On the launch of Telefís Éireann just over fifty years ago, President Eamon De Valera addressed the audience in one of station’s most remarkable broadcasts. Likening the power of television to atomic energy, this giant of Irish history expressed personal apprehension that “never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude”.
Later that evening the station was blessed by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.
While the role of RTÉ alone in driving social change has been over mythologised by John Bowman and others in recent years, there can be little doubting the effect mass media plays in shaping, advancing and limiting public attitudes. Denis O’Brien spent millions in his effort to take over Independent Newspapers, in compliment to his radio empire, while the malign influence of Rupert Murdoch has warped expectation for millions of people.
In the political realm the use of mass marketing has come to be known as the ‘air war’. Political parties and government policy are sold just the same as cars, mortgages and dishwasher tablets. There is debate about whether this or the ‘ground war’ [canvassing, getting the vote out, etc] is a more effective use of resources but nonetheless, each year the amount spent by Irish politicians on spin doctors and media training continues to grow.
In 2012 for instance we learned that James Reilly and Frances Fitzgerald had used over €30, 000 in allowances on the services of the Communications Clinic. Every day there will be hundreds of people on air who have been trained to speak in a certain way, how to get their ‘message’ across regardless of questions posed or subject covered. Each week, Irish politicians of all stripes spend thousands advertising in local newspapers. We pay for it. In the US, media campaign budgets dwarf the total spend in elections elsewhere. Deep pockets of supporters and opponents ensured over one million adverts were broadcast during the 2012 cycle. In more recent times the success of people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage is rooted in their ability to stay in the headlines.
So then, having survived and later thrived during some of the most pivotal decades in Ireland’s history, De Valera was correct anticipating a new front in the battle for hearts and minds. How well did he know that much of this would involve rewriting his own constitution.
Away from stage managed TV debates and the bright lights of modern public relations there is another aspect. Some years after De Valera’s warning, Oliver J Flanagan TD made the observation that “there was no sex in Ireland until Teilifis Éireann went on the air”. This was nonsense of course, but what Flanagan meant is that the medium provided a new space where uncomfortable and unmentionable topics where acknowledged.
Perhaps one of the best examples came later when letters flooded into the Gay Byrne radio show following the death of Ann Lovett in 1984. At the time Byrne remarked that there were “too many letters. They couldn’t be ignored”. This is crucial. Like Flanagan’s anxieties about sex, the media in this instance was really only communicating something that already existed but for various reasons remained forbidden. In the shadows and margins of respectable society something is always waiting for its moment before bursting out to leave the world unrecognisable. The weeks following the death of Savita Halanpanavar saw similar outpouring where that awful tragedy encouraged thousands to share their experience, no two the same, both on the airwaves and among friends and family.
I sat up one night that week listening to replay of some radio phone-in show. Dozens of people spoke about Savita, about their own experience of maternity care and of abortion. There was no agitation or ‘debate’, just regular people with all sorts of stories spanning decades. Women who were speaking about events for the first time in their lives after hearing someone do the same fifteen minutes earlier.
Issues of secrecy, silence, stigma and shame loom large over both the social and legal framework of Ireland’s reproductive health regime. A significant amount of this has been enforced through absence. Away from Article 40.3.3 alone, when the constitution states that a women’s place is in the home it is not just buttressing the ideal of patriarchal family or primacy of motherhood.
While ‘the home’ is not necessarily the opposite of the outside world, for a very long time and even today it meant surrendering financial and a large degree of personal independence. This is not to say mothers were chained to the sink but barriers to participation in the public sphere are constitutionally enshrined as a baseline into which all other tributaries are supposed to flow.
Until the 1970s young Irish women were forced out of heavily gendered public employment in teaching, nursing, administration, etc, on becoming married. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996 while countless other expectant women were given a one ticket out of the country. Enforced absence came in many forms and I needn’t tell you how lack of ability to control one’s own body was a factor.
In February this year, Maria Bailey became the 100th women to enter Dáil Éireann since Constance Markievicz in 1918. Over one hundred men were elected the same weekend just as they have been in every election previous.
When news of Miss X broke in 1992, An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds stood in the chamber to make a statement on Ireland’s injunction of a fourteen year old girl. There were just eight women TDs at that time and two who tried to speak were ruled out of order by the Cheann Comhairle.
After over 21 years, a government passed legislation in line with that Supreme Court judgement. One which had been upheld by the people twice. From that January through May, no law in our lifetime was ever given so much time in parliament but it was not until the final stage of the final night in 2013, after months of supposed debate, that someone read onto the Dáil record part of evidence given by a then teenage girl during the X Case.
