Sexual Politics and the "New Order"


Kelli Maloy

Mars Hill College, North Carolina

Copyright © 1999 by Kelli Maloy, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Chrystel Hug, The Politics of Sexual Morality in Ireland. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

  1. In her recent study of public debates on four political issues in Ireland, Chrystel Hug argues that Irish sexual politics in the past decade reflects a shift from a state system dictated by its Catholic constitution to a new liberal state marked by a climate hospitable to sexual freedom and individual rights, one Hug ventures to call a "new order." At the center of this shift is conflict between the absolutism of Catholic natural law and a more laissez-faire Protestant brand of natural law, one based on the rights of the individual. The book is dedicated to Mary Robinson and to X, the tag given to the young girl whose family accompanied her to Britain for an abortion after she was raped by a family "friend," and signifier for all girls and women victimized by Irish abortion laws and travel bans. Adding to these dedications Hug’s discussion of notable politicians David Norris, Garret FitzGerald and Noël Browne, the reader has an idea of how the study lauds progressive members of Irish government who were often ahead of the Irish people in changing conservative, and Catholic, attitudes toward issues involving sexuality. Despite its examination of the causal relationship between the changing face of Catholicism and recent legislation on issues of sexuality, in places the study works more as tribute to Mary Robinson, to whom the study is a self-identified homage (and surely to a subject highly deserving of such praise). Hug does attempt, however, to locate the correlation between social liberalization and Ireland’s slow break from traditional Catholicism.
  2. The study is divided into four sections, with subjects organized roughly chronologically and, arguably, in ascending order of the unlikelihood of their favorable reception in Ireland. The first section, chronicling the divorce referendums and eventual legalization, is followed by analyses of contraception, abortion and homosexuality. In her analysis of the divorce debate, Hug re-establishes the immediate threat divorce laws posed to a Constitution anchored in the sanctity of marriage. Though this is well-covered territory, the connection bears revisiting as long as the Irish state remains, even if only in theory, dependent on the family unit. It was at the height of the second divorce referendum of 1995, Hug argues, that Ireland became witness to "the gap that now existed between the Catholic Church and the state, the latter speaking something of a lay language based more on civil rights than on moral order" (63). There is no question that the referendums themselves reflected a departure from de Valera’s vision of hearth and home. However, this departure from the Catholic stance on divorce is overshadowed by the fact that support for President Robinson enabled voters to rationalize a more "modern" moral order, not necessarily one in which the rights of individuals were considered superior to the moral constitution of the state. Hug’s note that in both the 1992 and 1995 referendums votes against legalizing divorce were highest in border counties -- despite a majority’s indicating it would not consider the opinion of Northern Irish citizens -- suggests that both a preordained moral order and concern for the identity of the Irish state, as ultimately defined by the Constitution, played significantly (though ultimately not significantly enough) in the divorce referendums. Furthermore, though "all six Dáil parties supported divorce," voters favoring divorce in Dublin (130,000) only narrowly outnumbered the majority outside Dublin opposing its legalization (121,000).
  3. Since the referendums, the divorce issue remains complicated precisely because of its ties to Catholicism. The church’s response, or lack thereof, to the highly public out-of-wedlock relationship between Bertie Ahern and Celia Larkin -- which Hug discusses -- has been characterized aptly by Fintan O’Toole, who noted that the silence of Catholic leaders was testament to their realization that condemnation of the relationship would inevitably be followed by a statement that the Taoiseach "should give a good example by divorcing his wife and marrying his present partner" ("Divorce"). Ultimately, according to O’Toole, "divorce was introduced too late to save the institution of marriage," a claim that changes dramatically our understanding of support for divorce as the stance of the lapsed Catholic.
  4. The second section of Hug’s study discusses contraception as another shift from the protection of public morality to "a responsible sexuality for all." She chronicles an interesting history of the Catholic position on contraception, from Pius XII's condoning the rhythm method as "a valid option" for those engaging in sexual intercourse without the express intent of conceiving to more recent milestones, such as the condom trains of 1971. Hug pointedly illustrates how this issue, unlike the divorce debate, became a slippery game of semantics bordering on the parodic. Parliamentary hairsplitting over "availability" and "use" of contraceptives led to debates over which contraceptives were "medical" -- those prescribed as cycle regulators and in some cases thereby covered by General Medical Services. The eventual legalization of the availability of contraceptives is testament to a change in perception where contraception is concerned; however, this chapter’s introduction of statistics concerning the rising numbers of people affected by HIV and AIDS plants the possibility that fear of the transmission of AIDS, a crisis often treated less than sympathetically by the Catholic church, might have partly motivated a more lenient attitude toward information and availability of contraceptives, especially as condoms became more central in the debate over time.
