John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

ITALY

 

Despite the 11th hour agreement to form a new government in Rome, Italy still has the potential to send Europe into depression, if the costly promises made in the election campaign are kept, and long overdue and difficult reforms further postponed.

The Italian government debt is 130% of GDP. If the financial markets lost confidence in an Italian government’s ability or willingness to service and roll over this debt, there could be a rapid series of events leading to Italy’s exit from the euro, and widespread loss of confidence in the bonds of indebted countries.

What could trigger this?

The parties in the new Italian coalition government, 5 Star and the Lega, promised during the election

  • to reverse a recent VAT increase ( cost €12.5billion),
  • to introduce a flat tax (€50 billion),
  • to introduce a basic income(€17 billion) and
  • to scrap a recent pension reform( €8 billion).

These measures could bring the budget deficit from its present 1.9% of GDP to a staggering 7% of GDP. That would certainly create a financial crisis. It would break EU rules too.

It would also impoverish Italian voters, especially older Italians with savings . Despite years of low growth, the average Italian household still has more net wealth than the average German household. But a lot of that wealth is tied up with the Italian banks and their bonds.

Overall, two thirds of Italian government bonds are owned by Italian residents, including Italian banks, so many Italian households would be suddenly impoverished if these bonds were devalued. A sudden rise in interest rates in Italy would devalue bonds that had been issued at a lower rate of interest. Of course leaving the euro would devalue them even more.

48% of the bonds of the Italian government are held by Italian banks themselves. A loss of confidence in Italian bonds could destroy the capital base of some Italian banks. That could lead to a run on the banks, like the Northern Rock situation.

The European Central Bank (ECB) could step in to stop such a crisis. It has power to buy Italian government bonds, under its OMT programme. But the OMT programme can only be brought into operation if the Italian government has first applied for help, and has signed up to a tight austerity programme. The present Italian government would have difficulty agreeing as this would go against its election promises.

But the ECB would have to insist on the austerity measures. Otherwise, it would be simply sending good money after bad, something that would not appeal to European taxpayers who are the ultimate owners of the ECB.

For the last 10 years, Italian politicians, including the parties who lost the recent Italian General Election as well as those who won, have been blaming the constraints of euro membership, and the disciplines supposedly imposed by Brussels and Germany, for the sluggish performance of the Italian economy, and for the fact that Italian wages are still far below what they were in 2007.

But, as a recent IMF study of the Italian economy shows, the reasons for stagnant incomes in Italy are to be found in Italy itself, not in Brussels.

Since 2000, the total factor productivity of the Italian economy has fallen by 6 %, whereas productivity in Spain has risen by 2% and in France by 4%.

Since 2000, investment has risen by 10% in Spain and by 20% in France, while it has fallen by 15% in Italy.

France and Spain are in the euro too, so euro membership does not explain Italy’s under performance.

Italy’s problems derive from a number of factors.

One is the big increase in its spending and debt levels that took place in the 1980’s.

Another is the fact that its administrative and legal systems have inhibited the reallocation of Italian talent, money, and effort from less productive to more productive activities.

The arteries of the Italian economy are blocked by a sluggish parliamentary and courts system, by out of date insolvency laws, and by an over large public sector. Wages are set centrally with little regard to the profitability of individual firms. A lot of capital is tied up in zombie businesses, many state owned.

Reforms have been made by previous governments to liberalize the labour market and the professions, but these will take time to yield results, and are insufficient on their own.

Italy is a rapidly ageing society, so the proposed reversal of the recent pension reforms by the new government would worsen the situation.

On the other hand, the new government’s flat tax and basic income proposals could, if combined with radical measures to combat tax evasion, remove tax shelters and  improve work incentives, improve the overall efficiency of Italy.

Euro membership has prevented Italy from using the devaluation to restore competitiveness at the price of higher inflation. Older Italians have benefitted from this. Italian savers (mainly older people) have been protected from the devaluation of their savings, through inflation. that took place before the euro.

But the failure to free up the arteries of the Italian economy through structural reform has meant that job seekers (mainly younger people) have suffered. Many talented young Italians have emigrated, some to Ireland.

The new Italian government could tilt the balance in favour of young Italy, and attract those young people home, if it combined its popular tax and welfare plans with, much less popular but equally urgent, reforms to administration, the courts, wage setting,  insolvency and pensions.

The first big test will come in October when a budget has to be presented. That is when the new government’s real  priorities will be revealed.

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Brexit and the island of Ireland: the all-Ireland economy and the border question

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James Patrick Farrell


JP Farrell was an MP for West Cavan and later for North Longford from 1895 to 1918.

In this the centenary of the end of his parliamentary career it is right that his parliamentary service be remembered.  We should remember those who, like JP Farrell, lived for Ireland and not just those who killed or died for Ireland. Why is this?