She had been absent throughout. She was not alone, government also excluded the D Case from consideration. Deirdre Conroy was absent until waiving her anonymity in 2013 stating that what happened to Savita Halappanavar “was the final straw”. Ahead of the 2002 referendum she had previously published an pseudonymous open letter the Taoiseach asking to be listened to. Here she was again three Taoiseachs later. Having already been to the European Court, there is no reason why anyone in her circumstances or any other should have to forfeit so much to be heard in Leinster House.
In public houses where there is considerably less drinking and antisocial behaviour, places long considered and marketed as the heart of Irish social life, women were routinely banished to a snug if they were served at all.
One way or another, women were absent. Through the law and much more, women’s views, experience and decision making was kept out of sight where it was less likely to intrude or contribute.
Returning to our national airwaves, the 1947 Radio Éireann annual report states that a programme called ‘Housewives Half-hour’ was among the most popular,
The circle of regular listeners now embraces every county in Ireland and a big number from England and Wales. Constant appeals are made for an extension of the time or a bi-weekly programme.
Nearly thirty years later in 1975, the first issue of Banshee magazine from Irish Women United declared
You’ve just read the daily papers. You’ve been listening to the radio. You are are probably about to watch television. Would you know from the attention devoted by the media to women that females make up fifty one percent of the population?
Did you notice any howls of justifiable outrage that Irishwomen are denied contraception, divorce and abortion? That we work for half the wages men get? That we rear families, a difficult job indeed, under conditions no trade unionist would tolerate in a factory – mothers get no pay, no paid holidays, no training for child rearing and often no home in which to rear children? They don’t even have the legal right to decide the religion, education or domicile of their children.
You’ve just spent the whole day learning nothing about women and no one cares what you think.
It was into this Ireland that the Eighth Amendment soon arrived.
Throughout the decade proceeding 1983, elements of the conservative catholic right had fought a nationwide running battle against what would become the Irish Family Planning Association.
In 1973 a man named John O’Reilly presented Dublin gardaí with contraception he had received by post. Accompanying the contraband were copies of two letters to the IFPA, one signed by an Eilish and another by Deirdre. John O’Reilly was then chairman of a little operation called the ‘Irish Family League’, his daughters were aged nine and ten . He had directed them to sign the letters which he posted in an effort to bring the forces of the law against the IFPA. Charges were brought by then Fine Gael Attorney General Declan Costello who some years later was the High Court judge that ordered the X Case injunction.
Under questioning in court O’Reilly’s daughters acknowledged that they did not understand what their father had asked them to do. The case was later struck out on the distinction that the IFPA had accepted a donation rather than sold the contraception. The ‘Irish Family League’ took their defeat and moved onto their next scheme. O’Reilly, a member of the Knights of Columbanus, would go on to become chairman of the Prolife Amendment Campaign and to this day remains at the top table of the Prolife Campaign. They have recently removed the page listing personnel from their website for some reason. Must be some mistake.
The history of these groups has been well documented so what I want to focus on is the operation and how, like the case above, these people use law, regulation, bureaucracy and plain old influence to stifle and censor.
Obviously, insertion of the Eighth Amendment itself is probably their biggest victory but we have seen a lot of activity in recent years and months that I think warrants proper context.
The first thing to take into account is that today just as in the 1980s, we are talking about a group of people who are insignificant in number but considerable in commitment. Take Senator Ronan Mullen, former press officer to the Archbishop of Dublin during events that led to the Murphy Report.
Mullen looks for votes on the basis that “I will be the one to stand up x, I am the only one who will speak for x”, “without me there will be no..” and so on. The first sentence on literature for this year’s Seanad election claimed “Ronan Mullen stands out in Irish politics”. I wonder why that could be? A minority view perhaps. Mullen stood in his first proper election in 2014 only narrowly out polling a catastrophe like Lorraine Higgins while Luke Flanagan got four times as many votes. The mythical prolife vote was unmoved from its slumber, it seems.
The Iona ‘Institute’ was established on the same basis. “Without us no one else would be putting this view across”. Just like the original Prolife Amendment Campaign, they all double bluff on one hand purporting to represent a large section of society while on other the claim to be the lone voice speaking out.
