A graph showing high numbers of
Irish citizens who sought abortions in the UK

Al Jazeera, the TV network and channel headquartered in Qatar in the Middle East, broadcast a hard hitting special report on Ireland's anti-abortion laws just a week before the country was embroiled in our latest abortion controversy.

'Many countries are condemned in the West for organized religion and its effect on peoples lives,' the reporter noted. 'Societies throw their arms up in horror if countries like Iran or Afghanistan deny women basic rights. They tend, however, not to mention Ireland.'

Ah, Ireland. So an anti-woman fundamentalist mindset isn't simply an issue in the Middle East?

'In Ireland,' he continued, 'a woman cannot have an abortion if she has been raped. She cannot have an abortion if the man who made her pregnant is beating her. She cannot have an abortion if the baby will die outside her body. She cannot even have an abortion if the fact of being pregnant is in some way threatening to her life.'

Talk about spelling it out for you. You could actually hear the incredulity in his voice. Iran and Afghanistan are constantly in the news for denying women basic rights he reminded us. But in the interests of fairness, add Ireland to that list.

It's not how we see ourselves is it? But it's long past time we did. Fundamentalism doesn't need a passport, after all. It exists wherever there is life. And it exists, it seems, only to preserve its own purity, at whatever cost. It does this by means of the law.

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I have known many Irish fundamentalists. I grew up around quite a few them in fact. These are people who hold ideals and attitudes that not even what the poet Michael Longley calls 'the drunkenness of things being various' can dislodge.

To the fundamentalist mindset, the contractions and ironies and sheer messiness of daily life are simply moths that circle eternal truths. They're just tiny irritants, they're to be dismissed, the purifying fire will take care of them all.

It occurred to me recently that the people I know in Ireland who are most implacably opposed to abortion are almost all women. That's inevitable in the sense that it's an issue that affects them more immediately. But it's not inevitable in another sense.

Do they look to Iran and Afghanistan as models of the society they are building? Hardly. But in their judgmental ferocity, in their this-is-not-for-discussion conclusiveness, what really separates them from the most fundamentalist cultures of the Middle East? If Al Jazeera thinks you're being mean, you might want to check yourself.

And I think I would be more impressed by the sincerity of Ireland's concern for the next generation if it weren't for our history of abuse and neglect and emigration and carelessness, and if we didn't keep giving the lie to it through our politics.

Last week Ireland held a referendum on children's rights. They did this because seventy five years after it was enacted by the august founders of our Republic, someone noticed that we forgot to include rights for children, separate from the rights of parents or families.

It explains a lot, that attitude. It explains a lot that it took seventy five years to notice it too.

So last week a referendum was held in Ireland to amend the constitution in number of key areas including adoption, protection, State intervention in neglect cases and giving children a say in their own protection proceedings. But what was most significant, I thought, was how few Irish people cared enough to actually turn out to vote. Turnout was just a pathetic 33.5 per cent.

In Ireland we say protect the unborn, but the number of Irish women traveling to Britain for a legal abortion each year is higher than every other member state of the European Union combined. We also say protect the children, but when the time comes to stand up and be counted most of us can't even be bothered to vote.

We like the optics and rhetoric of compassion, it appears. We're just not keen on the reality or the consequences.