issue 255 - May 1994
Mary R and me
Catholic Ireland has been infamous for its reactionary laws on abortion, divorce and homosexuality. But it is changing fast. Nell McCafferty argues that women from Northern Ireland would be liberated by union with the Republic.
There are those who would argue that she is steeped in luck whose birthright entitles her, as mine does, to dual citizenship of the Republic of Ireland and of the United Kingdom. I was born in Derry city, Northern Ireland, over which both countries claim jurisdiction. Margaret Thatcher said famously that I am as British as any of her erstwhile constituents, while the constitution of the Republic declares that I am to be as cherished as any other citizen on the island of Ireland.
Give or take a few drawbacks – such as an 800-year war and an absolute loss of self-determination – dual status has had many advantages, such as two countries in which to play. But luck, alas, has run out. The prime ministers of both states have announced that it is make-up-your-mind time: they are going to bring an end to the ol’ war and set up an ‘agreed Ireland’. I have to choose between the Republic and the Kingdom.
In the summer of 1993 that choice was embodied, in flesh and spirit, at the first-ever meeting between a President of Ireland and a British monarch. My own destiny was decided too the day Mary Robinson met Elizabeth Windsor.
The Queen, you see, is a relative of mine through marriage. Her niece Marina Ogilvy married a fellow from Derry whose grandmother is a cousin, albeit several times removed, of my late father. One bomb at an extended-family gathering of the Windsor branch of the dynasty means, theoretically, that the throne awaits yours truly. But it is not so in practice: I was reared in the Catholic tradition and would be expected to renounce all things papist to get there.
This poses an insurmountable problem. Though she long since abjured anything to do with Popery, Polish or otherwise, this writer is resolute in upholding freedom of religion. It is intolerable that Britain should forbid the throne to those of its citizens who are Catholic. I could not accept the highest position in the land under such a discriminatory dictate.
On the other hand the Presidency is open to all who live on the island of Ireland. The first President of the Republic was a Protestant, the third was a former member of the IRA, and the current holder of the office is a socialist with a primary commitment to feminism (she is also a practising Catholic who married a Protestant).
The population of the Republic is still an alarming 95-per-cent Catholic, it has to be acknowledged, but any lingering suspicions about its confessional nature were swept aside in 1972 when the people voted to remove from their written constitution that article which elevated the Roman Catholic religion to a ‘special position’ within the state. Unlike the British Houses of Parliament, there isn't a single (or married) cleric in either chamber of the Irish Dail.
Things aren’t so bad for women either. Unlike Northern Ireland, which returns an exclusively male clutch of MPs to Westminster, 12.5 per cent of deputies to the Irish Parliament are female. And the social legislation affecting women has been reformed much more comprehensively in the South than in the North. A woman can have fun in the Republic now – can even aspire to full humanity.
The North, by sorry contrast, is stuck in an abysmal rut. Since it first sought to preserve ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’ by unsuccessfully resisting the introduction of free health care and education for all, it has fought a rearguard action against any concept of a modern society. The abolition of its Stormont parliament in 1972 led to a paradoxical strengthening of the North’s fundamentalist outlook – untrammelled by local-government restraints, Catholic priest and Protestant minister entered into a fierce coalition against what was seen as a secular front in London.
Grounds for divorce in Northern Ireland – so narrow as to constitute a state of enforced matrimony – had to be forcibly widened in 1977 through the mechanism of direct rule from London; Westminster did not dare debate the matter. Abortion remains risibly restricted, so that Northern women must still travel to England for termination of pregnancy on any grounds other than the rare threat to the physical life of the mother. Some doctors do openly advocate what is restrictively called ‘family planning’, but the Brooke Clinic, which operates nationwide in Britain advising teenagers on contraception, has managed so far to open only one branch in Belfast – and is still picketed daily by people of both religions. Homosexual practice was legalized in the 1980s against the will of the British Government by appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
On the other hand Southern defences against liberal reform, which used to be a mirror-image of those in the North, have started to collapse like dominoes. While Northern energies were diverted by warfare, feminism has made constitutional hay while the sun shone in the peaceful Republic.
Even the Pope could not prevail against it, though he visited Ireland in 1979 to make a personal appeal to women to retain the values of children, kitchen sink and church. Hugely popular he was too, for the Irish are affectionately devoted to God, but the Pope couldn’t match what feminism offered through the Pill and equal pay – more sex and more money for women and ditto, in consequence, for any men in their lives.
There have been some hiccups along the glorious way to liberation in the Republic. Referenda in favour of abortion and divorce were defeated in the 1980s as people pondered whether killing babies and throwing men out of the house wholesale, as the Church predicted would happen, was entirely the right way to order civil society.
The essential difference between the Irish and British approach to these matters is that Ireland is bound by a written constitution to which parliament is subordinate, whereas Westminster can and does impose change against the will of the electorate. It was through the House of Commons that divorce, abortion and contraception were introduced to Scotland, England and Wales. In Ireland, where every single thing has to be debated, parsed, analyzed and passed by mass vote, reform has come more slowly and the population is all the better for it. Such progress as has been made has come about through the will of an informed and enthusiastic electorate which elected a feminist President as the symbolic signpost of the direction it wishes to take in the twenty-first century.
Divorce will be legalized in Ireland this year. Abortion, which is already legal, will be made available, though still severely restricted, in 1995 (here, as in the North, we must thank God for the clinics and anonymity of pagan England). Homosexual legislation is far in advance of that in Britain and the US (the age of consent is the same as that for heterosexuals, 17, with no exceptions made for the armed forces). Contraceptives are dished out like candy.
There is still a long way to go, of course, in Ireland as elsewhere in the world. But the cause will be helped when the war ends in the North, and social and political intercourse resumes between people from either side of the border – the cross-fertilization promises a bountiful harvest.
The advantages that will spring from the feminization of the North will be matched by the anarchic genius for self-help which has flourished in the virtual absence there of party political control. Northerners have developed a sturdy independence, financed by the buckets of money which Britain has flung at them in an effort to pacify the natives. Government has effectively been decentralized and society ordered along the lines of community groups, tenants’ associations and trades unions, through which locals regulate their affairs as they see fit. Through these they exercise a people-power which astonishes those visitors from the outside world who bravely enter the warzone.
In an ‘agreed Ireland’ this cocky confidence of Northerners would be a welcome antidote to the political clientilism which still characterizes the South. And the remnants of the British culture of free education and health care, to which the North has become used over half a century, would have to be extended into the South when, as the Republic has promised, its baseline economic standards are brought into line with the highest prevailing on the island.
This mutually beneficial exchange between North and South would marry well with the vision of Mary Robinson, the first non-party politician to attain high office on the island. The hallmark of her Presidency has been the return of power to the people: cross-border community activity has been lent the full prestige of her office, and her home has become the meeting place for groups who have never met before.
At worst, in the ‘agreed Ireland’, we’ll all be healthy, educated, feminized, communally active, ecumenical, peaceful and poor together; at best each will be a first-class citizen, equal to all Europeans, with all shoulders to the same wheel.
Given my choice between becoming elected President of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, or imposed Queen of the Prods alone, there is no contest. Anyway the daily flight to Heathrow which Royal duties would entail isn’t worth the hassle. And whether I would or no, there is the ultimate power of perfidious Albion – under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a person from Northern Ireland may be forbidden, without charge, conviction or any iota of proof whatsoever, from ever setting foot in Britain. Ultimately, like me, the people of Northern Ireland have no choice at all.
Nell McCafferty is one of Ireland’s best-known and most outspoken journalists. Her home in Dublin has yet to be included on the tourist circuit of royal residences.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7