In the western world generally and in Ireland, it has become increasingly difficult for party politicians or office-holders to act on the basis that their religious principles take precedence over party loyalty. This does not just apply to Catholic legislators. The DUP are finding the same thing, as they come under increased scrutiny, now that they are pivotal to the Theresa May minority administration. Tim Farron resigned as British Liberal leader, because his evangelical beliefs were not compatible with his role.
The EPP Group, to which Fine Gael belongs, is the largest in the European Parliament. While professing a Christian Democrat orientation, it is not bound to one Church, and the religious element is quite fluid and not overly-prescriptive. As the decision in Germany recently to open marriage to same-sex couples shows, political pragmatism before an election overruled personal convictions, even if Chancellor Angela Merkel voted against, like then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave did on his government’s contraceptive bill (which was defeated) back in 1974.
The late Senator Des Hanafin could legitimately be described as a Catholic politician in the sense that his fidelity to the Faith took precedence over the party whip, though he used his influence to minimise such conflict. His value to the pro-life movement and the anti-divorce campaign as a leader or mentor came not just from his political experience and contacts, but also the verbal moderation that he preferred, and the fact that he never claimed to be a saint.
Wisely, he steered away from conflict over the EU, not wanting to pit moral imperatives against material interests, preferring to focus on obtaining strong safeguards of Ireland’s position, like the Maastricht Protocol. Although once associated with opponents of Charles Haughey, he later worked productively with him, untempted by the social liberalism of the PDs.
Partly thanks to him, even the second divorce referendum in 1995 passed only by a wafer-thin majority, and did not provide divorce on demand. Partly as a result, divorce levels here are lower than elsewhere. Politicians who want to remove the brake of a lengthy waiting period will have to go back to the people.
Relations between Church and State since independence have gone through three phases. Initially, the Catholic Church held wide sway over matters deemed to impinge on faith and morals. The second period from the 1970s was one of gradual change, then growing challenge. The third period since the 1990s has on the whole been one of retreat. Until now, the Church has tried to avoid direct clashes with the State that have occurred on the Continent in the past 30-40 years.
Potential confrontation looms over the Eighth Amendment. When it was adopted in 1983, it was regarded as the ne plus ultra, beyond which the liberal advance would not proceed.
A ban on abortion was not in the 1937 Constitution, as the possibility of it becoming legal was unimaginable. Developments in Britain and America in the 1960s and 1970s changed the perspective. The 1967 legislation in Britain, introduced by Liberal MP David Steel with Labour government support, in theory contained significant restrictions, but in practice became abortion on request, since availed of by many women travelling from Ireland. A United States Supreme Court decision in 1973 opened the way to a similar situation there.
When the pro-life movement sought and were given a pledge by the two main party leaders to introduce an amendment here in 1981, effectively banning the introduction of abortion, they were concerned both about a future Oireachtas, and the possibility of a decision by the Supreme Court, similar to their judgment in the McGee case in 1973 which allowed married couples a right to imported artificial contraception.
What looked consensual turned out not to be so. Garret FitzGerald, when he became Taoiseach, embarked on a liberalising constitutional crusade, in which context the promised Pro-Life Amendment became something of an embarrassment. Enough government backbenchers together with the opposition held him to the pledge, and the 1983 amendment was passed by a two-thirds majority. The wording was actually formulated by the 1982 Fianna Fáil minority government, after consultation with the Churches, the upshot of which was a positively-worded article protecting the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn.
One misunderstanding of the period was the notion that northern Protestant opinion was mainly on the liberal side of the argument, but the unionist position on the matter today shows otherwise.
There were skirmishes in the late 1980s over the provision to students of abortion information, but the issue came to a head with the ‘X’ case in 1992, where a suicidal teenage girl sought and was initially prevented from travelling to England for an abortion.
The Supreme Court relieved intense political pressure by subsuming a suicidal tendency under the right to life of the mother.
The right to travel and information was established by referendum, but two attempts to repeal suicidal tendencies as grounds for a termination here were defeated by opposition coming from both ends, and in 2013 legislation was eventually enacted providing for it, with no one claiming it operates very satisfactorily. The need to travel is what is now being challenged.
Conflicts of conscience have been relieved somewhat by a move towards free votes in the Oireachtas, but the Government still has to decide and stand over what legislation will follow repeal or revision of the Eighth Amendment. Is this an issue on which there is any tenable middle way?
In the event of repeal, do the people have no further direct say, and will it then be left entirely to the Oireachtas, the courts and of course the medical profession? My own abiding conviction is that the Irish people have a right to decide what society they want – that is what independence is for – without being browbeaten internationally or unconsciously swayed by a heavy imbalance in foreign funding.
A decisive battle between two very different visions of Irish society is not far off.