the great John Waters, but our experiences of being let down by those who we believed to be on our side are identical. John believed in the late 1990s that the National Union of Journalists and his colleagues in the media were going to row in behind him.
To conclude, it did not take me too long to see that there was nastiness to an agenda being perpetuated on society by the left wing. Within the space of 2 years between 1993 and 1995 I discovered what they were like. Like so many others, I left the Left.
Niall Doyle is a journalist who writes from Westmeath
Part of the Why I Left the Left series.