WHAT SHOULD WE COMMEMORATE?

Commemorations are about shaping the future by selecting events from our past that provide useful guidance for the future.

We should reflect on something President John Kennedy once said.

He said a

“nation reveals itself  by the events it chooses to commemorate.”

Ireland today is a rule of law based, parliamentary, democracy. It has integrated itself with its European neighbours, by peaceful negotiation and compromise, without the use of force. It is militarily neutral, and the military power is subordinate to the civil power.

This is what we are.

Yet, if , year after year, we commemorate events in which people were killed, or where people took the law into their own hands,  and neglect what was achieved by non violent methods, we are ignoring President Kennedy’s advice. We are not reflecting what we are, or what we hope to be.

We are not only distorting our history, we are also providing poor guidance to future generations about how they should go about making Ireland a better and more harmonious place to live in the future.

That is why this event, commemorating a life of constitutional agitation and parliamentary service, is so important and timely.

SHOULD WE NOT PRIORITIZE PARLIAMENTARY AND PEACEFUL ACHIEVEMENTS?

We should instead seek inspiration from the, non violent, parliamentary  achievements of a century ago, of people like JP Farrell MP.

They include

  • the enactment of Home Rule,
  • the ending of landlordism ( a cause with which JP Farrell was particularly associated),
  • the establishment of the National University  
  • the introduction of old age pensions
  • the provision of public housing through the Labourers Acts and
  • National Insurance…

all parliamentary, and non violent achievements, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond, John Dillon,  Joe Devlin, and the man we remember today, JP Farrell played a big part.

If one scrutinises the record of debates in the House of Commons, now available on line, one gets a sense of the practical patriotism of the (unpaid) Irish MPs who travelled to London to represent their constituents and their country.

As we will hear from his great grandson and biographer, Dr Joseph Quinn, JP Farrell was a particularly assiduous MP.

He raised such issues in Parliament  as telephone connection to Longford, the division of estates by the Land Commission and the export of hay. He served this area very well.

He also had to overcome great hardships, being effectively orphaned at a very early age. As well as his service as an MP, he founded the “Longford Leader” newspapers and other business enterprises.

John Bruton, former Taoiseach, speaking  in St Mel’s College Longford after the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the  work of JP Farrell MP at 8pm on 31 May 2018

 

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THE DAWNING REALITY OF BREXIT

At a conference last week, I heard Owen Patterson, Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, say that the UK should renege on the “backstop” agreement on the Irish border, given by Teresa May to EU negotiators.

He admitted that Irish public opinion ”hates Brexit”, yet seemed to expect the Irish government to make Brexit easy for the UK! That is naive.

At the same event, Lord Alderdice, former Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, said the Good Friday Agreement came about because the protagonists put the emphasis on developing new relationships between the communities in Northern Ireland, rather than on detailed rules and economic questions.

It seems to me that the absence of this sort of broad thinking, in the UK about the EU,  led to Brexit. UK public opinion saw joining the EU as a business transaction, rather than as a long term relationship building exercise.

When David Cameron decided to have a referendum on leaving the EU, it did not occur to him to call a meeting of the British / Irish Intergovernmental Conference, set up under the Good Friday agreement, to explore how this might affect relations between the UK and Ireland, between North and South and, consequently, within Northern Ireland.

This was myopic. It demonstrated a lack of seriousness, which persists.

 A similar myopia affected the UK relationship with the EU as a whole. UK decision makers saw the EU in purely functional terms, rather than as a means of developing new relationships.

The UK still hopes to negotiate access for itself to the UK Customs Union and Single Market, without joining either of them, and without allowing the freedom of movement of people that all EU members grant to each other, or accepting that the rules will be interpreted by the European Court of Justice(ECJ).

This is unrealistic. Any dilution of freedom of movement would require an amendment of the EU Treaties which would require the unanimous agreement of all 27 EU states. This will not be forthcoming. The ECJ is essential to ensure uniform interpretation of market rules, especially in services.

UK politicians and opinion formers forget that the EU is a rules based organisation, with a common system for making, interpreting and enforcing the agreed rules. In this, the EU is different from other international organisations.

The Treaties founding the EU are the equivalent of a written constitution, which is hard to amend. As the UK has no written constitution of its own, it finds this difficult to accept. These differences in perspective between the EU and UK will continue to cause trouble, unless UK politicians educate their electorate about the nature of the EU.

At this stage in the negotiations, the UK is seeking to interpret Article 49 of the Joint Report, the so called “backstop”, to cover the whole UK, and not just Ireland.

The wording of the Article is as follows;

  1. The United Kingdom remains committed “to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

Reading the paragraph as a whole, it is clear that it is about Ireland, not about the two islands.

