Kerry Babies - Empathy must trump extremism

For some unknown but life-affirming reason, very few of us can get through this world without the occasional unsummoned and niggling intrusion from our better angels.

Whether we call this instinct or conscience is immaterial; how we respond to those visceral, internal disciplines is not.

This week, many people of a certain age were reminded that the national conscience remains blemished and that atonement, on so many issues, has yet to be achieved.

Younger people, under 40 say, born into a country far more European in character, far more at ease with itself than the guilt-ridden Ireland of 40 years ago, struggle to understand why an investigation into the murder of a baby should have become a national morality play. How could someone born in the last 30 years understand the Kerry Babies scandal? How could they understand the forces in play, the assumptions driving the investigation and subsequent inquiry?

Their struggle is not unique. Many Irish people who lived through the scandal — or inquisition, if you prefer — could not understand how it became such a shameful, popular witch hunt; how the gardaí and some in the legal professions so obviously regarded themselves as guardians of a personal moral code as well as guardians of our Constitution. It was an example of mission creep that could only have happened in a Republic where the idea of real independence was nascent and just skin-deep, where every arm of the State operated in the shadow of a censorious religious authority.

The episode and its awful assumptions should have taught us many valuable lessons, but did it? We can hardly say that an individual cannot be accused, tried, and convicted by public opinion today. We cannot say that an accusation is not far too often regarded as a conviction.

The idea of a person always being innocent until proven guilty seems to have gone the way of whalebone corsets.

Since the Kerry Babies saga, many innocent priests have been accused of sexual abuse of children and had to bear the burden of guilt even if our courts dismissed those accusations.

We cannot say that some of those with strong beliefs are not prepared to do all they can to ruin those who hold views different to their own.

Both campaigns around the abortion referendum will, sadly, prove that. We are at a point where, unless you completely accept the writ of the most extreme views, you will be accused of enabling whatever wrong those extremists fight. We live in a black-and-white world where you are either “with us or against us”.

That is irrational, the real world is nuanced, as Catherine Deneuve and Margaret Atwood insisted when they questioned the Robespierre-like terror provoked by the #MeToo campaign.

That campaign is necessary, long overdue, and confronts unacceptable predation — but so too was the French Revolution and that, unfortunately, led to Robespierre’s utterly disproportionate Reign of Terror.

The Kerry Babies scandal showed how personal beliefs can silence empathy in the same way.

The #MeToo campaign seems to be approaching the brink of that extreme so maybe it’s time to call on our better angels so decency and justice rather than something closer to jihadist zeal might prevail.

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