  5. In the third section, Hug looks at abortion, certainly the most infamously divisive issue of the four. She effectively chronicles the role of the European Community, threat or salvation to those on opposing sides of the issue, and cites Dick Spring in a convincing claim for the abortion referendums as "`backlash against the slow liberalising of our society’" (155). However, the omnipresence of the X case in this study might suggest that Catholics who "have painfully questioned their most absolute moral principles" were swayed not by a re-evaluation of the right to life of the unborn, but by the tangible horror of a "case" who could have been the sister, daughter, or granddaughter of anyone who came to support the right to travel, or even to resist constitutional amendment. If the latter is true, those voters do represent a more Protestant form of natural law, though the motivation might be more narrow than Hug suggests. In addition, ground gained in the 1992 Supreme Court ruling on the X case will be called into question this fall when the ProLife Campaign (PLC) lobbies for another abortion referendum, one that would ban abortion and eliminate "special cases," including those in which the life of the mother is in danger. This movement will be countered by Abortion Reform, a new organization, and the Dublin Abortion Rights Group, though, according to Padraig O’Morain, "there seems little doubt that the opponents of abortion are the better organised" ("Abortion Reform").
  6. In the fourth section of her study, Hug presents a final case for her claim that the Irish state "will no longer be organised around order, duty and norms, but around minimal ethics based on the fundamental rights of individuals" (7). In what she sets up as the most difficult example, because unlike divorce and contraception it did not mobilize the public and unlike abortion it did not have the same power to mobilize compassion, homosexuality is shown to be the sexual issue on which the Irish public evolved most dramatically. Though Hug draws the most direct comparison between contraception and homosexuality in that both became semantics debates -- it was decreed that homosexuality itself was not illegal, but sodomy was -- this issue could be compared with any of the other three in that the most powerful motivator behind each was a highly articulate and persuasive politician -- in this case Senator David Norris (though Robinson was instrumental in this debate as well). Cynically, it could be argued that at the height of the AIDS crisis, people might paradoxically have favored rights for same-sex partnerships out of the desire to curb what they perceived as a threat to "normal" sexuality over the "de-normalization" of marriage. However, Hug presents astounding figures suggesting that support for civil rights for gay citizens was higher in Ireland than in most European countries, and far ahead of gay-positive attitudes in England. Still, the implications of these statistics are marred by an increase in male suicides in Ireland, which Brian Sheehan, director of the Gay Switchboard in Dublin, attributes in part to "`the struggle of some men to come to terms with their sexuality’" (qtd. in Ingle) and the domestic abuse to which teens and young adults are often subjected upon coming out despite more permissive social attitudes. Additionally, this summer’s brutal attack on American gay writer Robert Drake in Sligo was another somber reminder that despite indications of a more accepting society, homophobia remains a strong presence.
  7. Hug offers a thorough, carefully researched history of four politically charged debates in Ireland, all of which are complicated by their intricate ties to the Constitution. She optimistically suggests that "the Irish are seeking a minimum consensus so that all, be they Catholic, Protestant, atheist, homosexual, divorced, or others can live in harmony" (5). This claim prompts the question of which Irish, whose Irish? The book suggests that while Robinson’s Irish sought such consensus, only time will tell if the liberalization of Ireland will continue toward what Hug calls a "new order." Changes in sexual politics, while they do seem to indicate modernization, relatively speaking, do not necessarily correlate to the decline of Catholicism’s stronghold. Hug is careful to note that "there is nothing to show that Ireland is in the process of losing its Catholic identity, if you exclude dwindling Mass attendance" (242), but argues that support for the issues discussed in this book reflects a move away from absolute (Catholic) moral order. In a recent editorial on the ongoing abortion debate, John Waters argues in a subtle but important variation on this claim that Irish liberalism is characterized "not by positive assertion of individual rights but by the refusal to accept prohibitions imposed by Catholicism" ("Real Debate"). Positing the two as more mutually exclusive than does Hug, Waters concedes the link between the two, but argues that the Catholic church’s misguidedly grouping divorce, contraception and abortion in a symbolic trinity has contributed to Catholicism’s demise, and that only now might Irish citizens be able to support or oppose abortion rights independently of Catholicism and liberalism. His noting that Ireland needs a "new theology" for the liberal state it has created, and his ultimate argument that "there is nothing necessarily `progressive’ about supporting abortion, and nothing reactionary about objecting to the killing of a defenceless child in the womb" suggests that a new order might mean something entirely different. Hug alludes ominously in her last line to the nascent return of Ireland's neighbors to "traditional values and to the 'old moral order'" which, paradoxically, might be precisely what Waters's notion of Ireland's "new theology" represents. In the post-Robinson era, it remains to be seen what will become of this old order, the force against which Hug suggests Irish modernity will soon be tested.

Works Cited

Ingle, Roisín. "Despite Gately, Coming Out [Is] Still Hard for Gays." Irish Times on the Web 19 June 1999. 9 Sept. 1999.

O’Morain, Padraig. "Abortion Reform Group To Be Launched." Irish Times on the Web 12 July 1999. 8 Sept. 1999.

O’Toole, Fintan. "Divorce Stance Condemns Hierarchy to Silence." Irish Times on the Web 8 Jan. 1999. 8 Sept. 1999.

Waters, John. "The Real Debate About Abortion May Now Begin." Irish Times on the Web 22 June 1999. 1 Sept. 1999.

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