Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Abortion

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

Lovely Girls, 20 Years On…

You’re the state broadcaster of a small country. You’ve secured the first European interview with two of the recently released Russian punk feminist activists Pussy Riot. Do you arrange an interview with one of your most experienced interviewers, a woman possibly, known herself for her championing of women’s rights in Ireland? Do you plan a wide ranging issue that will cover the context of these courageous young women’s stand, their subsequent incarceration and their points about the Russia they’ve grown up in? Do you draw sensitive comparisons with tensions in Irish society to produce a hard hitting interview that will be shown as a stand alone broadcast with quotes trailed across news coverage and circulated to other news outlets both in Ireland and abroad to generate as much coverage of what is undoubtedly an important and notable coup for the station?

Or do you instead put the interview on a light entertainment show on a Saturday night, giving the host the brief to approach his guests with all the sensitivity of the famous Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted? The state broadcaster is RTE. The country is Ireland. The interview takes place on the Saturday Night Show. It’s the car crash you would expect – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Here it is.

I mean, where do you start with that? Host Brendan O’Connor stays true to Father Ted by repeatedly referring to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as “girls”. O’Connor, fresh from the previous week’s Iona-gate, or should that be Panti-gate,  transcript here, feels the need to have an explanation of why he was caught kissing a bloke on the telly. He asks them whether they think Madonna is an activist like them. He tells Nadezhda and her husband Pytor Verzilov to stop having a “domestic” (although I would dearly love to know exactly what the two women were actually saying in Russian. I have a feeling Pytor was delivering some of the most tactful translation we’ve seen on Irish television in years. My respect for them all actually went up by a couple of notches when they lasted to the end of the interview, even if they made a pointed exit at the earliest opportunity.

I wish that this thing was a one off but sadly it’s not. The list of mind boggling clangers from the national broadcaster is far too long to go into here – those moments when you do a double take because you can’t believe you’ve just heard or seen what you have just heard or seen. The moments when you take to Facebook or Twitter because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. The moments when you find yourself referencing Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais, when you ruefully say “I hope this doesn’t go viral”. We’re used to it here. Ireland is a small country and sometimes the inevitable tinge of parochialism lends itself to rather jawdropping lapses of judgement.

The Irish tend to be a kind nation. You won’t get the character assassinations here that accompany a high profile slip elsewhere. It might be hard to  believe in the cut and thrust of the social networks but there’s still a very strong sense of the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. But this one humane characteristic can also be one of the most dangerous. It can mean that the bar isn’t raised high enough because the constructive criticism wasn’t there. It can mean that complacency flourishes and egos go unchecked. At it’s worst it can lead to a blind eye being turned on a golden child.

We cringe at the Pussy Riot interview, as we should, but that’s not enough.  We should also be angry at a wasted opportunity. Pussy Riot protested against an oppressive, intertwined church and state. That’s something that should ring a few bells over here. We live in a country where the state broadcaster will buckle at the first hint of a threat from the Catholic right. We live in a country where there is no legislation governing fertility treatment, where we have abortion law for less than a month. We live in a country where men are routinely allowed to escape jail time for sex crimes if they have a large enough wallet – there’s even another one today. But we cringe and we let it go, until the next time. We vent on Twitter, maybe go on a march, but what ever really changes?

Nadezhda and Maria are obviously highly intelligent young women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to accept an Irish pitch for their first European chat show interview because they were aware of at least some of the issues we have in Ireland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a degree of kinship with feminists here. Perhaps they saw Ireland as a country that had come further than Russia but that knew how hard the road was to travel. What they found though was how little has changed. How few women have a voice on primetime broadcasts and how little the status quo has been rocked. The gaffs O’Connor made were those of a man who’s used to referring to his female friends and colleagues as “girls”, who would still make sexist jokes without really thinking about it, who hasn’t really put much thought into the whole sexual equality thing. To be fair, he may well think he’s a fully reconstructed new man who could easily navigate the interview. Someone really ought to tell him otherwise.

What is crushingly depressing about the Pussy Riot interview is the whole inevitability of it. It would have been more surprising to have seen them interviewed by someone like Miriam O’Callaghan in a serious, wide ranging interview that sat proudly in the Prime Time strand or out on its own. That’s what should have happened, but it was never going to. Over the years as a journalist I’ve worked with so many talented, intelligent women, many of whom have gone a long way. But when you step back and take a long look, it’s not enough. I was watching the last part of The Bridge last night and it struck me just how many strong female characters there were. But the really extraordinary thing was that this wasn’t a thing. It’s not a madly feminist series. These were just women. Some of them were cops, some of them were stay at home mothers, some were CEOs or scientists. It really wasn’t a thing. That’s equality. I don’t think we’re even ready to begin that discussion here yet.

