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Back to the 1980s – Unemployment, Economic Doom & Gloom, and Abortion. What next? Northern Ireland!

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Government faces formidable challenges in 2013, and the Meath East by-election brings them all to a head

Sometimes it feels like we all woke up one morning and there we were – right back to the 1980s. Lost in a decade of rampant unemployment and emigration; where the only news on the economic front is the bad news of still burgeoning deficits and an unsustainably mounting sovereign debt burden; flaky banks and building societies teetering on the verge of collapse and looking to be bailed out by the state; and of course, the lingering socially corrosive impact of a bitter debate surrounding the ‘right to life’ amendment to the Constitution. Northern Ireland was a fine old mess in those days too – a completely failed political entity; which is much what it increasingly is beginning to resemble as the promise of the Peace Process is overtaken by unresolved political tensions. The stuff of nightmares, those old intractable issues. And they’re all back. Only this time it’s even worse. So pity the government.

 According to Pat Rabbitte, the media need to change their ways and treat politics and politicians more kindly. Otherwise, he said, we’re opening the doors to dictatorship; or words to that effect. Thing is, the media, particularly the mainstream print and broadcast sectors, have arguably been far too kind to this government. News issues are faithfully reported in whatever way they are framed by members of the government directly or their spinmeisters. Comment and analysis is carefully balanced. Coherent critique of government policy, in each and every area you can think of, is insufficient. When it does appear, too often it takes the form of a focus on personality or interpersonal conflicts; not rigorous scrutiny of whatever policy is proposed and the alternatives that are available to the choices made by Ministers. In short, the media has been far too inclined to accept the government’s ‘the Troika made us do it’ or ‘the mess we inherited leaves us no choice’ or ‘we’ve lost our sovereignty’ old guff and repeat it each time, as if it represented some new insight into our troubles as opposed to a pathetic evasion of responsibility for its own bad decisions.

Yet pity the government nonetheless. The next six months could be the making or breaking of this Coalition’s credibility. It has no choice but to hold a by-election in Meath East following the tragic death of Fine Gael TD and Junior Minister, Shane McEntee, within the next six months, which throws a number of national, as opposed to local, issues into high relief.

Consider the prospect from a Fine Gael perspective: the abortion issue will likely still be in play from both pro-choice and anti-choice perspectives, regardless of whether or not the government has published its legislation. The public will have received their so-called housing valuations from Revenue for Michael Noonan’s property tax, which will have done little to lighten their mood. The effects of the budget cuts on provision of services will have become apparent to all and sundry. Whatever deal the government may have secured from Europe on the debt burden by that point – most likely confined to some sort of stretched out period for repayment of the Anglo promissory notes at a low interest rate – will be publicly contentious to say the least of it. But failure to achieve something, anything, on the debt front by the March deadline for the next promissory note payment is politically inconceivable. As for Labour, the continuing strains within that party do not look set to stabilise any time soon. Labour has little or no prospect of winning the by-election; the best it can hope for is to make a credible show that augurs well for Dominic Hannigan’s chances of retaining his parliamentary presence in the next general election.

The government parties may seek to shrug off attaching any significance to the Meath by-election. It makes no difference to parliamentary arithmetic if the Fine Gael seat is lost to Fianna Fail, as appears the most likely prospect on current opinion poll numbers. But it comes close to that critical starting point of countdown to the next local elections and the point in the electoral cycle where first term TDs begin to assess their chances of being one term wonders or settling in to their political careers for the long haul.

Further, with the mix of issues in play, the electors of Meath East are being asked to cast a verdict on the government’s overall strategy and performance. And if they feel, like so many of the rest of us do, that they’ve been cast back to the nightmare years of the 1980s, that verdict may not be a kind one.

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5 Responses to “Back to the 1980s – Unemployment, Economic Doom & Gloom, and Abortion. What next? Northern Ireland!”

  1. # Comment by Betty Jan 19th, 2013 22:01

    What do the 25000 who protested in Merrion Square today want????It would seem “no legislation”. But what is to be done with the 1983 amendment or the x case ruling????Talk about an irresistable force meeting an immovable object. The best solution would be if the 1983 amendment could be got rid of but not a hope of that , I would think.It’s such a mess and tragically anyone deciding to have an abortion will just go to England . I think I’ll go to bed.

  2. # Comment by Veronica Jan 20th, 2013 15:01

    Hi Betty,

    What do they want? Well, we know what ‘they’ – and they’re a disparate bunch – don’t want; and that’s any legislative framework regulating abortion in Ireland.