The antichoice side do not just oppose abortion but contraception and sex education too along with dozens of other issues under the umbrella of sexual permissiveness as one but very important part of a much broader worldview. It is derisory to suggest that religious belief is not the foundation of their campaigning. For tactical reasons this will be dressed up in language of dignity and human rights. There may be others motivated by misogyny or anti-feminism alone but you cannot talk about Irish anti-choice activity without putting the church front and centre.
This is not to say that the religious view is simplistic or unthinking, far from it. Much of the world is ordered by lines long set down in part by the church and the anti-choice standpoint forms part of a material and ideological structure as insidious and complex as its cousins in private property and capitalist social relations – which themselves are not at all incompatible with a desire to see Irish society conform to a particular Roman Catholic ideal.
However while Irish capitalism is doing ok its ally in cloth is sort of in an odd place today. The tide they hoped to turn in the eighties has crashed down around them, slowly at first but then with ferocious speed. The world has changed rapidly and they have the siege mentality of panic and motivation characteristic of people who feel under attack on several fronts. A recent Irish commenter on a popular American conservative website described the impending referendum as “the Stalingrad of Irish Catholicism” hoping that “if the religious segment win and enter the political process more assertively thereafter there is a real chance Ireland will not go the way of the rest of Europe”.
It wouldn’t be Irish Catholicism without nationalism of course. As has so often been the case around the world at different times, women are bound up with ideas of nationhood and identity so Irish women find themselves caught in someone else’s fantasy for a place that never really existed.
Many of the main players see themselves as guardians of a particularly kind of Ireland. Much of it nostalgic but some is more current. Status is a big thing. The Prolife Campaign claims that the amendment is “regarded internationally as one of the key pro-life victories of the past 40 years”. After the 2013 ‘Rally for Life’ Sean O’Domhnaill of Youth Defence proclaimed that Dublin “looked like the pro-life capital of the world”. Prestige for Ireland in the Catholic world and themselves in the antichoice bubble is seen as important. The marriage referendum will have been a serious blow to whatever pomp that remains and the impending visit of his holiness will weigh on their minds.
Internationally, Irish antichoicers have had some interesting associations from extremely wealthy Americans to straight up neofascists in Britian and Italy. At home, rivalry between Youth Defence and PLC has lead to no shortage calamity, most famously a split in 2002 causing Youth Defence to go against the PLC and church in advocating a no vote on the Twenty-fifth Amendment. For a brief moment in 2013 they held united protests but within weeks were back to ploughing their own furrow. They can regularly be heard encouraging people not to attend the other’s events.
I have often quoted this from a 1994 Nuala O‘Faolain column but it captures much of the thinking and is something that could be applied in many other cases. Looking back she observed that
“often at meetings, I would see that a certain kind of educated, middle-aged man in particular was enraged at being forced to listen to plurality of voices when no one was listening to him. I’m not saying that their anti-abortion feelings weren’t absolutely sincere but the rage was even bigger then the issue. They would still have been angry, even if travel and information and the whole lot had gone as they had wanted. It is Ireland they are disappointed in and their own place in it. It is the erosion of certainty that is threatening them. A lot of people in this country want to go back to the simplicities of an authoritarian era”.
Repeated opinion poll since 2012 show that those opposed to abortion in all circumstances is at best one in ten people. They have lost every referendum on the issue since 1992. How then can such a minority hold the rest of us back?
Essentially everything since the amendment plan was hatched has involved antichoicers being a nuisance. Lawmakers were pressured so we got a referendum no one wanted in 1983. That amendment caused the country revulsions in 1992. Youth Defence came along to wreck everyone’s head before the very same people from PLAC pestered Bertie Ahern into committing to yet another referendum ahead of the 1997 election. Whether harassing women on the street or the elderly for money, the real story of Irish anti-choice activism has been one long pain in the arse.
Today, Dáil Éireann is still populated by many politicians spooked because of bitter campaigns in the eighties and they are deeply reluctant to go within a mile of something believed to be contentious. Throughout passage of the PLDP Bill in 2013, each one would rise to his feet in the chamber at atone that “this is a very divisive issue”. Most politicians, not least those preaching the gospel of laissez faire in all other aspects of life, are completely indifferent but believe there are more votes to be lost than won on the matter. Anti-choice activists have exploited this by being loud and persistent enough to make most politicians believe we are still living in 1985.
Here is a list of organisations that made submissions on abortion to the Committee on the Constitution ahead of 2002.
Much of these would be one man bands but many are still with us.
