A stronger society - Recognise and tolerate difference

On Saturday, 35,000 people marched through Dublin City centre as part of an anti-abortion protest.

The organisers dispute this official, Garda-audited figure and suggest a total closer to 60,000 would be more accurate. It seems that this debate remains so very animated, so very embittered, that even a head count is an occasion for profound disagreement.

Later this week, on Wednesday, Ireland’s decades-long abortion civil war will reach another milestone when the Dáil votes on a bill made inevitable by a court ruling 21 years ago. Unless changes are made to the proposed legislation, Fine Gael will lose a number of deputies, including minister Lucinda Creighton.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, realising that political stability is absolutely essential for economic recovery and everything that might eventually flow from that, has been steely and unambiguous. He has insisted that all Fine Gael deputies follow the party line or face career-ending sanctions. Even though his authority to impose such penalties is being questioned, it very unlikely that the Fine Gael parliamentary party will survive this week unscathed.

Mr Kenny’s steadfastness may cost him dear, but it is a principled, honest, and admirable recognition of the reality of our world, where abortion is a daily presence, even if we outsource its provision. His position is in stark contrast to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, whose inability to impose a whip facilitated the party’s usual flexibility on matters of principle and rewarded them with an enhanced position in weekend polls.

About 2,500 miles away, this great debate of our times — religious belief or secularism and how one must accommodate the other — plays out in a far more violent way. Dozens, if not scores, of people have died in Egypt since the democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi was removed by the country’s military last week. It has been claimed that Morsi was usurped because his party — the Muslim Brotherhood — misused their new-found power to advance a narrow religious agenda but failed to resolve basic economic and social issues. Of course the reality is far less black-or-white, but moves towards recognising Sharia law in that country’s constitution gave Morsi’s opponents all the leverage they needed, especially with Egypt’s more liberal, less intolerant population.

The same debate, though with far deeper material and tribal influences, is playing out in neighbouring Syria, where one source puts the death toll in that country’s appalling civil war at just over 100,000.

In too many parts of the post-colonial, post-theocratic world, great social forces are at lethal loggerheads. In other parts of the world, where social and political stability have endured long enough to grow deep roots, thereby inspiring confidence and tolerance, people are free to hold conflicting religious beliefs or secular opinions in a security cherished by all in society.

As we enter what will probably be a difficult week, when this society’s almost intractable fault lines will be laid bare once again, maybe we should look to societies where difference is facilitated, rather than used as a wedge to weaken and deny, to bully and humiliate.

History suggests that nearly all societies eventually reach that point or slip into a kind of stultifying darkness. Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose the better option and the courage to recognise and tolerate views other than our own.

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