On Fishes and Bicycles and Other Hard Concepts

When I was very small I was taught that it was important to know right from wrong. I was told that I was a lucky girl who got to live in a civilised country, in a comfortable house, who got to go to a good school and who didn’t know anything about war or famine other than what the pictures on the little cardboard money boxes I brought home from school showed. I was taught that because I was a lucky girl in all these ways I understood there were those who weren’t as fortunate and who didn’t have what I had. It was important I stood up for what was right, what was fair.

It was a fairly standard liberal middle class indoctrination. But it stuck. Even now the one thing that reduces me to red-faced, fist-clenched, speechless rage is unfairness. I’m not talking sulky, pouty, “but I want it” unfairness here, by the way. Oh no. This is the kind of jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, bone-crunching unfairness that’s like a slap in the face with the sharp edge of a damp smelly towel. It doesn’t compute. It can’t, it’s wrong, spelled out in capital letters that are probably red and flashing.

When I was about five and the world was a far simpler, softer place that fundamental instability was locked in a milk carton. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t open the side of the carton myself to get at the last drops and instead had to wait with my arm raised, the puddle of milk in the corner of the carton getting warmer and sharper by the second. I couldn’t understand why I got into trouble when I opened it myself and showed my friends how to open theirs. It didn’t compute. It just wasn’t right.

When I was a little older I learnt there were bigger things that weren’t fair too. I remember well the burning cheeks and stinging eyes at being denied Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. I’ve felt them often. Once that stuff starts happening it doesn’t stop. You can’t get lost in a knot of rage every time it happens though. You grow up. You learn to stand your ground.

But this isn’t a trip down memory lane. I’m trying to make a point.  I wouldn’t consider myself madly political but I do believe that I have no right to judge my fellow human beings, that empathy and compassion are evolutionary traits and that everyone deserves dignity and freedom. Every so often, when I’m blunt about the things that matter to me, when I tweet about racism or blog about abortion or atheism, someone will tell me I’m brave for speaking out. What I’m trying to explain is that bravery has absolutely nothing to do with it. I was raised with a particular moral framework, a “sense of fair play”. Why wouldn’t you stand up for that?

Of course, I’m well aware that there will be some reading this who don’t think what I’m saying is reasonable or obvious in the slightest. They will have got as far as the title of this piece and dismissed me as a mouthy feminist, a dissolute member of the liberal meeja, a purveyor of happy clappy bullshit. It’s because of this dismissal of values that I consider fundamental and absolutely bleeding obvious that I have, in the past hesitated about tackling a range of subjects head on – and that’s at the heart of the problem.

In tackling these subjects I’m aware that perhaps I may be painting myself in a less than favourable light. It’s been suggested to me more than once that by being honest about my liberal opinions I could offend people, even jeopardise my career prospects. In my head there’s still a treacherous little voice warning me I could come across as “strident” and no boy will ever want me (well, perhaps not quite). Yup, it’s still there. I live in a Western European country, I’m middle-class, educated. As a woman I’ve benefitted from the ground gained by former generations, by the hard won right to a third level, even second level education, to vote, to have autonomy.  Looking back over my family tree I can watch as they joined the middle classes and benefitted from greater opportunities and wider choices. Over the past century or so the world has changed beyond recognition because people saw that progress lay in these fundamental rights. The right to work for a fair wage, in decent conditions. The right to an education. The right to own property.

These changes have given us the world we live in today. They’ve benefitted the right as much as the left (although the former land owning men who once held all the power must be feeling a wee bit hard done by). Many of the social and religious conservatives seeking to shape the world we live in today wouldn’t have a voice if it wasn’t for these waves of progress. So why does it so often feel that we haven’t moved forward at all?

Last night during the late night sitting over the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled his colleague Áine Collins TD onto his lap. He’s since apologised but it’s a stark reminder of why that treacherous little voice is still telling me to be quiet. Mr Barry has since apologised and the whole thing is being brushed away and that again is the problem. I know that if a male friend did the same in the pub I’d take exception. I also know that if I did so at least some of the company would tell me not to over react. I know this because over the years this kind of stuff has happened many, many times. I know it’s wrong but in the past I’ve laughed it off myself to play the game.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen it so many times. I’m out of patience. I fail to see why speaking up should make me mouthy, or militant, or strident. I could be fairly sure that Mr Tom Barry TD would not have grabbed one of his male colleagues and wrestled with him on the benches of the Dáil Chamber. That kind of horse play just wouldn’t have been proper in such solemn circumstances. The fact that he and his colleagues think this is a minor, if insulting, lapse in judgement says it all. It’s not right, it’s not fair and it shouldn’t be an issue to say so.