Letter writing and lobbying is constant enough and during 2013 everything was thrown at politicians to prevent passing of the legislation. The was serious effort to publicly shame TDs locally which I thought was quite instructive. We should take lessons that after a campaign that included Enda Kenny receiving letters written in blood, they only managed to syphon off six dissenting blueshirt TD who went onto to lose their seats this year.
This summer a mural on the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar received worldwide attention after anti-abortion activists succeed in pressuring its removal. Echoes of 1977 when following complaints, Dublin Corporation withdrew a grant from the Project Arts Centre after the staging of two plays by the Gay Sweatshop theatre company. This summer it was planning permission rather than affront to national morality that got the Project Arts in trouble. What was most curious about the complaints is that a wall in Temple Bar had people writing letters from, er, Donegal. As the letters all arrived in succession, each touching on the same points of planning permission and public funds, it is patently obvious that the complaints were organised rather individuals acting independently.
Which brings us back to the media and one the greatest targets of anti-choice ink.
Writing in the Irish Times ahead of the referendum last year, Breda O’Brien informed us that
In 2009, GLEN had 348 media appearances – 179 broadcasts and the rest ranged from national newspapers to the Law Society Gazette. Almost one per day.
That is quite the statistic to compile. Media monitoring like this is serious dedication for people who claimed they were only concerned for the childer.
On the morning of June 24th this year after the votes were counted, thousands in Britain woke up and googled “what is the EU?” This came after a months long campaign and decades of coverage not to mention living in the bloody thing. Since the referendum there has been much recrimination about broadcasters’ insistence on false equivalence in place of anything resembling balance let alone the kind of useful information a public should expect. The BBC would wheel out fringe commentators as an equal and credible view despite the fact their claims were far outside any consensus let alone based on evidence. Any old dubious rubbish was fit for broadcast as counterpoint.
Here at home we are regularly confronted by the same seven or eight people, each one simultaneously an expert on law, medicine, finance, global politics and most especially, everyone else’s decision making. The have no obligation nor inclination to tell the truth. They have no respect for other people’s circumstances. They have no interest in what you think.
Listen carefully, you will hear them exclaim about one study or another that despite no one else ever encountering has turned the medical consensus on its head! You can get a copy easy on http://www.totallyrealscience/americanmoolah.org. Up next in studio, Cora Sherlock tells us how she is going to build a wall to keep the abortions out!
During 2013, anti-choicers polluted the airwaves with fear that three years on has never come to pass. Floodgates, arrrrrrgh. Fringe conservatives in Ireland then succeeded in having all sorts of scurrilous claims broadcast during the marriage referendum last year. RTÉ took an ultra cautious approach in who was allowed speak about their own real lives while hypothetical children were inescapable. In this we the public were denied the full spectrum of human experience, shade and contrast was lost, so much more of that important issue went unsaid and as a consequence of what was permitted many people suffered. Though they lost comprehensively, the right succeeded in narrowing the debate to the extent that people found themselves exposed to and having to argue against absurd and damaging nonsense.
Since then, the Broadcasting Authority has been inundated with vexatious complaints any time a woman so much as breathes near a microphone. Reading through BAI judgements it is clear, just like Projects Arts, that complaints originate from a small group of people and often the same person under different names. There is a certain correct format in making a successful complaint and it is obvious that a small group of people have been instructed or coached. These complaints are not representative of public sentiment but again, causing nuisance is just enough.
Could you imagine our side writing letters to the BAI every time women are portrayed as untrustworthy, stupid or one dimensional?
To make matters worse, even though no referendum rules apply broadcasters have taken on cautious interpretations on these rulings in acts of self-censorship that resemble the days of Section31. One effect of that occasionally still lamented piece of legislation is that women either part or perceived to be part of the republican or nationalist movement were absent from the airwaves. As a result, the particular perspective and experience of women during the Northern Ireland conflict often went unspoken. If you were a member of something like a housing, health or education campaign for example, Section 31 often had the effect of keeping these aspects out of sight. A version of this persists in Northern Ireland today where women who must be silent for war, today must be silent for peace. More absence.
The Iona ‘Institute’ was established in 2007 as a media pressure group and are far more mundane than most of us like to think. Essentially they exist to be on the end of a phone should a producer need someone to make up ‘media balance’. They contribute nothing. During the 1980s, the ‘institute’ model was very successful for the United States in selling neoliberalism and wars. Our own little ghouls on Merrion Square adopted the same tactic. Professional bullshitters. No expertise no mandate armed only with well rehearsed bad faith arguments and ability to succeed as long as radio and TV producers keep picking up the phone.
