The Elephant At the Polling Station

There’s no question about it. There’s an elephant in the room and there is a massive conspiracy of silence to say nothing about it among in the mainstream Irish media covering the general election set to take place there on February 25. But hell hath no fury like an animal such as this when roused to anger by being ignored. Some are just now beginning to prod this one into action.

Admittedly Ireland’s continuing struggles to escape the clutches of the biggest recession, probably in its history, preoccupies both the electorate and the politicians in this campaign. But other issues are also at stake and these are the one the politicians are furtively seeking to avoid. Proposals to legislate for abortion, for gay marriage and limiting choice of schools to parents are all there in the small print. Like small print everywhere the hope of the printer is that it might not be read. On these issues it is Ireland’s own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The first mainstream flagging of the abortion issue came last week in David Quinn’s weekly column in Ireland’s biggest broadsheet, the Irish Independent. . He spelt out the reality confronting the Irish electorate on these issues and effectively asked them to wake up to it.

These questions have become important because the final composition of the Irish parliament will most likely leave the two centre right parties (Fianna Fail and Fine Gael) without overall majorities. They will then have to look for government partners among the left-liberal groupings, Labour and the Greens. The polls currently suggest that the new Irish government will be formed from a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour. It is the familiar story of the tail getting to the position where it can wag the dog on social policy while the centre right gets on with the economic business. That is what happened in the outgoing parliament where the liberal Greens got their pound of flesh in the form of civil partnership legislation for homosexuals. For all those who campaigned on this issue, this was only a half-way house. The same groupings are now going all out for full gay-marriage legislation. That is no surprise, nor would it be seen as much of a threat by those opposed to these changes if these groupings were not in danger of getting an influence in the new parliament far beyond what their actual electoral support would warrant.

Quinn put his finger on the heart of the problem in his column when he pointed to the failure of the electorate to waken up to this danger. As he sees it – from his reading of the traditional sector of the electorate “a lot of them haven’t the first clue about Labour’s position on abortion. Amazing, but true. They don’t know, for example, that Labour wants to legislate for (a court) ruling of 1992. That ruling allows for abortion, and furthermore, it permits abortion simply on the say-so of a medical practitioner – it doesn’t have to be a doctor or psychiatrist – who is willing to say that his or her patient is suicidal.

In addition, Eamon Gilmore (Labour Party leader) favours abortion where the ‘health’ of the mother is in danger. In practice, this would replicate in Ireland the British abortion law. In Britain, abortion is permitted where a woman’s life or health is at risk. Health includes mental health. In practice, this translates into abortion-on-demand.

Gilmore favours this policy despite the fact that Ireland is the safest place in the world for a woman to have a baby, according to World Health Organisation figures.

And from a Catholic and Christian point of view, it is not only Labour’s stance on abortion that is problematic. It favours same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption. Its attitude towards denominational schools is also a problem.”

Quinn then deals with what he sees as the failure of the sector of the electorate for which traditional values on these issues are important.  He sees two categories of error being made by some of those who might be thinking of voting for Labour. The first category of are those who just don’t know the party’s position on abortion; the second category  somehow manages to rationalise away the Labour position, to say that it doesn’t matter, or that there are more important issues to be considered. Some, he finds, seem to think Labour doesn’t really mean it. “Sorry, it does. If it gets a chance – and that will be up to Fine Gael – we will have abortion in this country.”


The response to Quinn’s column seemed to bear out his point – so far. There were just three letters in the paper the following day and the politicians in the two main parties themselves studiously avoided the issue. I say “so far” because there are some signs that the Labour Party is now coming out more clearly on these issues. If it does so it may force the electorate – or the sizeable sector of it which, if awake, would be concerned about these matters to ask the main parties’ prospective members of parliament where they stand. They might then ask them fair and square whether, if in power with Labour, will they give their backing to health social legislation which denies the unborn their rights, denies society the marriages it needs to maintain the family as a meaningful institution, and denies parents the right to a choice of school without penalizing them financially.

The day after Quinn’s column appeared the paper’s deputy political editor, Michael Brennan, reported that the “Labour Party is making a pitch for the ‘gay vote’ by calling for a same-sex marriage referendum – but it risks alienating more conservative voters. Leader Eamon Gilmore yesterday said the party wanted to push ahead with a referendum to allow gay people the same right to marry as straight people.”  And on abortion he said “Labour is still maintaining its policy on another divisive social issue – it wants to introduce legislation which would copper-fasten the right of women to access life-saving abortions.”

However, Brennan warned, Labour’s social policies could cause divisions with its likely coalition partner Fine Gael, which is opposed to holding an abortion referendum and has not publicly backed same-sex marriages.

Fine Gael’s leader, and the man most likely to be Ireland’s next prime minister, is still less than forthright on exactly what terms he will enter coalition with Labour if he fails to gain an overall majority for this own party. Campaigning in Galway last week one journalist observed him as follows: “Enda has a word for everyone and looks like he’ll stand talking to anyone for as long as his aides will tolerate it. He engages in extended impromptu discussions about abortion, Shell to Sea (a local controversy in the West), the pubic service, and each time sets out his position in full.” Really?

The electorate knows he is “personally” opposed to abortion and considers marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. But but they have also heard him acknowledge that “there are other points of view”. What those seemingly tolerant words will mean if and when he come to form a government with those of that other point of view is what the traditional electors of Ireland do not yet know. The elephant is still in the room.

4 thoughts on “The Elephant At the Polling Station

  1. Maureen Crawley

    Brilliantly written. Have forwarded it to as many as I could. We’ll have to hope and pray and be ready to look for the truth when they come looking for our precious votes. How many more elephants are there? Dia ár sábhail.

  2. Seán Ó Raghallaigh

    Scríofa go maith! Here in Cavan-Monaghan we are trying hard to awaken the electorate. Cuirfidh mé an giota seo ar aghaidh chuig na hiarrthoirí. Bhíos ag caint le TG4 faoin díospóireacht Dé Céadaoin ach braitheann sé ar ‘na heagarthóirí’ an gcuirfear na ceisteanna deacra faoin nginmhilleadh ar na ceannairí. To be honest, however, I think the electorate will waken up in time. Caithfimid guí. it is as simple as that!
    Seán Ó Raghallaigh

  3. emul

    Maith thú Michael. Good analysis. Had our local Labour party candidate on Galway Bay FM this morning denying Labour Party policy! Speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

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