John O Neill identifies the interesting paradox that while abortion and civil marriage appears to have united north and south Catholic and mainstream Protestant politicians, it’s the all- Ireland parties, above all Sinn Fein or elements of it , that have making the “progressive” case. Not that the advocacy has been clear or consistent, as Slugger posts have lovingly traced. But now, the raging debates have even attracted the attention of the Economist in an article where it identifies the new “fault lines” in Ireland’s “culture wars. “
“In the Republic of Ireland, too, Sinn Fein is using party discipline to impose a liberal line on its representatives (whose personal views range from secular to devout) over abortion. A revision of the republic’s ultra-strict abortion laws is on the cards after the death of an Indian woman who was refused a termination at a hospital in Galway. However Sinn Fein is still careful to present its position in technical and legalistic terms; its leaders have stressed that they are not a “pro-abortion” party. They may be indifferent to the Catholic hierarchy but still feel some sensitivity to Catholic voters…
.. right now, clerical influence over politics seems much stronger on the Protestant side than on the Catholic side. For example, some Protestant members of Northern Ireland’s administration subscribe to a fundamentalist reading of the Creation story and believe that museums should incorporate “Creationist” ideas in presenting the history of the planet. That too is an argument that is much more familiar to Americans than it is to most people in relatively secular Europe.”
There’s another interesting paradox. The conservative side may be more aware than the progressive that social change will not stop here, however rocky and winding the road. That explains their stridency. But the Catholic church’s implacable opposition to even the minor adjustments to the abortion rules in the Republic has provoked a sharp reply from the tanaiste, that the democracy is paramount. Labour may be under pressure but he will win widespread support on this point. The continuing struggle offers reformers a continuing platform. At least the Catholics are upfront; the Presbyterian attitude in pressuring David Ford out of his eldership looks furtive and cowardly.
The upsurge of UKIP in England shows that even there, change doesn’t happen in a straight line. The English experience is probably the most powerful influence on the Irish debates north and south and the clearest measure of degree of change. Human rights campaigns will not win in straight fights with political opinion. What they can do is undermine the apparent monolith of public opinion and by bringing bad cases to public attention and provoking a measure of change .
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London