Healy-Rae could teach Gormley a thing or two about bleeding liberals

THE animated state of the stag hunting debate is indicative of the deathly state of Irish politics more generally.

If John Gormley is right about one thing, it is that there are far more important issues than stag hunting facing Ireland right now.

So why are the Greens intent in ramming it through, you might ask? In part, the attempt to ban stag hunting combines two of the country’s lamentable foibles: its growing sentimentality towards animals and its culture of empty-headed gesture politics.

In simple terms, preventing a few hundred rural people from practising one of their favourite sports is a lame, mean-spirited way for the Greens to try to establish some vestige of authority.

They are desperate: they have to come out of this Government with something to show for their trouble, some small evidence that they actually did something with the power vested in them.

What is harder to understand is the Taoiseach’s attitude. Why alienate the FF backbenchers further at such a delicate time? Surely, if the matter were as trivial as John Gormley suggests, a simple “not right now” from Cowen should have done the trick.

It didn’t, and it says a lot about the Taoiseach’s authority that he either didn’t tell the Greens to go away or, if he did, that they didn’t heed the call.

We are where we are. But how did a question so apparently minor achieve such totemic status? Aside from those who partake in the sport, stag hunting is of little interest to the general public. It is practised by an infinitesimally small minority of people and causes no harm to the rest of society.

But there is a bigger game being played here. The fact is we are forever being lectured about the importance of tolerance, minority rights and respect for other people’s lifestyles in modern Ireland.

The vitriol poured on the hunters’ heads shows, however, that there are new dominant prejudices at play. The elite just cannot tolerate the choices of people outside their circle, whose attempt to exercise their rights is deemed not just wrong but repugnant. Everything about the hunting community – traditional, rural, conservative, parochial – flies in the face of how that elite believes we are supposed to live. Hell, those country people even insist on treating animals like ... animals.

Yet when an opinion or a pastime that goes against the tastes of the pseudo-liberal elite can be dismissed as “out of bounds” – something that should not only be opposed but outlawed – a question is raised. Does the pressing threat to freedom really come from a few culchies or the elite itself? As the great philosopher John Stewart Mill wrote, “there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose ... its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit ... is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism”.

Yes, it seems a bit strange to hear pro-hunters declaring themselves to be on the side of stags, as if running stags (sometimes to their death) has become humane. They argue, in a way that is hard to explain to outsiders, those who hunt are actually on the animal’s side. In their minds the sport is a way of living with animals rather than declaring outright war on them and is governed by its own ethic of fair play.

But the anti-hunters argument that it is they who are working in the stag’s welfare, to protect them from the barbarity of rural folk, is even more incredible and disingenuous. The meat industry is infinitesimally bigger and far crueller to animals, yet no one makes a big song-and-dance about this. This is because there is nothing romantic or daring about campaigning to close down slaughterhouses.

At least the attempt to ban this pastime has opened up a debate about the limits of freedom in contemporary society, when all too often other illiberal measures (such as the new censorship legislation) tend to be nodded through without much opposition.

The hunting issue has unleashed strong passions on both sides and cuts across the usual party lines. Why, for instance, is Sinn Féin against a ban in the South when it favoured one in the North, for instance? It would be puzzling only if it were not so characteristically opportunistic.

Oscar Wilde once described fox hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”. But when representatives of parties with recent links to terrorist organisations are heard bleating about field sports it calls to mind Wilde’s line from The Importance of Being Earnest: “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”

Let’s be clear: stag hunting is, to most minds, including mine, a bit dubious. The Ward Union’s practice appears unsporting even to many people who support field sports generally – far more so than fox hunting, for instance.

Yet in a free society we must all be allowed to make our own moral decisions. Is hunting any less morally justifiable than, say, keeping a hamster, we must ask ourselves?

Stags, deer, are also an accepted foodstuff. What kind of law is it that says it’s OK to kill them, but somehow not OK to chase them around a field?

SURELY hunting them for food, rather than just tormenting them, would raise stags from the level of factory-farmed chickens to quarry and accord them a respect that is never shown to so many other foods, let alone pests like rats or mice?

The move to a ban it is petty and censorious, therefore. People should be at liberty to choose their pastimes, however strange or distasteful they may appear. A ban is oppressive and unjust, a gross act of contempt towards a rooted and traditional way of life on which many people depend not only for their recreation but for the social web which sustains them.

But there is a wider point about those who pass for liberals in Ireland. They find it difficult to reconcile their personal moral commitment to progressive social values with being genuinely tolerant towards the behaviour of others.

For true liberals, opposition to bans need not be motivated by any love of hunting any more than a keen interest in terminating pregnancies – or being sodomised for that matter. Rather, it is a commitment to removing legal obstacles to the exercise of choice.

Tolerance – if not the actual practice – of all these things helps to cultivate the kind of climate in which people can make responsible choices. And it is only through having to make choices that people gain the maturity that is needed to claim for themselves a measure of freedom.

It seems the Jackie Healy-Raes of this world know more about liberalism than we – and, probably they – ever realised. He could teach John Gormley a thing or two.

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