TERRY PRONE: Repeal movement is bringing out the best in our politicians

Leo Varadkar’s reaction to the Kerry Babies case and his apology to Joanne Hayes hit the right note as the leader of our country, writes Terry Prone.

The Taoiseach says that until the last week or so, he didn’t know the significance of the Kerry Babies’ tragedy. It was all over long before he was old enough to be paying attention. Going to prove that you can’t win in politics, one commentator immediately suggested that even if he was a very small kid at the time, his ignorance of the issue proved he had made inadequate study of history.

Seriously? Nonsense. The notion that any 39-year-old Irishman or woman — even if they’ve entered politics — should devote themselves to learning and understanding every scandal in the extensive array of such scandals to be found in Ireland’s social history is daft.

I’m not saying you had to be there in order to fully comprehend it. Being there didn’t help. Some of us who lived through the disgraceful episode didn’t understand it at the time or afterwards.

Middle-class Dublin, at the time, rolled its eyes in bafflement, seeing it not as an outcome of the culture of the time, but rather as a once-off throwback typical of rural Ireland. It wasn’t until last year, when I made some clearly ignorant comment about it to a friend, that I began to be educated about it.

The friend silently posted me a tea-coloured old paperback by Nell McCafferty, which I read out of a sense of duty to the friend, and by which I was transfixed.

In this paper, Alison O’Connor praised and quoted extensively from the book, which was an astonishing, sweeping indictment, not just of the gardaí, who have had the grace to corporately (although not individually) apologise for what they did, but of the members of the legal profession involved.

Nell’s publishers should bring out the book again pronto, because it demonstrates two threats to democracy and fairness as no other book in the last century has. The first threat is trial-by-thesis, which is not specific to any particularly benighted time in Irish history, but is a constant. This is where a powerful force — often media — develops a thesis at the outset of its addressing of a scandal, thereafter selecting carefully to ensure the thesis is not challenged.

The second threat relates to women and only to women. When a woman steps outside the approved modes of living, then all bets are off. That’s what happened to Joanne Hayes. The fact that she already had borne a child out of wedlock permitted the majority of those who looked into the case of the two (as it turned out, unrelated) dead babies to treat her like muck; to step way beyond any concept of natural justice or innocent-until-proven-guilty and, in the name of justice, to publicly humiliate and torture her.

It’s important to state that there were exceptions. The wife of the man with whom Joanne had the affair has died, but she should be remembered for her generous, understanding and dignified comment about Joanne being treated unfairly.

Women whose husbands are unfaithful rarely have a kind word to say about the object of their straying affections, and a woman whose life was turned inside out forever by her husband’s infidelities could be forgiven for vocal or silent contempt for the third party. Mrs Locke was wholly admirable in her brief comment.

Other exceptions? Women throughout the country got on trains to Kerry to carry posters expressing outrage or sent flowers to the woman at the centre of the controversy. Nobody knows how they affected Joanne, but neither action changed the relentless self-righteous craziness of the entire procedure.

An eerie parallel was on show this weekend, when thousands of women marched in the US against Trump and male privilege. It remains to be seen if the passionate self-expression on display will change anything. What we do know, though, is that the presence and protest of women on Joanne’s side didn’t even slow the Sherman tank that rolled over her and her family.

It is important that it happened, though, just as it is important that Leo Varadkar, brought face to face with history, reacted as a leader should react. He went to the heart of it: The victim. And indicated that whatever could be done to rectify any part of the damage done to her would be done. He was modestly truthful in testifying to his legitimate ignorance but promised compensation. Which, in turn, aggravated procedural puritans at the Cabinet table, who anonymously sniffed about not being asked, before he made the promise. Not that the anonymous lads would, even for a moment, have disagreed on the compensation front, you understand. Just it would have been more proper for Leo to have asked. Right, lads. Perfectly, procedurally right, you are. Polish your fingernails on your lapel in self-congratulation. And then get over yourself.

Varadkar, despite his much-publicised affinity with media, has nonetheless indicated his determination to shut up about his own opinions about the necessary details of repealing the Eighth Amendment until he has reflected and come to a final stance. Back off, media. No statement. No interviews. I need time and you know what? That’s more important to me, as Taoiseach, than delivering a headline, this time around. Yet, at the same time, he reacted speedily to the Kerry Babies issue. Two difficult matters bringing out the best in the man and indicating he has a lot more to offer than the speedy straight talking often assumed to be his greatest strength.

That’s one of the unexpected and welcome outcomes of the Repeal movement. It has brought out the best in people, at a time when the worst was confidently predicted, starting with Health Minister Simon Harris’s speech at the outset of the Oireachtas debate on the subject. Harris knows that voters cherish consistency. They like politicians who start off believing something and stay believing it. Particularly if the something is about what constitutes a human being and what constitutes a human right. Yet Harris stood up and made it clear that while he had started in one position — pro-life — evidence had persuaded him to change his position.

Admittedly, abortion is one of those topics that has changed, in public perception immeasurably over the last half century, and with that change has come a lessening, although not a destruction, of the threat to political careers implicit in a shift towards choice.

A kind of echo of the old threats emerged a day after Micheál Martin, too, showed thoughtfulness and courage in outlining his changed position. For Martin, the courage required was enormous. He’s nearly twice Harris’s age. He is the leader of the one political party where research had already established the majority of parliamentarians were pro-life.

His calm, resolute statement presents his own party and the nation with a crucial question: Is it possible to profoundly disagree with a man on an important matter, yet continue to respect and value him as one did before the disagreement? If Fianna Fáil or the nation come up with the wrong answer to that question, the damage to both will be incalculable.


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