I welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge her sterling role in preserving it as part of the Democracy Matters campaign before she became a Minister. I thank her for being one of the leaders of the small group of people who stood up for the Seanad at the time. I was struck at the time by the fact that referenda generally can never be regarded as foregone conclusions. The children’s referendum was a case in point. I do not know what exact percentage of the population voted “No” but it was of the order of 30% to 40%. It was not a foregone conclusion that it would be passed, therefore, even though there was no political party of which I was aware which actually togged out against it and no organised opposition to it. It is in that context that I pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Boyhan, for his very moving and sensible speech on why this legislation is needed. He gave a very personal description of the plight of children who were marooned by the law, the Constitution and the institutions of our State. He emphasised the fact that in the end what children need is love, care, nourishment and affection from parents or a parent or whatever to have any chance of functioning as fully developed and emotionally mature members of our society.
One thing Senator Boyhan mentioned that struck a chord with me was that in the last few days he has received correspondence from people saying that the legislation is dangerous; that it strikes at the constitutional status of parenthood and damages and undermines the family as an institution. I want to make one contribution on that issue. It is funny that the minority of hardline Catholics who put pen to paper to write to Senator Boyhan and who write articles in the hardline Catholic newspapers do not seem to have any sense of conscience at all about the fact that it was the same hardline opinions that drove girls into Magdalen convents and parents into expelling their pregnant daughters from their houses and the like. I received a letter from the author of a small history of the Archdiocese of Tuam on an interesting exchange between my grandfather, Eoin MacNeill, and the Archbishop of Tuam in the wake of the Black and Tans burning down the town as a reprisal.When I read through the rest of his book, which is wonderful, I discovered that in the 1920s and 1930s a diocesan synod had been held in Tuam every year and that the then archbishop had laid down very clearly that if there was an extra-marital pregnancy which was known to members of the clergy in any part of the archdiocese, the fact was to be dealt with firmly from the altar in front of the whole community, albeit without mentioning the identity of the girl in question. This was part of the social pressure which was brought to bear on families to turn on the most vulnerable member of the family unit in the most vulnerable period of her life, to expel her or to end the scandal of the pregnancy by sweeping it under the carpet.
On another occasion I remember the late former Deputy Peadar Clohessy, a wonderful gentleman, telling me about a particular instance in his part of the woods in rural County Limerick in which a farmer had got a girl into trouble. The farmer survived but the girl did not. She was sent to a laundry in Limerick She tried to escape, but gardaí found her and brought her back to the laundry, even though she was over 18 years of age.
The people who write harsh letters saying the approach adopted in this Bill which is child centred is an attack on the family, in effect, belong to the same morally conformist tradition that supported bishops when they took a hard line against extra-marital pregnancies. They display an atavistic “let us get back to the good old times” attitude which seeks to forget about all of the progress made in the Catholic Church and among Christians generally. There is one Catholic newspaper, published fortnightly, which yearns for a return to pre-Conciliar religion in Ireland, the good old religion. The people who write such letters and read such newspapers are the ones who write letters to Senator Victor Boyhan to tell him that he is getting it wrong, that this legislation is wrong and subversive of some moral order and the family as a moral institution in society. I wonder if, on occasion, any of them ever looks in a mirror and asks himself or herself if he or she is speaking from the same pulpit as those who decried unmarried mothers in the Tuam diocese and forced them out of their community or from a Christian, loving perspective. I often think they confuse moral conformity, moral order and the notion that the family is a moral institution with the idea that at the heart of that institution – I do not like calling a family an institution – however it is structured, whether it be a one-parent or a two-parent family of whatever age or gender, is the glue of love. If the price of maintaining the family is the exiling from love of children in the circumstances described by Senator Victor Boyhan, one must wonder what schizoid mentality can object to the Bill, on the one hand, and, on the other, preach religion and a moral view of life.
I see no threat in this legislation to the moral order in Ireland. The constitutional amendment is absolutely balanced. Some might argue that it is overly balanced as to exclude the possibility of damaging a family which is operating and functioning as such. I see no moral danger to Irish society and no threat to the moral structures of Irish society or the moral beliefs of Irish people in the legislation. It is good that on this occasion, having passed the constitutional amendment, the legislation, with some stutters, has come into being fairly rapidly thereafter. Its critics should not be worried by it. If their criticism comes from some a priorireligious commitment to the family as an inviolable structure to which the legislation is counterpoised as a danger, it is their view that is wrong and Senator Victor Boyhan’s view and that of the Minister and, I presume, the great majority of Members of this House that is right. I commend the Minister for bringing the Bill before the House and congratulate on for doing so.