GERARD HOWLIN: Morals didn’t change last week, but power certainly did

The assent of the people to the social contract between Church and State is now withdrawn.

It is a coincidence that yesterday the Dáil resumed debate on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016. A so-called baptism ban will be limited in future, if it passes.

In fact, it only tinkers with control of an education system that has long lost its former reality. Schools are only the start. Then there are hospitals and swathes of social services.

The ultimate consequence of what happened last Friday will only slowly dawn. I don’t think morals changed much last week, but what changed permanently is power.

On morals, we have always been ruthlessly efficient in the disposal of unwanted pregnancy. Hence our world-class infrastructure of mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, and industrial schools.

It is worth reminding ourselves at the close of that era that there was nothing covert about it. There were private places for public morality. The surrounding population endorsed them, and used them as required.

They pointed to them as places where sin was swept, so that all outside could live beyond reproach. It’s strange that, amid all the recent truth-telling, so little truth is told about the degree of affinity for and support of the system of public morality which is now constitutionally disavowed.

It is hard to know what is more suffocating: Hypocrisy then or hypocrisy now.

Last Friday’s overwhelming vote was a continuum of a particularly Irish determination to do what is needed, when required, and which characterised our country in the 20th century.

What has changed fundamentally, however, is power and agency. Power is shifting decisively from the community to the individual — and, among individuals, towards women.

Long-emerging patterns, still in flux, are now irreversible. There is a new establishment.

Education, industrialisation, post-industrialisation, the IT revolution, contraception, and mass travel, to name but some, are currents driving change. Everything, to one degree or another, is a movement from an ‘us’ to a ‘me’.

Looking at campaigns for equal marriage or repeal of the Eighth Amendment as community-based misses the point. They were just that to an extent. They are examples of new campaigns with a specific goal, but far less by way of a broader plan.

The Eighth Amendment was the prototype. The explicit proposition is powerful, but strictly limited. We will shortly see those limits close up, when dealing with inevitable consequences.

Friday’s vote enhanced the burgeoning trend for individualisation over community values.

A demand for bodily autonomy going back to the McGee case in 1972 and continuing through the Norris case in the 1980s was what provoked the overreach of the Eighth Amendment in the first place.

If the body became a private space, ultimately there could be no public morality. The two concepts were simply incompatible.

Communal morality may be over, but, in its absence, in schools and hospitals is a consumerism which ultimately will benefit the better-off most.

There was a special irony around the championing of obstetricians and gynaecologists during the recent campaign. Some among them may have disagreed sharply about abortion, but there is little disagreement within the profession on the desirability of private practice and the profits flowing from it.

Dislodging one vested interest, the religious, without carefully thinking through the consequences about a replacement, will leave ‘us’, in so far as there is an ‘us’, even more disadvantaged.Facing the collapse now of the social contract between Church and State, we have to face the fact that our public institutions are largely for private hire.

On the other hand, if you have private health insurance and are relatively better off, there isn’t much to concern you so long as the sun keeps shining. This is the limit of Friday’s vote and its much broader but inevitable consequences.

Solidarity will not cross a class divide to bring about equal access on the basis of medical need to a unitary health service. Once the crowd dispersed, they separated into different queues for public and private health care.

Most went back on the school-run to parish schools run nominally by religious groups. A minority were back with their progeny outside the gates of Educate Together schools or Gaelscoileanna.

The latter two are as much about upwards mobility, and segregation from the native rough or the migrants in the town as any other value. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Remarkably, an institution called the ‘National’ Maternity Hospital in Dublin’s Holles St will migrate to a site on the St Vincent’s campus.

A new hospital will be built, costing over €300m. That money is paid for by all taxpayers, regardless of class or gender. But some will access it better than others. That’s the leverage of private health insurance in a nominally public system.

Prominent professionals will profit from their private practice in plain sight. That is the hiring out of our public institutions for private gain.

I understand that work will begin this year. I am sure it will be splendid when complete. It will certainly be a monument to the accelerating individualism that characterises the provision of health and education in our country.

I have no regrets about the authoritarian corporatism which was fatally wounded last Friday.

But to look at what is coming is to see a monster of a different stripe. The public interest will be fleeced again. It is just that different shears will be used by different hands. In keeping with Irish custom, it will be done in plain sight.

Controlling sexuality generally, and fertility specifically, was about power and vested interest. It was power of men over women. It was the interest of property among a socially insecure new landowning class.

It was about class especially. Organised religion was more a means of stratification in this life than attainment of life ever after. Those incarcerated were poorer; women suffered most cruelly.

Power has shifted radically. Curiously, class, or the pretence of it which we Irish are so good at, prevails but under different criteria.

What hospital we might go to. What part of the hospital we might be accommodated in. What school our little ones might attend. These are our real phobias and touchstones.

We have long pretended we inherited a system foisted on us. That was a lie. Abortion is simply a continuation of an end we achieved by other means in a different era.

The human cost was distributed differently. Now there is a radical transfer of power and agency to women, but otherwise, little has changed. What changed fundamentally is we have taken from the Church responsibility for our health and education systems.

If the new National Maternity Hospital is an exemplar, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

They are examples of new campaigns with a specific goal, but far less by way of a broader plan.

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