In any event, there is no possibility of the other EU countries allowing the whole UK to enjoy the benefits of full access to EU markets simply by aligning its rules, but without allowing free movement of people and accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court.

The UK government is committed to having a frictionless border in Ireland and is considering two possible customs arrangements with the EU to achieve this.

One is called a “Customs Partnership”, which would see the UK collecting the EU tariffs on goods entering the UK, but destined for the EU, and then passing the money on to Brussels. It is hard to see the EU sub contracting its revenue collection to an external power over which it had no control. The Palestinian experience of subcontracting its revenue collection to Israel has not been a happy one.

The other customs option, called “Maximum Facilitation”, entails doing the customs controls, currently done at the border, remotely using technology. This technology is untried and there would be data protection and privacy concerns. It would still entail the preparation of customs declarations for all consignments of goods. This bureaucracy will add between £17 billion and £ 20 billion the business costs, or £32 per declaration, according to the UK Revenue authorities. This will make trade unprofitable in many cases.

The fact that, even at this stage, the UK has not made up its mind between these options, and has not yet made a detailed proposal is disquieting.

The EU will not be bounced into agreeing a half baked proposal, presented just before the Summit,  which attempts to evade the consequences of the UK’s own decision to quit the Single Market and Customs Union.

Those decisions were taken by the Prime Minister, not by Parliament, and should be reversed.

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WHAT IS THE IRISH DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?

ARBITRARY LIMITS BEING SET IN ABORTION  REFERENDUM DEBATE

What human rights should be protected in our constitution?

Is a right to life not the primary human right, in the sense that without it other human rights could not be exercised?

Who is human? If a baby before it is born is human, ought it have human rights?

These are the issues at the heart of the Referendum on the 8th Amendment.

In 1982, Garret FitzGerald, Leader of Fine Gael, told the party’s Ard Fheis;

“All life, whether of citizens or of people of other nationalities, whether born or unborn, should be protected by our constitution”.

This carefully worded statement was one of fundamental values, going to the heart of Garret FitzGerald’s, and Fine Gael’s, political tradition.

As one of his successors, I was often asked what Fine Gael stood for, and my answer was that the party stood for three things, for a society in which “every person counts”, for exclusively constitutional politics, and for European unity. I added that “every person” included babies before birth.

These three principles were consistent with, and flowed from one another. Protection of human life necessitated the avoidance of violent conflict in Europe, and also lay behind the party’s commitment to constitutionalism in Irish politics. Respect for human life, born and unborn, foreign or native, was at the heart of our entire approach to politics.

The idea that a constitution should protect human rights is, in fact, fundamental to our western civilization. Without a right to life, one cannot exercise any other constitutional rights. The right to life is thus the primary human right.

For example, the Irish constitution also explicitly recognises a right to freedom of expression, to one’s good name, to property and to elementary education.  But none of those constitutional rights can be exercised, if one had not first had the right to be born.

The Irish courts have gone further and have decided that the constitution creates other rights, not explicitly mentioned in the constitution, so called “unenumerated rights”.  These unenumerated constitutional rights include a right to marry, a right to procreate and a right to bodily integrity. Again, it would be impossible to exercise any of those rights, if one had not first had a right to be born.

It was also in that pro life spirit, that the Irish people also decided that the Irish constitution should ban the death penalty, even for heinous crimes. Our strong public, and private, support for life saving aid to Third World countries is also derived from the same pro life convictions among the Irish people. An avoidable death of a baby in Africa is a pro life challenge too.

Indeed, at the time the 8th Amendment was introduced, there were many who argued that it was not needed, because a child before birth would be deemed by the Irish courts to enjoy a right to life anyway, an unenumerated right so to speak, because without it, it would not be able to have to exercise the other rights to which it would be constitutionally entitled.

Unfortunately, that is not the way things have turned out. The Supreme Court has decided recently that a child in the womb has no rights at all, except the basic right to life contained explicitly in the 8th Amendment. Now even that may be taken away if a majority vote Yes on 25 May.

Abortion ends a life. Once it has happened there is no going back, no recovery. It is final.

Yes, there are tragic pregnancies, and difficult consequences flow from them. But at least there is some possibility to remedy, or alleviate, some of those consequences. But no remedy is open to the unborn child whose life is ended. It is over before it has properly begun.

The taking of the life of another, without its consent, can never be a private matter, for a woman or for a man. It is inherently a matter of public policy. Indeed, if human rights are to mean anything, any denial of the human rights of another person is necessarily and always a matter of public policy.

I have to say I have a real difficulty understanding the concept of human rights espoused by the proponents of abortion legislation.

It seems that some of them believe a baby, before birth, is not really human at all. Thus it would not have human rights, including a right to life. The idea here seems to be that, because an unborn baby is totally dependent on its mother, it is therefore not yet human, and has no human rights.

