It wasn’t a million years ago, was it?
It was within the lifetime of almost everyone you know, apart from the very, very young. In historical terms, it was yesterday, and yet the Ireland of 1984 was dominated by concerns that no modern democracy should have entertained. It was a land where government ministers still consulted Catholic bishops about matters that were none of their business, such as divorce and contraception. It was a land where the Virgin record store could be prosecuted for selling condoms, and where even an administration as liberal as that run by Garrett Fitzgerald could still choose to oppose the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
It was a land where social conservatives formed an unholy alliance with vile, self-styled pro-lifers to force a constitutional amendment on our spineless politicians, an amendment that has given us a horrifying catalogue of oppression of women. The X case, that C case, the A case. Savita Halappanavar. A pregnant rape victim force-fed and cut open.
As someone remarked today on the radio, we’re running out of letters in the alphabet — only this week we had to face the most shocking consequence yet, as the High Court reflected on the rights and wrongs of forcing a decomposing corpse to gestate a child.
All roads lead to Haughey. This was the despicable hypocrite who actively undermined the 1985 divorce proposal by sitting on the fence and muttering against it under his breath, for his usual mean, petty, small-minded political reasons. This was the hypocrite who would shag anything with a pulse, or even anything that recently had a pulse, and yet who could come out with the ludicrous assertion that his proposed contraception legislation, in which condoms could only be bought with a doctor’s prescription, was an Irish solution to an Irish problem. It’s hard to imagine a more emotionally immature legislature than we had in 1984, or an administration more detached from reality that it thought such things were worth worrying about, particularly when the public finances were in collapse, with the IMF waiting outside the door to impose a bail-out on us, as finance minister Alan Dukes pointed out in a memo to government.
This is the same Alan Dukes, incidentally, who two years later expressed in words what many were afraid to say publicly. After a meeting between ministers and bishops about civil divorce, it emerged that one bishop suggested the State should simply recognise church annulments, thereby giving the unelected clergy complete control of a State institution.
… if I had been free to act in the way I felt when that particular bishop made the proposal….I would have been dug out of the bastard …, said Dukes in a radio interview, thus breaking a taboo and ending forever the undue deference shown to prelates by Irish government ministers.
Five years later, serial child abuser Brendan Smyth was arrested by the RUC and the game was up for the bishops, who lost all moral authority from that point on, even though they have continued to interfere with the civil law to this day.
While we’re speaking about immaturity, let’s take a moment to reflect on 15-year-old Ann Lovett, who bled to death giving birth in a Marian grotto. Let’s reflect in particular on the failure of human feeling displayed by the Archdiocese of Armagh, whose diocesan secretary, writing on behalf of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, suggested that the girl’s death may have been due to her immaturity. Let’s also remember, in this saintly little isle, that we have had many more Ann Lovetts, thanks to the extremist-driven laws that we have yet to rid ourselves of.
But 1984 was’t just a year among many dominated by religious idiocy. It was also a year of paddywhackery with the arrival of Ronald Reagan, seeking his Irish roots in Ballyporeen and posing for the inevitable, embarrassing photo holding a pint of Guinness. Reagan at that time was presiding over a policy in Central America that supported oppressive right-wing governments in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, which caused widespread protests in Ireland against his visit. A group of Irish women who set up what they called a peace camp in the Phoenix Park near the US Ambassador’s residence were illegally arrested and imprisoned by the Gardai, later leading to an awkward legal confrontation in which the State was forced to back down and pay compensation.
Thousands of people protested in the streets outside the banquets held in honour of the presidential visit.
It was the year when the government decided to set up a rail line in Dublin with a catchment area on one side only, since the other side was the sea. Among the DART’s many shortcomings was the fact that it didn’t serve the majority of Dublin’s citizens, but on the other hand it was a splendid addition to the affluent neighbourhoods where politicians, media and the legal profession lived and property values increased in a very satisfying way as a result. For some reason, there isn’t much mention of these discussions in the newly-released government papers.
1984 was also the year when the State considered paying money for control of the biggest fraud ever created in Ireland: the Sweepstakes. Garret the Good, it seems, was so naive that he didn’t realise what an utter con-man Joe McGrath had been or what a rotten piece of crookery he had set up, despite the fact that previous ministers, such as Des O’Malley, understood perfectly that they were dealing with a huge con-job. Thankfully, in the end the State didn’t become the owner of what was left from the crumbling ruins of Joe McGrath’s gigantic scam but it was a close call and it doesn’t say much for Garret’s ability to tell a scam from a genuine business. Perhaps this explains why he was so shocked that same year when Margaret Thatcher produced the famous Out Out Out soundbite, dismissing everything Garret thought he had agreed with her.