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When it comes to abortion, the truth of Ireland’s wild hypocrisy emerges. Proudly progressive yet darkly conservative, it’s time modern Ireland decides what kind of country it wants to be.
Ireland was the first country in the world to implement legislation banning smoking in the workplace in 2004, yet it stands to be one of the last countries in the EU to bring in legislation liberalising abortion rights. In 2015 Ireland was the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, yet today it still has the strictest rules on abortion in the EU after Malta. In 2017 Ireland became one of five countries in the world to have ever had an openly gay head of state (and the son of an Indian immigrant at that), yet Irish women still have less autonomy over their reproductive rights than their counterparts in Poland and Hungary, two countries tip-toeing towards far-right autocracy. These contradictions are at the heart of Irish society today as Ireland grapples with its identity, cautiously deciding which baggage from its past to keep, and which to discard.
How can a country be so progressive on one hand, whilst simultaneously ultra conservative on the other? It’s the type of contradiction that seems unique to Ireland, a nation steeped in a peculiarity that the tourist board have done a fine job of repackaging as “mysticism”. Ireland is the sort of place that could find a cure to cancer, only for it to emerge that the Black Death has broken out in Roscommon a week later.
We are naturally anti-imperialist in our worldview and sceptical of centralised power, an overhang from our colonial past. Yet, we gleefully accept investment from American corporations and turn the other cheek as their jets refuel in our airports, on their way to their own theatres of war in the Middle East.
Ireland’s attitude to EU membership flits between enthusiastic and begrudging. Ireland famously voted against the Nice treaty in 2001, only to change its mind and vote it through in a second referendum. Ireland is like a restless lover that yearns to jilt its boring partner but hesitates because he keeps her financially secure.
Until quite recently the EU was viewed with contempt by a large portion of the population, due to the harsh austerity measures imposed under the terms of 2008’s bailout. Today as the economy improves and the EU backs up Ireland on the Northern border issue, all appears to be forgiven. It’s almost as if when the UK decided it was no longer European, Ireland decided it was more European than ever. With the full weight of our European partners behind us, Ireland has found itself dictating the terms of the border question to Britain for the first time in our history. What a thrilling position to be in, like a child prodding the chest of the schoolyard bully knowing he has some of the bigger boys watching his back.
Meeting Britain as equals on the world stage and confidently asserting our national interests is certainly a perk of EU membership, and perhaps another example of Ireland maturing as a nation state. For the moment at least Ireland is fiercely European, and is embracing globalism more generally as money from American multinationals continues to swell our pockets.
Indeed, as the rest of Europe grapples with multi-culturalism and lurches either to the right or left, Ireland seems very happy trundling along the centre ground. It’s tempting to think that the lack of appetite for far-right politics in this country is due to some nobility in the national character, but the reality is that Ireland today is still an overwhelmingly white, Catholic country that has not been impacted by immigration in the same way as many of our neighbours. If not entirely fashionable, homogeneity does provide Ireland with an opportunity at a national consensus. What is Brand Ireland? Is it an open, liberal society enthusiastically accepting foreign investment, or is it something more conservative, more Catholic, more Eurosceptic? We cannot continue with the hybrid approach indefinitely, try as we might to be all things to all people.
The referendum on May 25th gives Ireland another opportunity to decide what kind of country it wants to be. The neo-Nazi skin head groups in Poland at least have the decency to allow abortion in instances of rape and incest, but we in Ireland, draped in LGBT flags and pockets full of American tech money, are still making up our minds.