THERE was a lot of frank stuff on my Twitter feed over the last seven days — most of it polite and decent, even if a lot of it was trenchant. But it taught me something really useful.
I wrote a column here last week in which I set out my support for the proposed National Maternity Hospital on the grounds of St Vincent’s, and the reasons for that support. That column got more than 60,000 impressions on social media. I haven’t counted in detail the fors and againsts I got, but I’d say it was 50/50. That’s an opinion poll of its own kind, and it proves (in my humble opinion) one thing. The people who care about this issue are divided right down the middle.
On one hand, there is a huge level of anxiety to see a modern hospital built now. As someone who has had both children and grandchildren born in Holles Street, I totally get that. The first time I was there was more than 40 years ago. I’ve written about it before. It was a dump that delivered a traumatic experience for my wife and for me.
The last time I was there was a couple of years ago, just before Covid, and it was still a dump. Better outcomes and much better care, but still a dump. Anyone who knows the place knows that women have deserved much better for years.
There is nobody really proposing, of course, that Holles Street should be kept. But the other side of the argument — the argument against the new location — can be summed up in one word: Distrust.
It’s a deep and passionate distrust. Distrust of bureaucracy because bureaucracy doesn’t care about women’s rights. Distrust of politics and politicians, because they have never had the gumption to stand for women and to stand against vested interests. And, above all, distrust of religion, because of all that religion has destroyed in Ireland.
So deep is all that distrust that anyone who supports the hospital now, on whatever basis, must be distrusted too.
I’ve been writing for this newspaper for more than 20 years. One of the very first pieces I ever wrote was about abortion. It was a long time ago, but already a lot had happened on that subject. We’d had cruelly divisive campaigns leading to the Eighth Amendment, we’d had the X case and everything that flowed from it, we’d even had further referenda (30 years ago) on the right to travel and the right to information.
We had our Irish solution — no abortion in Ireland, but we’d facilitate women who wanted or needed to secure an abortion abroad. In other words, we had resolved nothing.
I wrote that piece, not far short of a quarter-century ago, because once again a head of steam was beginning to develop — led by the so-called pro-life movement — for yet another referendum. And I wrote: “The right thing to do at this stage is to put the Supreme Court judgment in the X case into law, and to provide for legal terminations in Ireland in properly regulated circumstances.”
I finished that column back then by saying “if the so-called pro-life movement finally get their way this time, the country I love will be a sour place, incapable of attracting the allegiance of thousands of people like me”.
I got dog’s abuse for writing that column, and I’m guessing you know the source of that abuse.
In the years since I wrote that piece, I’ve written about Tuam and Bessborough. Mothers grievously abused and babies who had their identities stolen, as well as babies buried in the dead of night. I’ve written about Eileen Flynn, and Ann Lovett, and Joanne Hayes. I’ve written about how the State hounded a sexually abused and still remarkable woman called Louise O’Keeffe. I’ve written extensively about the Ryan report and the Murphy report into abuse in the Dublin diocese.
I’ve written many times about people I know and have worked with whose lives were shaped and destroyed by the abuse they suffered at the hands of religion or a sometimes ugly state or a frequently cack-handed or insensitive bureaucracy.
I’ve written about the behaviour of bishops like Eamonn Casey and Brendan Comiskey and hypocrites like Fr Michael Cleary. I’ve written about stolen babies and the pillars of society who traded in them.
I’ve written about the behaviour of religious orders with their phoney apologies written by PR companies, and their determination to contribute as little as possible to redress.
One piece that haunts me still was written after listening to a radio documentary by Conor Keane about four years ago. It told the true story of a girl called Peggy McCarthy, who died in agony in childbirth, and was denied a funeral by her own church. Because she wasn’t married. And it went on to tell the story of her daughter, Breda, who lived most of her life in a succession of Magdalene laundries. Because, and only because, she was born out of wedlock.
I’m telling you all this to emphasise a couple of things. My distrust of a powerful church is total, and sometimes boils over into hatred. I’ve seen too often how the relationship between politics and the church can be subservient to the point of being supine. I said last week, and I will say it again, there are no circumstances — none — under which I would support a maternity hospital that was run on the basis of a religious ethos.
And yet I totally support the proposal to move Holles Street to the St Vincent’s campus. That’s because, and only because, I believe we have put the protections in place to ensure its independence and its secular identity. There is no better proposition, or location, out there. That’s my honest conviction.
But I also know now that it’s a proposition in which trust needs to be built from the ground up. And that’s not there yet.
That’s why if I were the Government (and I’m not) I wouldn’t be rushing to finalise the decision this week. This is one of those moments where it’s much better to do it right than to do it fast.
THERE are some signs now that the Government is trying a different approach — going on the offensive. One junior minister is quoted in the papers, for instance, as accusing protestors of a “seismic act of irresponsibility”. That’s utterly wrong. They may not stand where I stand, but the people who are concerned about religious interference are honourable, and they have a long history that supports their point of view.
What the Government needs to do now is listen. And listen face to face. The Taoiseach and the minister for health should be inviting the leading opponents of change to a meeting, hearing their concerns in detail, and actively considering what further practical and implementable changes can be made.
Different forms of words are possible, further legal reassurance is possible. The truth is that everyone wants the same result here — an independent hospital that can be trusted by women everywhere, whatever decision they face. Trust is the key, and it remains the Government’s job to build it.