Ireland has changed and it’s time we catch up

Descriptions of Ireland as a “parochial” and “Catholic” country have become useless

When I was away over Christmas, someone from a different country started asking me about Ireland. She had lived in Derry during the 80s, and spent a lot of time going back and forth along the border, so her questions were about the same old things – nationalist politics, corruption, the Church. She was worried about the rise of Sinn Féin in the South.

“Do you think that the same old divisions are cropping up again?” I can’t remember exactly what she asked, but it was something like that, and I didn’t know how to answer.

To me, it was the wrong question, but of course, she had no way of knowing that. When Ireland was causing the Brexit negotiations to stall, the British media was full of analyses pointing out that Sinn Féin had grown in popularity in Ireland in recent years. Varadkar, they noted, was in a weak position; he was leading a minority government, and his Tánaiste, or deputy prime minister, they would say, had recently been forced to resign. Perhaps he was being so difficult on the border question because he was worried about an imminent election. Perhaps it was just another appeal to the same old republican element.

It might be that under Haughey, this would have been a sensible way of trying to read the Irish government. But part of what I find so confusing about when people start to talk along these lines, is that the country they’re describing bears little resemblance to the one I’ve grown up in. The Ireland I know has moved on.

Mass attendance rates are at an all-time low; so, too, are the numbers of people joining the Catholic priesthood. The Irish Church, which used to supply priests to most of the world, is increasingly having to bring in priests from abroad. But besides all of that, the Church has lost a huge amount of its cultural sway. During the marriage equality referendum in 2015, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was roundly condemned for weighing in; two decades earlier that would have been unthinkable. Unthinkable also would have been recalling the papal nuncio, which Enda Kenny’s government did after the Cloyne report.

The upshot of this is a country where, though the divorce referendum is said to have passed only because of a storm in Mayo, roughly two-thirds of people voted for marriage equality. An unmarried gay man is now the Taoiseach. Social attitudes have changed so much, that in a country where three decades ago all forms of contraception were illegal, women can now get the morning after pill in pharmacies.

Sectarianism has always been overestimated in the South because of people reading across the border, but the recent incident in which Sinn Féin, after a large public outcry, were forced to expel a Northern MP for making light of the Kingsmill massacre, is instructive.

It shows the truth, which is that Sinn Féin’s republicanism is the single biggest impediment to their achieving electoral success in Ireland, where they’ve gotten about 20% of the vote by rebranding as an economically populist party during the recession. Sinn Féin’s choice of Mary Lou McDonnell as the replacement for Gerry Adams wasn’t an accident: it was part of an effort at rebranding which the party has pursued for the last several years. They know that their association with the Troubles is electorally toxic.

It’s trite to say that Ireland is a very different country now than it was two decades ago. But too often people forget, and veer miles wide of the mark in whatever they have to say about Ireland. The changes in our society have failed to translate into a change in the way that people understand it, and people both inside and outside the country revert to the same old lines of analysis.

Too often, the talking heads, either on tv or in uncomfortable moments during college tutorials, will assert that Ireland is in fact a backwards country still. The place of women in the home, they say, is enshrined in the constitution; non-Catholics face the baptism barrier in schools, women must travel abroad to get an abortion.

We know the old concepts: parochial politics, sectarianism, the power of the Church. As long as these are the paradigms, the contours with which people try to interpret Irish politics and society, they are going to get it wrong. It’s time we inaugurate some new ones.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no illusions about the fact that Trinity News is not the right place to start a national conversation. But if you and I can come up with a few different touchstones of our own for understanding Ireland, then we, at least, will have a way to stop being wrong about Ireland.

Here are some that I find helpful. The first, which causes so many people to become confused and say that Ireland is a backward country, is that we are experiencing a kind of political and cultural hangover: that is, that political and cultural institutions, because of inertia, have lasted for longer than the forces that brought them into existence. The division between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for example, reflect Civil War divisions that no longer exist, so that instead they’ve become like blocs, each with about half a dozen small wings with competing priorities and little uniting them except the brand (for example, in Fine Gael: the “law and order” wing, the farmers wing, the libertarian wing).