But dependency is part of life, and not a sound ground for denying the humanity of anyone. Babies after birth, and older people at the end of their lives, are deeply dependent too. They could not survive on their own.

But, to date, no one is suggesting they should not have human rights. If a two day old baby is human, and has a right to life, why not little girls and boys three months before they are born? What is the ethical and scientific basis for saying one has human rights, and the other does not?

I was very disappointed that the Oireachtas Committee was not asked to explore these fundamental questions of what it is to be human, who is human, and who should have human rights, before making its radical recommendations.

Without such a discussion, the referendum is premature. As a society, we must agree amongst ourselves on the basis and scope of human rights in Ireland, before making a decision to withdraw the most fundamental of all human rights from a section of our people.  We have not done that. That is why I urge people to vote “No” on 25 May.

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GREECE……..OPTIMISM BUT MUCH WORK STILL TO DO

I attended a conference organised by the “Economist” in Loutraki in Greece in the past week. I had attended a similar event in Greece in the past five years and the contrast was remarkable.

There was a palpable sense of optimism at last week’s event.

Soon Greece will no longer be subject to detailed EU supervision of its policies. Its tourism industry is thriving.

Whereas the GDP fell in every year since 2009, it rose, at last, by 2% in 2017

Some problems remain.

Government debt is still 177% of GDP, and some of that debt should be written off.

Greek banks are not lending to productive business because of a legacy of bad debts.

Insolvency procedures have been very slow and a lot of capital is trapped in “zombie” firms.

The Land Registry system in Greece is underdeveloped so a lot of Greek property cannot be sold, or used as collateral to raise a loan for investment.

There is no venture capital industry. Foreign Direct Investment is only 15% of GDP in Greece, whereas it is 305% of GDP in Ireland. Exports are only 34% of Greek GDP, whereas they are over 100% in Ireland.

Greek businessmen feel they are over taxed on their personal income. Taxation has increased from 32% of GDP in 2009, to 41% in 2017.

Although big strides have been made, tax evasion is still substantial and a lot of business is done on a cash basis. Complying with tax obligations is unnecessarily time consuming.

Public spending has been curbed. State pensions absorb 17% of Greek GDP, as against only 5% in Ireland. Meanwhile, only 12% of the unemployed get state unemployment benefits.

There is still a lot of work to be done by Greek governments. The EU can do more to help, especially by writing off debt. But Greece is not the only EU country with debt problems. So precedent setting is an issue. The new government in Italy will test the coherence of EU economic policies. Greece may have to wait.

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NINE FACTORS THAT WILL DETERMINE EUROPE’S RATE OF ECONOMIC GROWTH IN FUTURE

The growth rate in Europe, in comparison that in the rest of the world, will be determined by the following nine factors

  1. the age structure of Europe’s working population. Most EU countries have more elderly populations than the global average and this, inevitably, reduces Europe’s relative growth potential. Older populations tend to resist the use of innovative technologies. The burden of large retired populations will lead to higher taxes on the working age population, which could lead to tax evasion or investment flight. An older population will tend to use Europe’s housing stock less fully, creating housing pressures for younger people.
  2. the educational level of its population. Generally speaking, the educational level of Europe’s population is above average and this increases Europe’s growth potential. Questions do arise as to the appropriateness, from an economic growth potential point of view, of some of the education provided. Digital skills will be very important in future, as will financial literacy. The educational efficiency of Europe’s universities will come in for scrutiny, as will the astronomical cost of university education in some elite universities in the US.
  3. whether the structure of the economy and of the labour and capital markets allows human, technological and financial resources to be reallocated relatively easily from low to high growth sectors. This is a problem that has been tackled in Greece. But some wealthier economies, like France and Germany, have a distance to go is clearing the arteries of their economies. Structural rigidities contribute to Germany’s historically low propensity to import, which has contributed to the imbalances in the euro zone
  4. whether there is a possibility of relatively easy technological “catch up” in a  particular European economy. A country, like Greece, which has been held back by financial problems, should have significant catch up possibilities. Central European countries are already experiencing catch up, but this will be limited by their demographic and emigration problems. Countries using mature technologies may face difficulties competing with new market entrants.
  5. a successful strengthening of the governance system of the euro zone could give a boost to confidence. Countries, like Germany and Netherlands, will only agree to this, if countries with weaker banking systems have either cleaned up their banking systems, or if the risk sharing is limited in a way that requires financial markets to recognise that some sovereign bonds are riskier than others.
  6. regional policy can help growth, but it can also inhibit it.  Tilting infrastructural spending in favour of more remote regions may lead to sub optimal use of limited resources. Younger people all over the world are tending to gravitate towards big cities for social reasons, and it may be that this trend cannot be arrested. This is reflected in expensive housing in some areas and empty houses elsewhere. Regional policy priorities will tend to be set on the basis of political priorities, which may not yield the best economic rate of return. On the other hand, more spending in more remote regions may have environmental and tourism benefits, which are harder to measure.
  7. transformative combinations of technologies ( eg. artificial intelligence, machine learning, enhanced connectivity, new forms of human machine interaction) may lead to a rapid spurt in growth in areas which can adopt them. But some existing jobs may be displaced and income inequalities increased. Simultaneously encouraging new technologies, while mitigating the inequalities they bring, will be a major challenge for states, given the ease with which capital can move from country to country. If one country increases its taxes to mitigate inequality, better off people will move to other countries with lower tax rates.
  8. future trade policy. Brexit has the potential to introduce major uncertainties and barriers within Europe. President Trump’s “America First“ policy could lead to a trans oceanic trade war, which is a symptom of the growing military competition between the US and China. Rejection of rule based international trade could stop economic growth in its tracks.
  9. migration pressures. Immigration can increase economic growth, but it can also lead to severe social friction and political upheavals. African agriculture needs new export opportunities in Europe, if Africans are not to seek to emigrate to Europe in increasing numbers. There is a trade off between trade policy and migration policy. Anti immigrant identity politics is a high emotional appeal, but could prove to be economically destructive for Europe