Key to their activism is securing airtime completely out of proportion with the view they represent. They have a vested interested in creating false panic around bias, censorship and ‘silencing’ as it is one way to ensure media stay lazy in how programmes are formatted and issue are framed.
The one thing you will never hear the Iona Institute discuss though is religion. They will hold forth on issue of marriage, schools, abortion and whatever else they were never asked but it is clear that a decision has been made to leave Jesus at the door. In 2012, Ronan Mullen established another operation called Catholic Voices which is modelled on the Opus Dei front in Britain of the same name. They deal with the God stuff and “equip speakers with the knowledge and skills to communicate clearly and competently in the media”. So you have the false balance already present in the Irish media and then train people like you would a politician or scandal hit celebrity. Like Breda O’Brien and others, they will always just be introduced simply as a ‘school teacher’ or some such while the audience is none the wiser.
This is not the only coordinated attempts of media manipulation. At a poorly attended ‘Convention for Life’ in Dublin back in 2014, Niamh Ui Bhriain of Youth Defence promised “massive campaign” targeting advertisers at the Irish Times due to the paper’s roll in breaking the Savita story and subsequent support for the 2013 legislation. My inquiries suggest the campaign either didn’t materialise or had no discernible impact.
This tactic is regularly encouraged by Alive! magazine who recently enough suggested that readers(?) write to Avonmore Dairies in protest. Avonmore was then sponsor of the Late Late Show and one commercial break, we are told, included an avert for Durex. Thinking went that Avonmore could be spooked into making trouble for RTÉ because their brand was now somehow associated with contraception. Readers will have to make their own mind up about that one but I suspect Alive! editor Fr Brian McKevitt was the only one at home getting bothered about condom adverts on a Friday night.
McKevitt plays an interesting part in this story. Anti-choicers are always keen to tell us about “the women who regret their abortions” but rarely does anyone admit that the group ‘Women Hurt’, whose trauma these people are so eager to exploit, was set up by none other than Fr McKevitt himself, a Dominican priest. Appearing on Liveline earlier this year after publishing an article which claimed beating children (one of his paper’s regular obsessions) “made them more successful in life”, on air he went to compare masturbation to drink driving.
Indeed, at times it seems “balance” doesn’t work in their favour. David Quinn was recently forced to publicly concede that the owner of a rogue crisis pregnancy agency farcically defending himself on Liveline was “… not doing a very good job”. More important was a segment on RTÉ Primetime in 2013, Dr Berry Kiely of Opus Dei and medical adviser to the Prolife Campaign appeared as ‘balance’ to Sarah McGuinness of Terminations For Medical Reasons.
I don’t want to patronise Sarah McGuinness with any of the usual words or comments but re-watching that clip after some time you can only admire the work she and others from TFMR have found themselves doing.
The Prolife Campaign on the other hand later complained that the discussion was unfair because Kiely couldn’t possibly be expected to come out of it in a good light. That in itself says more about their position and ironically enough too, the antichocie mantra of people being responsible for their own actions. But more than that again, it shows that in the face of life in its unpredictable variation and difficult complexity, when women are no longer absent, the antichoice message is exposed. They can only succeed when debate is underpinned by fictions like Irish abortion is not already a reality or one size fits all circumstances. Once they have to account for for real life, the whole thing quickly falls apart.
These days women are tweeting Enda Kenny about their period and throwing knickers on his dinner table. Women are coming with much more than personal trauma and their own souls to bare. They come now from every angle in full colour.
The other crowd no longer have a monopoly on nuisance.
They who once swaggered with confidence, hectoring government ministers who made sure to listen, cannot abide a mural on a Dublin side street. They have wrapped themselves in a comfort blanket that says there is a vast conspiracy. Even the Rose of Tralee is out to get them! In their echo chamber, still assured of their own self-evident truth they cry that if only we can get the message out. Once people hear the truth things will change, they say.
Easier that than accept that no one is listening.
During the marriage referendum Breda O’Brien at one point suggested that she and others are “whistleblowers”. Ludicrously attempting to paint herself in the same light those who had been lifting the lid on practices in an garda siochana but the best part is she genuinely believed the things she had to say were supposed to be revelatory.
They carry on as if people haven’t already heard it all and made their mind up. As if thousand of women are not already more equated with abortion and their own reasons than the prolifers ever will be.
The last thing Ireland’s anti-abortion fanatics want is women speaking for themselves because these people have always presumed to know best and could only maintain that conceit as long as they kept the women away.