There was a further portent of change in early February 1985 with the introduction of a new Family Planning Bill, providing for the open sale of contraceptives.
This provoked the ire of prominent members of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy.
The new Archbishop of Dublin, Kevin McNamara denounced the bill on the day it was published.
“No one who is concerned for the moral welfare of the rising generation can abdicate moral responsibility, can stand aside or remain silent at the prospect of contraceptives being made legally available to unmarried young people,” the Archbishop warned.
He went on, the following Sunday, to criticise the legislation as an invitation to young people to engage in pre-marital sexual activity.
Other prominent church figures joined in.
The new law would make contraceptives “freely available to teenagers,” Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich said, “and this would encourage premarital sexual intercourse.”
The proposals were “not acceptable on the grounds of public morality, whether or not the majority of the people might think otherwise,” Bishop Jeremiah Newman of Limerick declared. This seemed to challenge the very concept of democracy.
The legislation was designed to change the Family Planning Act introduced by Charles Haughey as Minister for Health in 1979.
He had carefully avoided any confrontation with the bishops by consulting them in advance and building in the safeguards that they sought. Contraceptives could only be sold for bona fide family planning purposes, and then only on a doctor’s prescription.
Haughey opposed the amending legislation. “As far as we know there is no public demand for any change in the existing legislation,” he said. The issue had serious repercussions for his own leadership.
The Fianna Fáil deputy Charlie McCreevy said the pronouncements of Archbishop McNamara and Bishop Newman were “in the very same mould” as those Northern clerics who used to call for “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.” Although Mr McCreevy was in favour of the bill, he said would vote against it, because this was the democratic decision of his party.
Fine Gael suffered three defections. Alice Glenn, Oliver J Flanagan and Tom O’Donnell were expelled from the party for voting against the bill, as was Sean Tracy from the Labour Party. No Fianna Fáil deputy supported the bill, but Des O’Malley abstained.
As a result Haughey had O’Malley expelled from Fianna Fáil for conduct unbecoming a member. Eventually it was Fianna Fáil, which suffered most, because this incident was the first crack that ultimately led to a split in the party later in the year, with Des O’Malley founding the Progressive Democrats.
Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway denounced attempts to intimidate politicians over their support for the Family Planning Bill. Some of the hierarchy obviously had reservations about the blatant intervention in such a political matter.
The hardline statements of Archbishop McNamara and Dr Newman, along with the support of Cardinal Ó Fiaich, turned the issue into an apparent confrontation between church leaders and the government.
The deference of politicians to the dictates of the Catholic hierarchy over the years had given substance to allegations that the Irish government discriminated against non-Catholic values and beliefs.
For too long the Catholic Hierarchy was seen to exert an undemocratic influence over Irish governments. “When a bishop flourishes his crozier,” Owen Sheehy Skeffington used to say, “Fine Gael fall on their faces and Fianna Fáil on their knees.” At the height of the controversy over the Family Planning Bill, however, the Church of Ireland Gazette, credited the bill’s supporters with having the courage to stand up for what they thought was right.
“One should not discount the courage of many of the deputies in the Dáil who gave the measure their support knowing the deep divisions that lay in the electorate behind them,” the Gazette proclaimed in an editorial. It may have taken years, but the journal added that in countries like Britain and France, these issues “were only sorted out after long and painful heart-searching in the slow evolution of political attitudes.”
The enactment of the family planning legislation was seen as a distinct defeat for the hierarchy. Writing in the public service journal in 1985, John Whyte — author of Church and State in Modern Ireland, 1923-1979, the seminal work on church-state relations — concluded that, “the Church appeared to have suffered its most clear-cut defeat since the establishment of the State”.
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