In January 1983 I returned to Dublin after six wondrous years in Brussels as Irish Times European Correspondent and was appointed News Focus and Opinion Editor, a position which thrust me into a managerial role in this newspaper’s coverage of the most bitter and divisive ideological event in Irish history.
Although not unaware of how in 1979 during his historic visit Pope John Paul II pleaded with the people of Ireland to defend traditional Catholic values against secular permissiveness, I was more familiar with the CAP – the common agricultural policy – than with PLAC, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, which was launched on April 27th1981 in Buswells Hotel, just a stone’s throw from Leinster House. This campaign had secured political support from Fianna Fail’s Charles J. Haughey and Fine Gael’s more liberal Garret FitzGerald over three general elections held in 1981-2. Indeed, in a much publicised radio interview FitzGerald launched “a Republican crusade” to remove sectarian features from the Constitution and laws of the land.
In the first quarter of 1983 I readjusted to the climate of tribal religious polemics with which I had become familiar as Religious Affairs Correspondent from 1972-1976.
A decisive moment came on April 28th, 1983 when after intensive lobbying of politicians by PLAC the Dail voted in favour of a Fianna Fail alternative wording to the Fitzgerald’s Government proposal in spite of a warning from Attorney General Peter Sutherland that its adoption would present dangers to the lives of women. In Fine Gael only Alan Shatter and Monica Barnes voted against the Fianna Fail wording. In the Seanad there was eloquent opposition from Mary Robinson, Michael D. Higgins, Catherine McGuiness, Brendan Ryan, John Robb, Shane Ross and Katherine Bulbulia.
This vote thrust the issue into the public domain when September 7th was announced as the date for holding a constitutional referendum. With the approval of editor Douglas Gageby, we devised a three-fold strategy to open the daily opinion column to all sides of the debate; secondly, to assign Peadar Kirby to travel around the country to report on grass-roots opinion and, thirdly, for Seamus Martin to monitor each day’s radio and television head-to-heads.
This approach, of course, was in addition to comprehensive daily news coverage under the direction of News Editor, Conor O’Cleary, who confided to me his frustration with Religious Affairs Correspondent, the late Pat Nolan, who was distinctly “a Bishops’ man”. However, my administrative duties, which included running the paper’s “Keep up with the Changing Times” advertising campaign on radio and television, prevented me from taking up Conor’s invitation to contribute critical daily comment on the unfolding “moral civil war”.
Today in the final phase of a no less divisive campaign than in 1983 – and after successive battles to legalise condoms, the decriminalisation of homosexual activity between consenting adults, the removal of the constitutional prohibition of divorce and, in 2015, the recognition of same sex marriage - three exceptions to my enforced neutrality come back to mind.
During my Brussels days I had become friendly with the Rev Ian Paisley, after he was elected a member of the European Parliament in 1979. This paid a special dividend when he agreed to an interview in which he sided with the views of the mainstream Protestant church leaders that abortion was not a matter to be dealt with in the Constitution but was rather an area of responsibility for legislation or prohibition by elected representatives in the Dail.
Second, as pulpits in Catholic Churches throughout the land thundered the simplistic but misleading message that to vote against the amendment would be a vote for abortion, I highlighted publication by the Dominican review, Doctrine and Life, of a book of essays, Abortion and the Law, exploring the complexity of the legal and moral issues. In these essays concerned liberal Catholics urged Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich and Archbishop Dermot Ryan of Dublin to issue a statement recognising the right in conscience of Catholics to vote against the amendment.
My third contribution came on August 22nd when a balanced statement was published by the Episcopal Conference at its meeting in Maynooth, which, while supporting the amendment, nonetheless recognised the right of Catholics to vote against it.
However, this united front was thrown into confusion when Archbishop Ryan and Bishop of Kerry, Kevin McNamara, issued unilateral statements insisting that Catholics must vote for the amendment. In an opinion piece I criticised Ryan and McNamara for acting like authoritarian pre-Vatican Two prelates who did not accept pluralism and religious freedom.
Thirty-five years on, numerous episcopal statements in favour of retaining the Fourteenth Amendment show a conservative majority which reflects the confessionalism of Ryan and McNamara and shows starkly that they have not learned humility from the horrendous revelations of clerical child abuse scandals.
Unlike 1983, in 2018 PLAC does not have a leader with the seductivee charm of the late Senator Des Hanafin. Young people have abandoned church attendance in droves, and the alliance of Bishops and Fianna which was exploited ruthlessly by Haughey has been broke by the party’s present leader, Micheal Martin.
I shall vote for repeal of a clause that should never have been put into the Constitution. However, sharing the reservations of many that the proposed legalisation of abortion up to three months smacks too much of abortion on demand, I consider that is a matter for another parliamentary day.