This isn’t a call to arms, or an incitement to anything. I’m really not that dogmatic. But it’s always important to stick up for what’s right. That will never change.

Every Sperm is Sacred (with apologies to Monty Python)

Pro Life marchers

I’ve written a lot on this blog about issues that affect women but there’s one subject I’ve always steered clear of. Abortion is a contentious subject the world over but here it’s a subject that tears the country apart. It’s the wedge driven between two Irelands, a poison seeped into the heart of the Irish family. Any public debate that strays near that hallowed ground will get infected with a contagion that threatens to swamp any liberalising call – it’s a wonder any progress has been made at all.

As any regular reader of this blog knows my upbringing was not an Irish catholic one. I was born in London and raised C of E. I was wired by that schematic and even though I’ve lived in Ireland since my teens that schematic never really changes. I have never been particularly religious, although at one point I did end up teaching Sunday School (actually not half as long or interesting a story as you’d perhaps think) and these days I tend to describe myself as an atheist just to forestall any confusion. I’m not of the dogmatic atheistic persuasion though. If you want to believe in something knock yourself out, just let me believe or disbelieve what I choose. I won’t try to rattle your cage if you don’t try to rattle mine. My approach to abortion would be along the same lines. It’s all a matter of choice. Those who want, or more usually need to have one should be supported through a difficult period of their lives. Those who don’t agree with it should be free not to have one. I really wouldn’t have thought it was all that difficult. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach this any other way.

That’s why I don’t write about abortion. It feels as if it’s not my argument. I’m pro choice. I’ll fight for the right for women faced with that difficult decision to have all the options open to them. It is barbaric to expect them to travel outside the country. It always was. It always will be. The fact that it has taken this long to get to the point where the Irish Government is on the brink of legislating to clarify the mire of case law that’s built up since the so-called 8th Amendment is insane. But that’s Ireland. That’s the hornet’s nest I don’t particularly want to kick.

The Government are due to vote on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill on Wednesday. For the past weeks and months the pro life movement have been ramping up the hysteria. Once again it’s getting deafening, the roaring of old Catholic Ireland in it’s pain.

It was absolutely deafening, as I watched the “Rally for Life” make it’s triumphal way down O’Connell Street in the blazing sun last Saturday afternoon. Watching faces grimacing in smug malice as they shook Youth Defence-provided posters at the pro-choice protesters lining their route, it was clear that here were two utterly incompatible Irelands, suspended over a chasm. Marching down the road, jeering at the counter protest, occasionally throwing salt and holy water to cast out the demons inhabiting their fellow country men and women, these people saw an Ireland tinted with the sugary washes of an old postcard. This is the Ireland that wanted Monty Python banned. This is the Ireland that keeps seeing the Virgin Mary in inanimate objects. This Ireland is the poster child for ultra-conservative Catholicism. The question will always be, does that Ireland actually exist?

We all know that there was a time when that Ireland was real enough. This country has been dealing with the legacy of that Ireland for many years, learning the sombre lesson that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely again, and again and again.  Certainly the people on that march on Saturday believe that Ireland still exists – but it’s not the country I know and love. That Ireland is the one that has flourished despite the poison leeching into it from it’s toxic twin. I’m not saying that Catholicism per se is bad, but when dogmatism creeps into any religion, when it becomes a single-minded fervour that stamps out compassion and empathy and rationality, well, that’s never good.

The subject of abortion in Ireland is sadly a very powerful magnet that very dogmatism and several thousand people proudly paraded their lack of compassion on Saturday. They called female protestors “sluts” and  “murderers”, they made their own children cry for political ends, they laughed at the passion of the opposing view (all widely reported on Twitter and Facebook and all seen personally by me as I watched). This was the grinning face of Old Ireland standing defiant on the battle field.  They’re looking for a fight. They will not back down. But the Ireland they think is all around them is gone. It’s frozen on old postcards, it’s discussed from the psychiatrist’s couch.

