In Ireland they often mistake silence for consensus. They also frequently mistake it for consent, too.
It is neither.
I’ve been thinking about the controlling influence of silence in Irish life all summer long. Where does it come from? Who controls it? Why has it been such a feature of Irish life? I’ve been thinking about it since early June, when I witnessed an unforgettable example of where our notorious state silence can lead: to judgment, to isolation and loneliness, sometimes even to an infant graveyard.
In June, after a series of shocking reports broke, I traveled to a quiet little cul de sac in Tuam, County Galway. There, hidden by a high wall that mostly served as a perch for passing crows, I watched as members of the world’s press arrived to take photos of the tiny quarter acre that may be the final resting place of 798 forgotten Irish children.
For decades official Ireland looked away as tens of thousands of expectant mothers disappeared into these Victorian-era mother and baby horror homes. The Irish people looked away too, let’s not forget. For decades we sent our sisters and daughters to these ghastly places because we agreed they had defied the narrow confines of their citizenship and had become untouchable.
Then silence swallowed those mothers and babies up. It has never stopped doing so.
In May that silence was disrupted briefly by Catherine Corless, a brilliant and compassionate woman who saw that a monstrous wrong had been committed in plain sight. But what did official Ireland do when confronted with her shocking findings? It did what it has learned to do – it said as little as possible as it waited for the storm to pass.
Even now many citizens born in these mostly dismantled institutions are still searching for their true identities. Cheated of the ordinary decencies of a family history and a name, we cut them adrift for decades: mothers in search of lost children, children in search of lost mothers. We let the silence swallow them.
It still is.
Silence, if it goes on too long, can look like complicity. But how do you get people to accept such howling injustices without an inevitable revolt?
The answer is simple. In Ireland you tell them it’s God’s will. It’s the only way to hoodwink ordinary compassion. In Ireland it’s become a national reflex. Because in Ireland God still calls the shots. God has the final say.
For proof of this just look at the high handed way we still treat vulnerable women now. Last week the result of the first proper test of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (PLDPA) - which allows for limited abortions in Irish hospitals - was revealed: it had no value whatsoever to the suicidal migrant woman involved.
The new law provides for terminations when there is a “real and substantial” risk to the life of a pregnant woman, but it does not provide for abortion in the case or rape or incest, or in the case of fatal foetal disorders.
Additionally, it does not provide for abortions where there is a risk to the mother's health and it permits protracted delays in medical intervention whilst medical authorities discuss each others’ findings.
Instead of addressing the woman’s request - because she was foreign-born, poor, and subject to travel restrictions that curtailed her options - the Irish state instead legally compelled her to give birth by Caesarean section.
She didn’t have the final say in her own affairs, but God, through the Irish state, did. That’s the same authoritarian frame of mind that gave us the mother and baby homes of the 20th century.
It’s significant that the last two major controversies involving abortion in Ireland have involved foreign-born women. They were both advised that Ireland is “a Catholic country” and informed who was really in charge.
Savita Halappanavar was neither Catholic nor a Christian, but that wasn’t enough to prevent her from dying of septicemia and organ failure following her miscarriage on October 28, 2012. Our God had overruled hers. She was 31.
The outrage and revulsion that followed the controversy put pressure on the Irish government to act. Eventually the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (PLDPA) was introduced, but as recent events have shown us little has actually changed. So it’s remarkable that even senior religious figures now think we may have taken our fidelity to our faith too far.
Kevin Doran, the newly ordained Bishop of Elphin, told the press this week that the baby in the recent migrant mother case was delivered in an "untimely fashion when there was no physical reason for doing so.”
"The removal of a child from the womb in that kind of context is really unethical and there is no other way of putting it. It was far better that the child was removed from the womb to be saved than to be aborted, but it is not natural."
Not natural, but unavoidable in a country that restricts almost every option for the woman making the abortion request. Unavoidable in a country where medical authorities become de facto agents of the church. What else do they think will happen?
As usual we have not heard from the woman affected, nor should we expect to. Silence will swallow her up like the 160,000 Irish women who have had abortions in Britain since 1980, as columnist Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times pointed out.
Another woman will appear to take her place soon too. The same thing will happen to her. Even bishops have started to lament it.