    I think there are several elements of opinion involved in the anti-choice movement. There are people who adhere to the Catholic Church teaching on abortion and the sanctity of the ‘right to life’ from the moment of conception, and are thus opposed to any legislative framework setting out the rules for pregnancy terminations on any grounds. Then there are the ‘traditional nationalists’, if I may call them that, who take a rose tinted view of what Ireland is, and was, and should be – and it’s not any vision of a pluralist, secular, modern state. There is probably an element of the rural/urban divide involved as well; who just resent the idea of a Dublin-based intellectual elite, as they see it, calling the shots on this or any other issue. And then there’s a politically motivated group who are using this issue as part-leverage to try and create a sort of ‘Tea Party’ rump within the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party and the broader party generally. The adherents to this latter grouping are smart enough to know that there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of preventing the government from legislating on this issue; but if they can generate a political platform within Fine Gael, as well as ensuring that whatever legislation is brought forward is as constricted as possible with draconian penalties attached, then it’s all grist to the mill of their wider political agenda.

    As you know, I agree with you that the best solution would be for a referendum to remove the existing fatally flawed 1983 amendment from the Constitution, and replace it, if necessary, with a more generalised formula of words on respect for human life. The reason there’s no hope of any such course of action at the present time is the same political cowardice that allowed such a flawed amendment to be put forward in the first place in the early 1980s and then failed to introduce any regulatory framework to give legislative effect to it in the thirty years that followed. I anticipate that any legislation this government is likely to bring forward will be subject to many challenges in the years ahead. Or else derailed by some event that exposes its inherent defect – you can’t produce good legislation on the basis of an irredemably flawed constitutional provision.

  3. # Comment by Betty Jan 23rd, 2013 21:01

    Sadly you are correct, I think there were 6 official pro-life groups there on Sat as well as the jump on the bandwagon brigade—and they are all given legitimacy by the official catholic church, plenty of publicity for the protest in the mass leaflets etc and “prayers” every sunday agin abortion.Any legislation , liberal or restrictive , will end up in the courts anyway with God -knows -what results.Ireland, Mother Ireland , what have we done to deserve this.

  4. # Comment by EddieL Feb 18th, 2013 22:02

    My comment may be a bit late but the list you mention, economic collapse, emigration, abortion are not the only things that go back to the 1980′s.
    The 1980′s marked a milestone in Irish history for the government of FG/Labour ushered in a new type of democracy – liberal democracy.

    The advent of liberal democracy marked the end of what I would describe as democracy, based on the common good where human right were by their nature granted by the people on the individual, and replaced it with liberal democracy based on an atheistic, competitive individualism where human rights are by their nature conferred on the individual by themselves.

    The result of this shift in democratic values meant that the rich and powerful got the money and power while the poor and working people got chaos and exploitation in the guise of freedom from the restricions of the past.

    And that is where we are today with little or no hope of escape.

  5. # Comment by Veronica Feb 24th, 2013 09:02


    The Ireland of the Magdalen Laundries, of the Industrial Schools, of mass emigration and economic stagnation was no paradise to live in, particularly not for the rural or urban poor and especially those who ranked low in the pecking order – women, ‘surplus’ young men,or anyone else whow was mentally, physically or emotionally vulnerable. The paternalism of the British Empire was replaced in 1922 by a nationalist paternalism, which did little to improve the living conditions of the ‘lower orders’ in Irish society and arguably aggravated their impoverished conditions.

    Thankfully, democracy is an evolving process and its dynamics change over time. It is not correct to claim that any one government introduced ‘liberal democracy’ and its attendant values to the Irish state at any particular point in the history of this state. By the late 1950s it was clear to anyone with a brain, and especially to TK Whitaker and then Taoiseach Sean Lemass, that Ireland was on the brink of failure and that short of radical change, the next best option for this failed state might be to reapply to the UK for full membership. Accordingly, under their leadership, the government of the Irish state changed its policies in respect of trade, industry, education and, most particualrly, stopped fooling itself that a small island on the edge of Europe could continue to behave as if the rest of the world revolved around it, rather than adapt to living in the real world. It took several more decades to shake off the yoke of paternalism and the vicious, violent and secretive social and political culture. Whatever its flaws, a society based on respect for human rights and equality of opportunity is a darned sight better to live in than the oppressive entity of the past.