Sadly I don’t think there’s any easy solution to any of this. The poison will keep eating away. But hopefully compassion and empathy and rationality will rule the day and the country will move forward, even if it must drag the panting body of Old Ireland along with it. Some things will never be easy. But we must do them anyway.

Time to Say Enough

So here I am throwing open my window and shouting out into the night – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”. Something has to change and it has to change now. The past week has been a bad week to be a woman in Ireland. Actually not just a woman, it’s been a bad week to be in Ireland.

On Saturday, 70% of the voters in this country were too confused or too apathetic to go to their local polling station and vote on the rights of children. In a country that has seen countless children abused and ignored over the history of the State, you’d think this would be a subject that people might have feelings on. There were strong feelings on both sides but they did not translate to votes. Of the 30% who voted on an amendment that was supported by every major political party, not to mention the majority of advocates for and protectors of children, 40% of that 30% voted No.

On Wednesday the country awoke to the news that a healthy 31-year-old woman, expecting her first child, had died needlessly and avoidably while doctors stood by staring at a foetal heart monitor while the mother died of septicaemia. As the world now knows, last month Savita Halappanavar arrived at University College Hospital, Galway complaining of back pains. She was miscarrying at 17 weeks and her amniotic fluid was leaking. Instead of bringing her in and helping her through this traumatic event safely and speedily, doctors waited until there was no foetal heartbeat before acting. She died in agony a week later after repeatedly asking doctors to terminate her pregnancy. They failed to act. Savita’s husband has said that on at least one of the occasions his wife asked for an abortion she was told that option was not available as Ireland is a Catholic country. There will be an inquiry into what happened in Galway but it’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Irish abortion law that the legal situation is a mess. There’s been a lot written about Savita all over the world over the past two days and there will be a lot more but here in Ireland we’re good at talking and not so good at acting.

Also on Wednesday 39-year-old graphic designer Mark Jordan, with an address at Donabate, North County Dublin, who beat journalist Jane Ruffino and left her scarred for life, walked away from court with a suspended sentence and the price of her suffering was put at €5000. Sadly, as the linked article points out, this sentence was not unique. The judge, former garda Martin Nolan has considerable form but here in Ireland this kind of story might cause outrage but it’s a weary outrage dampened by overuse for as long as anyone can remember. Those who attack women or children here are rarely sentenced to more than a couple of years in jail. Sentences of more than eight years are rare. It’s a subject that has angered me since I started working in the courts and one that I’ve written about often on this blog.

So that’s one week, seven days, that have shown the dark side of Ireland. The side that would prefer to stay in the shadow of the Church, ears closed against the cries of the vulnerable, in pursuit of a life of piety and obedience. This is the holy Catholic Ireland of legend where dissent is quashed, the Church reigns supreme, men are men and women and children shut up and do what they are told. It’s hard to see this Ireland in 21st Century Dublin on a day to day basis but there are certain things that make it show it’s face. Any time the Family is mentioned you will see it. It’s the reason why successive Irish governments have taken more than 20 years to act on the X case. It’s the reason why there’s also no legislation on Assisted Human Reproduction here and why the country’s fertility clinics are unregulated. Make no mistake, holy Catholic Ireland is very much alive.

There are plenty here who’d like to go back to that Ireland. They feel safer there, wrapped in so much moral certainty, but what about those who don’t want to go back? What about those who are happy with the more secular, more liberal country we have now? Who have been ashamed of their country as the world watches the story of Savita’s tragic death unfold? What about those who didn’t come from that tradition in the first place, plentiful in our increasingly multi cultural society? Savita and her husband are Hindu but they were bound by the laws of old holy Ireland. There are plenty of couples who aren’t religious who go through fertility treatment every year but have to endure the the taboo that still exists around it because of these attitudes. But they are vocal, these inhabitants of holy Ireland. They try to shout down voices raised against them, just as they always did. So governments fail to act. The people fail to speak up, to shout stop. But it’s time we all stood up and said we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. It’s not ok that men can attack women with little consequence. It’s not ok that women in desperate need of medical care are forced to travel outside the State if they have any hope of receiving it. It’s not ok that people don’t stand up, don’t speak out, don’t demand change. It’s not ok that couples are judged because they have IVF.

I want to live in a country I can be proud of but after the week that’s in it, that country isn’t Ireland. There might be a chance to change things though, even after this horrible week. There are demonstrations and vigils all over the country and beyond in the wake of Savita’s death. Let this be a catalyst for change. One that both the politicians and holy Ireland will have to listen to.

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