This list of factors that influence relative rates of growth shows that economic growth comes at a cost. Some societies may decide that they do not want to pay those costs, and opt for a lower rate of growth.

 

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SICILY, ANOTHER OFFSHORE ISLAND

I have just finished reading “Sicily, a Short history from the Ancient Greeks to Cosa Nostra” by John Julius Norwich.

A former British diplomat, Lord Norwich has also written a comprehensive history of the Byzantine Empire, and other historical and travel works, concerning the peoples of the Mediterranean.

Sicily, like Ireland, is an offshore island of Europe, but its history has been more varied.

A thousand years ago, Sicily was much more prosperous than Ireland.

For over the two thousand years it was at the crossroads of the known world. It was a key to the control of the Mediterranean.

Not surprisingly it was fought over many times, by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans. All left their mark on the architecture of the island.

The Greek influence is still predominant on the eastern side of Sicily, and the Arab in the west of the island. Greek was the predominant language in Sicily until the sixth century.

In more recent times, the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties fought the control Sicily.

At times Sicily was part of one political unit with Naples, at others it was independent.

Garibaldi started his military campaign to unify Italy in Sicily, and the Americans started their invasion of Europe in Sicily in 1943, an event which led to the fall of Mussolini.

Al these stories are told in a colourful way by Lord Norwich, who brings the characters of the protagonists vividly to life.

In ways, the history of Sicily is the history of Europe seen from a southern angle.

Sicilians have suffered from their strategic location. Outsiders interfered so much, that Sicilians never developed a sound, predictable and efficient political and civic system of their own. This weakness left a space for the growth of organisations like the Mafia.

In some respects, Italy, as a whole, faces a similar challenge today of building a lean state, that can govern economically, without avoidable delays or fuss.

 

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BREXIT…AN ONGOING SOURCE OF FRICTION

“The problems of Brexit will not end, but will intensify, after Brexit day.

It is unclear in what the direction the UK is setting sail, but clearly it will be moving further and further and further away from its closest neighbours. This will have cultural and political, as well as economic, consequences.

The Withdrawal negotiations, and the negotiation of some kind of replacement UK/EU relationship, will divert limited talent and time from constructive purposes, in the civil services and parliaments of  all of Europe for years to come.

That is a tragedy, inflicted on all of Europe by one country, notwithstanding that country having had a voting say in the EU for the last 44 years.

It is not as the EU has not already enough to do, apart from Brexit, on issues like

  • migration
  • rule of law,
  • eurozone governance reform,
  • relations with Russia,
  • defence policy, and
  • the completion of the single market.

Ireland must contribute vigorously to EU action on all these questions.

We cannot just talk and think about Brexit, however tempting that may be.

I fear the negotiation of a new Agreement, which will take years, is liable to generate new sources of friction between, and within, both the EU and the UK. 

EU unity in the negotiations, and the initiative power of the Commission which underlies that unity, should be supported”

 

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“ ONE OF US: WHY WE MUST CONTINUE TO PROTECT THE UNBORN”

SPEECH BY FINOLA BRUTON AT THE IONA INSTITUTE ON APRIL 10TH AT 8 PM IN THE ALEXANDER HOTEL DUBLIN.

May 25th may well mark a turning point for this country.

There is effectively only one question before us. Do we or do we not introduce a liberal abortion regime into this country.  This is not about some sing-song “ Repeal the eight “ day out at the polls.

For the most part, this is an agenda driven, ideologically led, media and youth focused attempt to allow for the extinction of the lives of thousands and thousands of our most vulnerable human beings before they have allowed to be born.