The result is that passing any legislation which any of the wings don’t like is difficult, so that very little legislation is passed, so that in all other areas the hangover lasts longer. For example, the Catholic Church has a presence on the board of management of nearly every school in the country, because decades ago it was thought right that they should. The legal and logistical difficulties of removing them, and the political difficulties of alienating one of the wings of their party, mean that politicians leave the schools alone. That the hangover of those times remains isn’t a reflection of how Ireland is today; it’s a reflection of how it used to be.

Hangovers can cause the legislative or institutional facts of a country to be unaligned with what people actually want or believe. Campaigners often use the eighth amendment to tar Ireland as a socially conservative country, but polls show about two-thirds of the country are in favour of repealing it. Rather than making undue extrapolations from laws such as these, we should recognise them as echoes from the past; they are the inevitable consequence of fast cultural change, which leaves the political system lumbering behind, trying to catch up.

After all, as is usually the case with popular efforts to repeal hangover-legislation, the referendum on the eighth is in many ways the pro-choice movement’s to lose. All of the momentum is with them; the momentum of public support, the momentum of the issue being carried through each successive stage of government after years of inaction, and the momentum caused by a real sense of generational shift. As of Micheál Martin’s announcement a few days ago, Ireland is now a country in which the leaders of the two biggest political parties support some version of a pro-choice position.

Of course, none of the old forces have completely gone away, but nor have they gone away anywhere else: everywhere in the world there are religious people, and everywhere in the world there are people with prejudices and people who think only in terms of their immediate communities. But in Ireland, now, those people have become an almost irrelevant category of people: their concerns are not the main concerns of Irish culture and society in 2018.

Far more powerful, in fact, than any of the force of the old Church, is the force of Californication in Irish society. I’m convinced that much of the recent governmental movement towards large-scale social changes, and the Twitter posturing by Leo Varadkar, is best explained by the widespread notion that Ireland needs to prove to itself and the world that it is a real western, liberal, European Union democracy, a place as open as California. That that, more than any notion of Innisfree or Comely Maidens Dancing at the Crossroads, is the aspiration implicit in most contemporary Irish political and media discourse.

Californication was impossible to miss during the marriage equality referendum, when the public debate was as much about Ireland’s position in the world, and making history, as it was about people’s right to marry. James Reilly, the Minister for Health at the time, said at the 2015 Young Fine Gael party conference that a ‘No’ vote “will send a bad message internationally to those who would like to come here and work here.”

Much of the elation that followed the announcement of the results was due to a sense, I think, that not only Ireland had done the right thing, but that we were now in that league of countries who were on the right side of history. From then to now, with Leo Varadkar attending pride parades in Canada and taking photos with Justin Trudeau, much of the Irish government has spent a lot of time trying to project an image abroad that Ireland is a country that ranks with the likes of Canada or California or the Netherlands for tolerance and looking outward.

Some of the reasons behind this are obvious: they’re part of the economic effort to turn Dublin into the Silicon Valley of Europe; if Dublin is Silicon Valley, then Ireland needs to be California. It’s been a priority of Fine Gael’s since 2011 to convince investors and the employees of big tech companies that Ireland is the kind of place that they would like to live and work in. This also explains why the government, which has ignored so many of these issues for so long, is attempting to deal with them now, and why they want any referendum on the eighth to pass. Varadkar, who seems to be on the fence about abortion and has not made his view clear, understands the economic value of a successful referendum, any referendum, which liberalises Ireland’s abortion laws.

But the desire for Ireland to become like California is deeper than a political desire to attract the investment of big firms. It’s also a force in your life and in mine. Part of it is surely due to the internet, which has given every Irish person aged 30 and under an unprecedented amount of exposure to mainstream liberal America. Part of it is a reaction to the old Ireland, to California’s opposite, and a public sense that anything which pushes the country in a different direction to that of John Charles McQuaid is a good idea.

But whatever it is – whatever it is that drive these things, however exactly they manifest, and in whom – I’m convinced that these, and others too, are the ways that we should start thinking about Ireland if we want to understand our own country, without patronising it, and without getting things wrong. Dusty old terms like “Catholic country” need to be consigned to the attic of history where they now belong.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.