We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Cian C Murphy of King’s College London who was, until recently, a regular contributor to HRinI
It has been an interesting few weeks to observe the Motherland from abroad. Saturday’s vigils and campaigning marches sparked by the death of Savita Halappanavar follow a week after the casting of votes in the Children’s Rights Referendum. I tend not to comment on matters of social policy in Ireland in these pages. One reason is that there are more informed and more articulate voices here on these matters. For what it’s worth I was in favour of the ‘yes’ outcome in the referendum with my thinking largely in line with that found here. Another reason for circumspection is that I’ve been living in London for six years now and have a degree of removal from policy in action in Ireland. Outside commentary might be useful in relation to constitutional matters, such as the existence of the Seanad, but is less helpful when addressing social policies that are so intricately tied to the daily reality of people’s lives.
I’m not breaking with tradition today. I won’t set out an argument on why the Oireachtas should legislate for the X case. It should, of course it should, and that development was long overdue even before this week’s outcry. Nor will I set out a case to alter the Constitution because the Eighth Amendment, which sought to prevent judges making abortion legal, is a vicious threat to women’s lives. The fear twenty years ago that the Supreme Court would find a right to abortion in the Constitution, as their more courageous American counterparts did, led to a reactionary amendment. It causes legal and social havoc and should be abolished. But that’s not why I write. Instead, I share a perception of one with home thoughts from abroad, who observes Irish public debate a little from the outside, and who has spent the past weeks in dismay at the predictable failure of an Irish Government.
The complete absence of moral leadership by the elected Government of the state is utterly depressing. Take first the Children’s Rights Referendum. The changes made to the Constitution are positive but minimal in their effect. However, rather than explain and advocate for the benefits of the amendment the Government campaign struck an apologetic tone. Luckily, into this leadership void flowed civil society. The result of the Children’s Rights Referendum was a ‘yes’ because of non-governmental organisations, children’s charities, and other voices of public figures outside of Government. They fought a diligent campaign against misinformation by a now-predictable conservative movement. If anything, the Government made the work of these groups and individuals more difficult by bungling the ‘official’ campaign. The work is not done. The amendment requires legislation and the Government should not be allowed to rest on the matter.
Now consider the death of Savita Halappanavar. It is clear that a long, tortuous ordeal led to her death. It is also clear that, even if legislation on the X case would not have been enough to save her, there are others whom such legislation would save. The tragic death has drawn attention to that narrow issue but also to the broader problem of the Eighth Amendment. And yet the Government dithers. Some Ministers say there must be ‘clarity on the law’ as if it is someone else’s responsibility. Leadership is emerging once more from outside Government: from hospital directors, rights groups, and feministas. Indeed it is a minority group – female TDs – that have been the most impressive in the Dáil. And there are far too few of those.
Not all are culpable for the failure of leadership. The President, Michael D. Higgins, has been quiet (or perhaps not), but that is his constitutional role. He is the Guardian of the Constitution and in both cases it is the Constitution that is at issue. Some Government Senators, as in the past, are lending their voice to the cause (and yet they themselves are an endangered species). But the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and Minister for Health have no excuse for their failure. It is they who hold office, they who claim to lead, and they who are failing to do so. They cannot legislate overnight, and should not reform the Constitution in haste, but they should resolve to act. Instead their comments fulminate and obfuscate in the pathetic hope that the wave of outrage recedes.
There has been much talk of diaspora dismay and shame over this week’s news. I share the dismay but not the shame. Because on Saturday tens of thousands of Irish people sought to express their regret, anger and determination. The images of the marches demonstrate human power at its most profound: the ability not just to act but to act in concert. True power exists ‘only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities’. In recent weeks both civil society and the people have sought to create a new reality in Ireland. What does the country’s political leadership have to say to such people? We are told that ‘the Government is not ruling out an independent inquiry’. March on.