Two disastrous policy decisions, both of them born of ignorance

The bank guarantee and the eighth amendment were born of ignorance and we are still rectifying the damage, argues Fergus Finlay

Two disastrous policy decisions, both of them born of ignorance

IN my lifetime, two public policy disasters have had far-reaching consequences. We’re still debating those consequences, still rectifying the damage. We’re still trying to understand what happened in both cases.

In economic and financial terms, the biggest was the universal bank guarantee. And it’s still a mystery. Why it was done, why it happened in the way it happened, why no proper government procedures were brought to bear, why so much secrecy? A decision was made by two men, then finance minister Brian Lenihan and then taoiseach Brian Cowen, with the rest of their government colleagues kept in the dark until the last minute.

Six years later, we’re still unravelling the mystery, while we live with the consequences. With all its limitations and shortcomings, the Oireachtas committee charged with figuring out what happened is slowly beginning to shed some light.

Or, at least, it’s enabling the rest of us to base our opinions of what happened on stronger ground.

Of course, that’s no comfort to the thousands of people who lost their jobs as a result of the bank collapse.

The guarantee made the banks’ collapse our collapse. Their debts, their greed, their gross mismanagement, and their self-delusion have wreaked havoc on us.

We may be turning a corner on the consequences of that enormous public policy mistake. A full economic recovery would be a miracle, and we have a long way to go before we can claim that. But we can claim, if we want to, that we have made remarkable strides, as a people, in a relatively short time, in dealing with the consequences of an enormous mistake by our policy-makers.

The other huge policy mistake, however, has gone on for decades. In fact, as I write this (on Monday, February 9), we could, if we wanted, celebrate its 32nd birthday. I doubt if too many of us want to.

February 9, 1983, was the day that Michael Noonan stood up in Dáil Éireann and moved the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill.

Its passage led to an ugly and divisive campaign, at the end of which we, the people, voted by two to one to enshrine a pro-life clause into our Constitution.

That is what we thought we were doing. As we now know, it was so badly designed and written that it has placed generations of women in jeopardy. And it hasn’t addressed the issue of abortion. We knew it wouldn’t, and, in our hearts, we didn’t mind that.

When the legislation was passed, 4,000 women were travelling to the UK each year for an abortion, for a wide variety of reasons. That was the official figure.

That’s still the official figure — and it has always been significantly understated.

But even if it were accurate, it means that, in the years since we inserted a pro-life clause into our Constitution, 150,000 women in crisis have taken the boat or plane to the UK.

We like it that way. That’s why, 10 years after we passed the pro-life amendment, we also put two other clauses into our Constitution. The first said that the right to life of unborn babies could never be used to limit travel between here and the UK. The second said that although we were opposed to abortion, we didn’t want anyone to be deprived of information about it.

We might have said at the time (and speaker after speaker in the original debate did say) that we wanted to close the abortion floodgates. In fact, we decided to keep the floodgates ajar.

What we decided then was that we didn’t want abortion in Ireland, but we didn’t mind where else it happened. In the Dáil debate that started on this day, 32 years ago, Padraig Flynn put it rather well.

“Why should we be ashamed?,” he said. “Why should anybody be ashamed that public opinion should reflect the religious views of the vast majority of the population? We must not soft-pedal on our principles for the sake of popularity in the short-term, or so-called sophistication, or, worse still, for harmony’s sake, in the hope that this will somehow enhance the universal view taken of us as a people.”

Padraig Flynn was a man who (in most circumstances, anyway) was never willing to soft-pedal on his principles. But others in the same debate had a more accurate view of the future. Barry Desmond, who was Minister for Health, put the views of the Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, on the record of the House, when he said, among other things: “Further, having regard to the equal rights of the unborn and the mother, a doctor faced with the dilemma of saving the life of the mother, knowing that to do so will terminate the life of ‘the unborn’, will be compelled by the wording to conclude that he can do nothing. Whatever his intention, he will have to show equal regard for both lives and his predominant intent will not be a factor.”

And Alan Shatter warned the Dáil in that debate that “if it, in its present form, becomes part of our Constitution, it will essentially secure a constitutional judgment in the not-too-distant future requiring the House to enact legislation to permit women to have abortions.” Of course, that’s what happened. And ever since we have lived with what Judge Niall McCarthy (in the X case) accurately called our inexcusable failure to legislate to reconcile the separate rights we identified in 1983. We’ve talked many times since about the chilling effect the Eighth Amendment has had on decisions to protect women, and we’ve had too many examples of tragedies in which the Eighth Amendment has played its part.

Another of the chilling effects has been on public debate — it’s impossible to even raise questions without being accused of favouring abortion.

I’m not pro-choice, and I never have been. But I’ve always believed that it’s impossible to make decisions like this for other people, and I’ve always believed that anyone who faces a crisis in their lives deserves support. I don’t believe there is any humane argument against termination in the case of rape, incest, or where the mother knows that there is no chance of her child living outside the womb. In all those cases, the mother’s choice should be the only thing that matters.

That’s why, if I were a member of the Dáil, and irrespective of what a party whip might say, I’d vote for Clare Daly’s bill to allow a mother to choose a termination in the case of a fatal-foetal abnormality. I don’t buy the argument that it’s necessarily unconstitutional — any reading of the amendment itself, not to mention judgements such as the X case, show that to be highly questionable.

But we’re a humane people, when all is said and done. Humane people don’t turn a blind eye to human tragedy.

It has placed generations of women in jeopardy. And it hasn’t addressed the issue of abortion

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