The rare cases upon which some pro choice advocates build their case, are really no longer the main issue. What is being proposed is beyond all expectations and has disturbed many middle of the road citizens.

Two leading female journalists, have unequivocally and chillingly stated that they accept that there is a baby in the womb but that that baby’s life must be trumped by a woman’s right to choose.

At least, one could argue, that they are accepting what many others will not accept and that is, what advances in science, have been incontrovertibly telling us for some time now. It is that we can no longer talk about a mere bunch of cells. That often, before a woman even knows that she is pregnant, there is a beating heart, and a rapidly developing little body, a little boy or a little girl.

A MORAL VISION

This referendum is therefore challenging us as a society, to look at our basic moral vision and to examine our attitude to the value of human life.

It is making us ask ourselves the most fundamental questions of all – what does it mean to be human?

Are only some humans to have the most basic of human rights?

The breathtaking proposals that our legislators are envisioning, aided and abetted by the media, are at last stirring that still small voice of conscience in many who have up to now, being slumbering in a fog of moral ambivalence and misplaced, if well intentioned, compassion.

I was taught nearly forty years ago that there were two sorts of moral vision.

The first one saw human life as a spectrum from the moment of conception to death. At every point on the spectrum life is equally sacred. There can be no exceptions or justifications or obfuscations. We cannot modify it in the interests of other values. It is, undoubtedly a difficult path to follow. And often, in the case of abortion demands a heroism that none of us can honestly guarantee we could deliver with certainty. In other words we don’t know, in spite of our genuine respect for the unborn, how any of us might react in difficult circumstances. That fact, however does not alter or take from the prolife commitment to the unborn baby which they believe is truly human.

So powerful are those commitments and beliefs, that remarkable courage -real and genuine courage-has been the hallmark of many prolife groups, here in Ireland and around the world and in particular, of the members of the Iona Institute, headed by David Quinn.

The second vision calls for compromise in moral situations. The individual, views morality as something that pertains primarily to themselves and their own situation. Some prochoice feminists will say that they wish that abortion was never necessary but that women are often the victim of circumstances. Accordingly they advocate that they must look out for themselves and if others get hurt, or die, then it is really not a woman’s fault.  To sober this thought process up, to make this sound acceptable, language is changed, new moral codes are invented. Subjective concepts and feelings, inherently vague anyway, replace the notion of basic human rights. Old wine is rebottled. And compassion is invoked to justify all and sundry. Who could ever have known there was so much of it about?

We are by now well used to these linguistic developments.  We have debated most of the arguments. We depend on a subtly biased media to put forward our simple but uncomfortable and threatening views on the sanctity of all human life and on the human rights of all unborn babies.

DIFFICULT QUESTIONS

There are some issues that I would like put out for further discussion here this evening.

These issues are difficult.

They are ones on which people have different, but often implicit and unstated, values.

But if this is to be an informed and democratic debate, these values need to be made explicit and discussed openly.

When it comes to constitutional rights, are all rights equal? Is the right to life inferior to the right to bodily integrity?

What is our understanding of humanity? Who is human and who should have human rights?

If we are a society that values life, do we accept that the taking of a life will leave emotional scars afterwards on those involved in that decision? Should we not acknowledge this openly before we change our constitution.

As a society, we proclaim our belief in equality as one of our fundamental values. So how can we reconcile that with removing the equal right to life of the unborn from our Constitution?

As a society, we agree that our policies, should” be child centred”. If so, how can we justify leaving the interests of the unborn child out of consideration to abort its life?

As a society, we insist that fathers, as well as mothers, take responsibility for the welfare of their children after birth.  If so, how can we say that fathers should count for nothing in a decision to end the life of one of their preborn children?

None of these are easy issues to discuss.  They can generate anger and hurt and sincere disagreement.

I offer my own views on these questions here ask those who take a different view to tease out the arguments with me and to share their values with me, so we can move forward in mutual understanding and respect.

There are three issues that I would like to develop for further discussion here this evening.

CONSEQUENCES FOR WOMEN AFTER ABORTION

The first issue which has been pushed out of this debate, is the long term consequences of an abortion for the mother herself.

Regrettably, some of the dismissal of these effects by professionals, Doctors and Psychiatrists, over the last few months has been patronising.  It really is a bad reflection on their profession.

Yes, it is true that some people can bury these doubts, in the long and the short term. However, for many others, the consequences have been catastrophic. When I worked as a Counsellor, I have been, for better or for worse, a witness to a number of these traumas. They are not experiences that one would wish to have repeated.

The terrible guilt, the awful grief, the desperate if futile wish that all could be reversed. If only, they could go back. Yet, at every desperate mental and emotional turning, they are told that what they did was for the best. And more harshly, that it was their choice. So, move on!

