FERGUS FINLAY: This was also a passionate demand for removal of scourge of misogyny

Amelia Goonerage from Dublin joins Yes campaigners celebrationing their win in Dublin Castle. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

A couple of weeks ago I wrote here that the public policy system in Ireland has always been misogynistic, writes Fergus Finlay

There’s a long history to prove that — from symphysiotomy to the Magdalene laundries, from mother and baby homes to the initial treatment of women who were given Hepatitis C by infected blood.

The Ryan report documents the stories of thousands of children who were taken from their mothers and sent to institutions — often never to be seen by their mothers again. 

When, in later years, some of these children tried to trace their mothers, they found court records describing, sometimes in the judge’s scribbled handwriting, the reasons their mothers had lost them.

“Mother a whore,” one of them said. Another simply said: “Mother a lunatic.”

The women in question had been accused of having an affair in one case, and in the other had probably suffered from post-natal depression. That was enough reason for them to lose their children. 

Repeal supporters at Dublin's RDS wait for the start of the count in the referendum on the 8th Amendment. Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Repeal supporters at Dublin's RDS wait for the start of the count in the referendum on the 8th Amendment. Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There were remarks made by judges, don’t forget, in the course of deciding the fate of children — because every single child incarcerated in those institutions, usually for the entire duration of a battered and broken childhood, was sent there by a judge.

I was well into my twenties before a law was passed in Ireland that effectively ended the legal premise that a woman was a chattel in relation to her husband (his property).

Ireland introduced the entire idea of equal pay under protest, and has never reached that ideal in practice. 

Until the mid-1970s, women were routinely thrown out of work when they got married, and weren’t allowed to serve on juries. They had to fight through every court in the land to secure access to basic contraception.

And of course, it has always been women who have attracted the odium of men’s misdeeds: Joanne Hayes’ big mistake was that she fell in love with a married man; Annie Murphy was publicly excoriated because she fell in love with a Catholic bishop; Anne Lovett died beside a grotto trying to give birth in secret to a child she couldn’t admit to — her baby son died with her.

Joanna Hayes
Joanna Hayes

The Eighth Amendment was born in this atmosphere of misogyny. 

All my life I’ve been proud of the fact that a small band of TDs and senators, led by my former boss Dick Spring, saw its dangers from the beginning and opposed it throughout. 

Only 11 TDs voted against the Eighth Amendment in the Dáil, and a similar number in the Senate. 

Of all the people who voted no in the Oireachtas — and they were a tiny minority — only Brendan Howlin is still active in party politics. 

It was a small point of sadness for me to see the Labour Party, which led the opposition back then, and endured hatred and bigotry because of it, written a bit out of history this past weekend.

Brendan Howlin
Brendan Howlin

Nonetheless, the history made this weekend is real and profound. 

For the first time in the long and convoluted story of our country, a million-and-a-half people, led by women, voted no to misogyny, no to stigma, no to shaming, no to secrecy, no to control over their lives.

It was obvious from a long way out that the referendum was going to be carried. The tactics of the no side demonstrated that clearly. 

Their decision to try to switch from outright opposition to a sort of “if only” position, although transparently dishonest, was a clear indication they knew they were losing the argument. So, too, was the internal bickering over who would represent them in public.

For a variety of good and necessary reasons, I took no position in the run up to the referendum, although there were times I was sorely tempted. 

As the parent of a woman with Down syndrome for example, I reflected more than once that I have never, in 40 years of campaigning, lobbying, writing, and protesting, been offered the help of any of the leaders of the no campaign in fighting for the rights of people with an intellectual disability. Not one of them.

But in the end of the day, this was a victory for women. 

Long overdue, but the size of that victory became clearer and clearer when you saw thousands of young women in particular coming home to their country to vote for change. 

It was a victory for women who have campaigned for other women all their lives — often at the cost of being alone and vilified.

Catherine McGuinness, Ailbhe Smyth, Ivana Bacik — women like these have ploughed lonely furrows in support of women’s rights for as long as I can remember. I don’t know if they ever thought they would win, but I do know they never gave up. 

And they were joined in a new leadership by a new generation. The celebration was well deserved. But for many, there were tears too as they remembered other women for whom it all came too late.

Over the past few months alone, we have lived through the CervicalCheck scandal and the Belfast rape trial. 

Women, in their tens of thousands, may have been voting on a single issue last Friday.

I believe they were also saying, with a loud strong voice — all of this has to stop. All of it — from casual everyday sexism to the deeper ways in which women are still deprived of equality, of autonomy and of choices in their lives.

In the words of the posters, we have voted for compassion and for care. But I believe it was also a passionate demand for the ending of inequality, and for the removal of the scourge of misogyny from all our lives.

There’s still an inquiry going on — the Grace case inquiry — into the unspeakable abuse suffered by a number of women, when they were very young and in the care of the State. 

It has been in operation for a year now, and it looks like it will be at least another year before its work will be done. 

I am hearing disturbing reports that some of the families appearing before the commission — families that have lived with the abuse of their children for a long time — are finding the approach of the commission to be highly adversarial.

We still don’t know, and won’t know for some time, exactly what approach the Government intends to take to find out exactly why some of the decisions in relation to CervicalCheck were taken. 

There is a “scoping” exercise under way, and all the signs are that it will be followed by another long drawn out commission. Women who may not have the time are going to be asked to wait years for the full truth to come out.

Maybe that’s going to be the real test. This past weekend saw a powerful statement being made by women, and by the next generation. 

A government that listens to that will act now to start implementing major reforms in all the areas of inequality. And they will do it with a new sense of urgency. 

Women have won a great battle in the war for equality. But the war is not yet over.

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