Pro-life advocate is driven by deep Faith and personal experience, writes Martin O’Brien
When Pope Francis came to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families, Tracy Harkin, the articulate and indefatigable spokesperson for Iona Institute NI was a key figure in the EWTN Ireland team covering the event for a global Catholic television audience of numerous millions in every continent.
Since her appointment as inaugural spokesperson for the Iona Institute in Northern Ireland on its establishment in March 2017, Mrs Harkin, (née Brennan) a 45-year-old mother of eight who hails from near Newcastle in Co. Down, has established herself as a gifted advocate in the Northern media for both the Christian understanding of marriage and the pro-life cause.
During the referendum campaign Mrs Harkin was a regular correspondent for EWTN’s News Nightly programme and in broadcasts since has explained how “the battle for life”, as she has put it, has moved to the North given the impetus the referendum result has given those advocating abortion rights there.
A graduate in sociology and social policy, married to Tom whom she met when they were students together at Queen’s University, Belfast, she was gutted by the decisive vote to remove all constitutional protection for the unborn baby.
The result was all the harder for her to bear as her fifth child, the 11-year-old Kathleen Rose, was diagnosed shortly after birth with Trisomy 13, also known as Patau syndrome, a rare condition that causes mental and physical disability. The Harkins were told Kathleen Rose would not survive for more than a year, and so returned to Ireland from Seattle, where Tom worked as an engineer with Boeing, so their daughter could die at home.
Mrs Harkin recalls her doctors assuming she and her husband would not wish to have any more children, but thinking “you are wrong”.
She says “great healing” has come from God’s gift of three further children and as a strong advocate of natural family planning, believes the communication it brings between spouses promotes growth in the relationship.
“Kathleen Rose has utterly turned our lives around,” she adds. “Although she is in fragile health, and we take each day as it comes, she is a very happy child, a pure soul in our home, a little saint incapable of any sin, who is very affectionate, loves cuddling while being unable to communicate verbally.”
She’s written of how Kathleen Rose has taught her much about what’s truly important, but that it saddens her to think of how for some legislators and campaigners, children like Kathleen Rose have less of a right to life than children without a disability.
“It is heart-breaking that a country like Ireland, knowing full well the awful consequences that abortion has had in other countries, voted for the removal of constitutional protection from the unborn,” she says.
“The scenes of jubilation at Dublin Castle following the vote and in particular the images of [Sinn Féin leaders] Mary Lou McDonald and [Michelle] O’Neill holding ‘the North is next’ placard will, I believe, remain etched in the minds of most ordinary Irish people as a most shameful moment in Irish history”.
She is also critical of the SDLP and its leader, Colm Eastwood, in relation to both abortion and same-sex marriage, observing that the SDLP may claim to be “pro-life” following a special party conference in May that decided to give public representatives a free vote on all abortion-related issues, this is a hollow claim given Eastwood’s support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
“The SDLP can’t say they are pro-life with Colum Eastwood coming out for a ‘Yes’ vote because what will result from that vote is, by any stretch of the imagination, a very liberal abortion regime. Mr Eastwood cannot pretend the resulting legislation will just cover the ‘hard cases’.”
She adds that the SDLP came out in support of same-sex marriage without a proper debate within the party and says that nowadays “nationalists who are very pro-life and very pro-marriage have no nationalist party to vote for”.
She accepts that the referendum result “gives added momentum to the already loud and increasingly extreme pro- choice lobby in Northern Ireland”.
“My hope is that democracy will be respected, that Stormont gets up and running again and that locally-elected politicians here will continue to resist attempts to liberalise our laws.”
Her Faith, meanwhile, has long driven her.
She was around 15 years old, in the late 1980s, when she joined a teenage prayer group at Tobar Mhuire, the Crossgar Passionist centre and “got a beautiful shock, I hadn’t experienced before, a sense of God, while reading the Scriptures before a Taizé Cross”.
There followed “a pivotal moment” when she was taken on pilgrimage to the grotto at Ballinspittle, Co. Cork, of “moving statue” fame.
“It sounds so ridiculous, I saw the statue move, and that beautiful feeling of overwhelming peace. I remember feeling no fear, an overwhelming beautiful feeling that God was there.”
She dismisses any suggestion it was a figment of her imagination and says others with her also had “phenomenal experiences”.
More significant for her family were several subsequent pilgrimages to the grotto at Mount Melleray, in Co. Waterford, where Our Lady is said to have appeared over nine days in August 1985, and where her own mother “had a profound experience” which led to “a wider conversion experience within our family circle”.
“What was really important was not what people were seeing but what they were feeling in their heart, and that was an overwhelming feeling of God’s love and His mercy, an overwhelming outpouring of grace,” she says.
In her own life she has been inspired by Matthew Kelly, the Australian author, speaker and founder of Dynamic Catholic, who stayed at her family home on an Irish tour while they were both about 20.
“I was struck by his giftedness as a speaker and his courage and humility in sharing his testimony of conversion at such a young age. We stayed in contact for a while and then lost touch,” she says.
For many years Tracy, as an ordinary Catholic, felt too few lay Catholics were publicly explaining the Faith, and so applied for Catholic Voices training in 2015.
Bearing in mind her ongoing experience of Kathleen Rose, she felt particularly motivated to speak up for unborn babies with so-called fatal foetal abnormalities, and contacted the pro-life group, Every Life Counts, cutting her media teeth through appearances on Morning Ireland and Prime Time.
An admirer of David Quinn’s Iona Institute work, she asked if there was an Iona branch in the North and ended up being invited to help set it up and become its first spokesperson.
“At Iona NI we will continue to engage pro-actively in media and other forums, undertaking and sharing research and advocating for laws that uphold marriage and the wellbeing, health and dignity of both mother and baby even in the most difficult of circumstances,” she says.
Tracy Harkin, a woman whose sense of inner peace is palpable, and who never takes herself too seriously, relishes her work, and is clearly sustained in it by her Faith.
“God is very close, He is a real living person I can chat away with,” she says.