Yet, in my experience, no one can move on from something that they suspect might not have been the right decision without confronting that decision and acknowledging that they might have made a mistake.

To forbid women to do this, is to place an intolerable burden on their already heavy shoulders. And they often have to carry that burden alone, for the rest of their lives, fearing the hostile judgemental admonitions of an oppressively business like sisterhood.

Our modern culture is a harsh environment for anyone struggling to come to terms with what they sincerely believe to have been an act of destruction, however pressurised or reluctant that decision may have been.

This is a real and genuine medical and health aspect of the abortion debate. Yet, for all the talk of the health of women of women over the last few years, the often long, tortuous road that a post abortion woman has to travel is relegated to a footnote or is simply not spoken about at all. We might well ask is this not, in some respects an echo of the past?

This aspect of her mental health, this constant suppression of a guilt that she may feel, this turning away by those women who have led the prochoice argument, is, in my view, something that we as a society ought to challenge.

Its interesting that, on the one hand, we encourage women to open up about their abusive past, about the trauma of a deprived background, about the loss of their childhood. We suggest that they speak of their adoption experiences and have sought government help for them to seek out their birth mothers. We have commissions and tribunals and even a weekly television programme on lost families. But we do not want to hear from those who regret an abortion.

It seems as if all this compassion and concern is selective, and sometimes self serving, in that it suits other agendas. And we dismiss the hidden distress of those who now find themselves truly alone. Is Closure to be only for the chosen? Are the rest to be deleted from memory? Is this because it does not suit the narrative?

GENDER ISSUES – HALF THE VICTIMS WILL BE GIRLS.

The second issue that I would like to raise is the Gender issue.

Its extraordinary that our very vocal feminist journalists and academics seem blind to the fact that half of those babies they wish to allow to be aborted in Ireland are girls. How do they reconcile this with their notions of equality of treatment? Their own sisters are to be sacrificed on the altar of choice! Their mothers too? Because in time to come, this also will happen.

Drunk on the power of choice, it would seem that all human life is expendable. If we begin by extinguishing the life of the child in the womb, then, all rights ultimately fall.

Some argue that a life can justifiably be extinguished if it is not viable.

If life is not capable of being lived independently, is that a justification for supressing it?  We are getting into very dangerous waters here. What of all of us, who, one day, may not be capable of living independently? The pro abortion advocates like to dismiss this as scaremongering, but the logic is inescapable.  That debate is already underway, shelved for the moment. One step at a time.

REMOVING A HUMAN RIGHT FROM THE CONSTITUTION.

The right to life is the first and most fundamental of all human rights, without which there can be no others. One cannot exercise any other human right, if one is not allowed to exercise the right to live. We cannot say this often enough.  Without being allowed to be born, one can have no civil rights, no free speech, no right to bodily integrity.

We must not forget that this drive to repeal the 8th Amendment is about taking away a constitutional right that is there already. This is unprecedented. The history of our constitution is that additional rights have been conferred either by amendments or judicial interpretation.

This is the first time in Irish history that a constitutional right is being taken away. A profoundly utilitarian view of human life is determining our ethical and moral understanding of what it is to be human.  

THE ROLE OF MEN

The third issue concerns the role of men in the abortion debate, or, to be more accurate, the non involvement or the non engagement of the fathers of our unborn babies. And the distancing of many husbands and indeed older men from the whole issue.

Its an irony that 40 years ago, men were able to walk away scot free from any responsibility towards their pregnant girlfriends. The Feminists railed furiously against this, and with justification.

Today, in an open and free society, where women are visibly involved in every walk of life, where more than one third of all births are to single women, where DNA testing can establish the paternity of unborn babies, it seems as if men have vanished off the face of the earth.

We catch an occasional glimpse of older men, or younger husbands in newspaper reports, muttering about this being a woman’s issue. “ No, they will leave it up to the women”!

We have anecdotally heard about others in shops, pubs, the local chemist, or from their wives, no less, that its do with women’s bodies and God forbid that they should interfere.

The same women who complained all those years ago about men getting off the hook, are actively encouraging them to stay out of this and mind their own…business.” MY body, My choice. “

There are, however, sadly another group of men for whom the silence must be deafening. The fathers who wish to take responsibility for the children whom they have fathered and are as yet unborn. The fathers whose DNA makes up 50% of that of all unborn babies. The fathers, who long to hold and nurture and cherish their children are forced to stand aside, or worse, accompany their girlfriends on a life ending voyage.

For them it’s truly a question of what’s,” His baby too,” is “Her choice only”. His baby, Her choice? Where is the equality in that? Is this not discrimination? It is almost impossible for those souls to speak up as they are knocked down instantly by a battery of, by now, culturally ingrained ideologies and prejudices, that only belong in the domain of the female gender.

