With a ref­er­en­dum loom­ing, we must learn to tol­er­ate open de­bate

The Irish me­dia should be cham­pi­oning the right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion in a democ­racy, writes Fear­gal Quinn

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - ANALYSIS - Fear­gal Quinn served as a mem­ber of Seanad Eire­ann for 24 years and is pres­i­dent of Sencheer Hold­ings

THE cel­e­brated play­wright Brian Friel had a unique abil­ity to por­tray a sense of Ire­land and Ir­ish­ness. He por­trayed Ire­land in a way that no oth­ers be­fore or since have and seemed to pre­sciently de­fine its peo­ple as a na­tion for­ever rest­lessly seek­ing to re­de­fine its iden­tity.

Con­tem­po­rary Ire­land is a na­tion that seems de­ter­mined to find is­sues which tear us apart at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. What lies be­neath our ob­ses­sion with major so­cial is­sues?

Think back to the var­i­ous ref­er­en­dums on abor­tion — on the Eighth Amend­ment in 1983, the Four­teenth Amend­ment in 1992, the failed Twenty Fifth Amend­ment in 2002 — each of which has been both vi­cious and di­vi­sive. Not to men­tion the Pro­tec­tion of Life Dur­ing Preg­nancy Act 2013 which ended some po­lit­i­cal ca­reers.

We were im­mersed in all mat­ters con­cern­ing mar­riage and sep­a­ra­tion when pre­sented with the Tenth Amend­ment in 1986 on di­vorce (which was re­jected), and in the age-old tra­di­tion of ref­er­en­dum ques­tions be­ing re-put un­til vot­ers pro­duce the cor­rect an­swer, we went through it all again in 1995 with the Fif­teenth Amend­ment. If the Taoiseach keeps his prom­ise to Josepha Madi­gan TD, we will run this is­sue one more time.

Con­tin­u­ing on the theme of mar­riage, the gay mar­riage ref­er­en­dum brought mod­ern Ire­land’s new form of lib­er­al­ism to the fore — the kind of lib­er­al­ism which dic­tates that it is okay for you to have your opin­ion so long as it is the same as mine.

This so-called lib­er­al­ism per­me­ated all as­pects of the gay mar­riage ref­er­en­dum cam­paign. Even the dogs (and cats) in the street were en­thu­si­as­tic ad­vo­cates of a yes vote and the gen­eral con­sen­sus was that any­one who op­posed the ref­er­en­dum was a back­wards, self­ish cave dweller. The ef­fect of this, of course, was that many of the vot­ers who were op­posed to the ref­er­en­dum felt un­able to par­take in dis­cus­sions or de­bates on the topic.

This type of en­vi­ron­ment sti­fles de­bate and is a chal­lenge to our demo­cratic val­ues. The me­dia bears some of the blame for this.

To take one me­dia out­let — some time ago The Irish Times liked to be known as the ‘pa­per of record’, and so it ran a mar­ket­ing cam­paign pick­ing up on that theme: ‘We look at life, you live it.’

This theme sug­gested that the me­dia would serve as ob­servers and ob­jec­tive an­a­lysts of the world around us. But that is not al­ways the case in the Ire­land of to­day.

To­day, the wider me­dia see them­selves as cham­pi­ons of the cause du jour. The ob­jec­tiv­ity has long faded and has been re­placed by cheerleading. The one thing that the me­dia should cer­tainly be cham­pi­oning is the right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

It is a healthy thing in a democ­racy such as ours that we are all free to hold our own views. But this right is of lit­tle worth if we take away from oth­ers the right to pas­sion­ately ad­vo­cate those views even if we dis­agree with them.

Abor­tion is eas­ily the most di­vi­sive pol­icy ques­tion of our time. The ex­tremes of the de­bate range from those who wish to see the Eighth Amend­ment re­pealed in its en­tirety and not re­placed, to those who hold the view that the Eighth Amend­ment should re­main in place — and also a range of views in the spec­trum be­tween those two po­si­tions.

When kick­ing a can down a road, it is usu­ally help­ful if the can is heavy and the road long and straight. So it seemed like a good idea at the time — to en­trust the State’s most heav­ily charged pol­icy mat­ter to the Cit­i­zens’ Assem­bly fo­rum. As chair of the Assem­bly, the for­mi­da­ble Ms Jus­tice Mary Laf­foy, faced with a task on the scale of the char­i­o­teer in Plato’s al­le­gory of the two winged horses, seems to have been drawn to­wards con­clu­sions with which even the most lib­eral mem­bers of the Cabi­net seem ill at ease.

Such is the com­plex­ity of the is­sue that while we know the ap­prox­i­mate tim­ing of the ref­er­en­dum, we do not yet know the ques­tion which will be put to the peo­ple. The task of de­ci­pher­ing the pro­posal has been placed in the hands of an Oireach­tas Com­mit­tee. Its de­lib­er­a­tions, to date, have been tur­bu­lent, to put it mildly.

The least one should be able to ex­pect from an Oireach­tas Com­mit­tee charged with ex­am­in­ing all as­pects of the pro­posed ref­er­en­dum on abor­tion is that there would be bal­ance brought to bear in terms of the peo­ple in­vited be­fore it and bal­ance in terms of time al­lo­cated to each side. The var­i­ous ref­er­en­dums that have been held over the past 30 years could be viewed as stag­ing posts in the evo­lu­tion of our coun­try. But one would have to ques­tion whether these cam­paigns must al­ways be so di­vi­sive.

As we con­tinue on the jour­ney to re­de­fine our iden­tity as a peo­ple and face into an abor­tion ref­er­en­dum next year, we would do well as a so­ci­ety to re­mem­ber that true lib­er­al­ism must by its na­ture en­com­pass an open­ness to, and re­spect for, the views of those whose views are not aligned with our own views.

‘Ob­jec­tiv­ity has long faded and has been re­placed by cheerleading...’

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