We need to hear those male voices. We need to support them if and when they speak. They need to know that not all females will drown them out. They too have an ownership, in so far as it goes, of what happens to that child that they helped to create. They too have rights and responsibilities.

WHAT WOULD REPEAL TELL US ABOUT IRISH VALUES? EQUALITY?

What are the basic beliefs of the Irish people?

Advocates of change in the last referendum on marriage equality, relied on two basic concepts to make their case. These were equality and opposition to discrimination. And, as we know, a majority of the Irish people agreed with them.

It is notable that, in this referendum, many advocates of change, of repeal, are not making their case on the basis of equality or on opposition to discrimination.

This is no accident. What they are advocating now are is inherently discriminatory. They want our constitution to discriminate against an unborn human life. They do not believe that an unborn human should have a right to live, ever to see the light of day, to breath air into its own lungs.

What concept of equality will the Irish people be endorsing if they vote yes to the repeal of the 8th amendment? It would seem that a very inconsistent version of equality is being granted to those who can make their voices heard but denied to those who cannot.

A CHILD CENTRED POLICY

We had another referendum recently on Children’s rights.

That referendum was child centred.

We were told our existing constitution was insufficiently child centred, and needed to be amended to make it truly child centred. We were told that this was necessary so that the Constitution would reflect the values of modern Ireland.

There has been no such ”child centred” approach in this debate to repeal to repeal the 8th amendment. It is not child centred at all. The child is a forgotten entity.

There has been no focus, no emphasis, no mention of the unborn baby at all in the Oireachtas report. It was far from child centred!

In fact, since the 8th Amendment was inserted into our Constitution in 1983, the only focus has been on the mother. Her choices, her rights, her health. That would have been fine, if it had been balanced with the beauty and wonder and health and safety and rights and sanctity of the unborn baby. Sadly, thirty years of neglect, thirty years of the active cultivation of choice over life, thirty years of talking only about the Woman, has led us to this referendum.  

LATE ABORTIONS

In light of the proposed legislation which the Government are framing, there is another question that must be asked.

What will happen when a child in the womb is on the cusp of viability at 23 or 24 weeks?

The Government has indicated that at this point the baby will be delivered alive, rather than killed in the womb first.

But is this really what a humane society does?

When a baby is this premature there is a high chance that the baby will be disabled precisely because it is so premature.

How could any government contemplate such a thing?

And who will look after this baby if the mother doesn’t want to do it?  Will the baby be put into state care, or will some heroic family step forward to adopt the baby?

What will happen just before viability, say at 20 or 21 weeks?

The Committee on the 8th amendment heard what happens in Britain. The baby in the womb is paralyzed first and then poison is injected into its little heart. How can any humane society do this?

What happens to the corpse of the baby? We know that in Britain thousands of foetuses – aborted and miscarried – have been disposed of in hospital incinerators. Will we do that? If not this, then what?  Could a mother bring the body home? What would she do with it?

I would like to know the answers to these questions.

The Irish people need to know the reality of voting Yes.

And how can it be acceptable that the baby in the womb can be a bunch of cells at 11.30 on a Tuesday night and a human being at just past midnight on the Wednesday morning?

These are some of the hard questions that the pro repeal side have not, so far, answered. But they are the questions, that we, the Irish people must all ask, on and leading up to May the 25th.

ADOPTION

I cannot conclude without making reference to another area being neglected in this debate.

That is the topic of Adoption.

Why has it gone out of fashion? Because out of fashion it has gone!

I have spoken to young people who say “OH, I could never give my baby away”.  It seems easier for many to extinguish its little life instead. Fidelma Healy Eames initiative, ‘ADOPTION INSTEAD’, that she launched very recently, is a very welcome development in this debate.

Of course, the sad reality is that it can never come back to ask why it was let die. Yet, many, as already mentioned are haunted by bitter regret after making such a decision.

An adopted child offers a peace, even if tinged with great sorrow, that an aborted baby can never offer.

Adoption exists under our law and it is a child centred, as distinct from an adult centred, solution to an unwanted pregnancy.

CONCLUSION

There are many other aspects of this debate upon which discussion is needed. Unfortunately, the media conversations have largely been in and around procedures and political fallout.  We need to insist on our being given time to deal with what essentially this referendum is all about. A baby, a defenceless little girl or boy, a human being whose life we believe is worth more than a mere choice.

This human being is truly one of us, as the Billboards from The Iona institute around the country remind us.

If the Irish people vote yes, there will be no going back. That is the history of abortion everywhere.

We ask the Irish people to vote NO, to reflect on the life ending consequences of voting YES.

There is and can be no fudge here. Its, ultimately, either YES or NO to the destruction of precious human lives.

For Ireland, this is the most important social justice issue of our times.

 

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