Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Anti-choicers and the Eighth Amendment


I haven't gotten excited by Clare Daly's latest attempt to make our abortion laws less barbaric. I haven't bothered to contact my local TDs, as I feel little hope that things will improve during the life of this Dáil. The main opposition parties, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil, won't support her legislation. Sinn Fein have sniffed the wind and decided to sit on its hands. Fianna Fáil have decided to sniff all the local winds and vote both ways. As for the government parties. Labour will self-inflict another humiliation by voting no. And my party will definitely vote no because it's too scared to take on the anti-choicers inside and outside the party. 

Granted, the legislation might be unconstitutional, but that is a question we employ very expensive judges to decide. At least if the legislation failed at the Supreme Court, we’d have some momentum for a referendum. And once our politicians agree a referendum on abortion is necessary, sure we'd hardly feel the ten years pass before they finally held one.

I don't agree with Clare Daly on many things, but she is brave and honest. Two qualities one doesn't usually associate with TDs. For taking on the Gardai, I'd feel obliged to give her my first preference, if she was standing in my constituency. Though I doubt she'd appreciate a vote from a blueshirt.

I also think her championing of women who experience fatal foetal abnormalities during their pregnancies, is exactly the right road to take towards the ultimate goal of repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Those of us who wish to see the Eighth Amendment repealed are a disparate bunch. There are those, like me, who wish women to have control over their bodies in all circumstances. That is not necessarily a popular position. There are others among us who see women carrying foetuses with life ending conditions as a special case, meriting a particular dispensation. It's not an unpopular position.

The women who’ve experienced these tragic pregnancies and are now campaigning to help other women in similar situations, are accomplished activists. They are an admirable group and they hold some considerable sway. They represent the best opportunity we have at finally addressing the Eighth Amendment. Of course, if the Eighth does go, this loose coalition will end.

The inescapable logic of repealing the Eighth is that abortion will become legal. It will prove impossible to legislate for choice on the basis that it's only for women who deserve it.

The anti-choicers are well aware of this. They know they have nothing to fear from me. My opinions on abortion are far too liberal. Women who have experienced the diagnosis of a 'fatal foetal abnormality' and have been told their foetus is 'incompatible with life' scare the shit out of the fanatics. So much so they even want the terms, fatal foetal abnormality and incompatible with life, banned. Think on that one. They want to change language so that women will no longer be able to accurately describe their own experience of a tragedy. Denying women language, denying women control of their own bodies, denying women choice.

They say they genuinely believe a foetus is a fully fledged human being, deserving of all the rights and protections afforded the already born. In essence they see themselves as trying to save lives and protect women from trauma.

Let's look at that. What are the anti-choicers doing to prevent abortions and help women?

An abortion is one of the safest medical procedures a women can have. Well, in countries where it is legal. In countries where it is illegal, back street abortions are dangerous and sometimes fatal. Fortunately, in Ireland, despite the illegality of abortions, many women can access the service in the UK or smuggle in the appropriate medication, sparing us a proliferation of back street abortions and death. That is the status quo. A status quo where abortions are ubiquitous, but carried out at a slight remove. A status quo where women are made to needlessly suffer and are driven to unnecessary expense. Yet thousands of Irish women continue to have abortions.

And what are the anti-choicers doing about this? As far as I can tell, nothing. This is difficult to understand, as there is so much they could do, to reduce the number of abortions that Irish women have, while remaining respectful of women and their choices.

If the anti-choicers were to adopt the maxim of 'safe, legal and rare' they would probably prevent more abortions than they do now. (Not that I'd advocate, safe, legal and rare, as it's a bit judgemental)

Within the framework of ‘safe, legal and rare,’ there are several useful strategies the anti-choicers could pursue to reduce the number of abortions that Irish women have and indeed women have, worldwide.

They could begin in the schools. Compressive, age appropriate and ongoing sex education would go a long way to preventing unwanted pregnancies. Everything from educating children about their bodies, appropriate touch, respect, where to get advice, all the way up to extensive instruction on contraception. Imagine the number of abortions this might prevent.

Further to contraception, it continues to amaze me that our species split the atom, landed a human on the moon and put a computer/phone/camera/clock/torch into my pocket, yet contraception is still not 100% reliable, still causes side-effects and requires humans to use their brains when other parts of their anatomies are vying for attention. Instead of paying for protest marches and lobbying, why not throw money at scientists. More reliable contraception? How many abortions prevented?

Poverty. If the anti-choicers directed some of their efforts towards eliminating poverty, they might find the number of abortions simultaneously falling.

And let's not forget those terrible women who are ambitious. Children can still hinder a woman's progress in those parts of the world that lauds unhindered capitalism. Might a few letters to the rich white men who control that world, help address this?

The anti-choicers could redirect their efforts from banning the term 'fatal foetal abnormality' to instead, aggressively funding the kind of research that might make the term 'fatal foetal abnormality' obsolete.

Then there's tackling cultures, so patriarchal, that female foetuses are aborted in favour of male ones. You know, take on ingrained conservatism. How many fewer abortions there?

This is not an exhaustive list of strategies that the anti-choicers could employ to reduce the number of abortions in Ireland, but it's start. It just strikes me that these strategies are somewhat obvious. And if they are obvious, why aren't the anti-choicers taking any positive steps to make abortions rarer?

Is it because this really isn't about women and the so called 'lives' they may be carrying? The evidence suggests that anti-choicers don't care all that much about abortions. Instead, all they appear to care about, is control. Controlling women, controlling their bodies, controlling their choices. For that is the very essence of the Eighth Amendment, control. Repeal the Eighth and the fanatics will lose their control of women. No wonder threats to that amendment terrify them so much. 



Monday, February 9, 2015

Civility in Debate

Civility is thought by many people to be important in a debate. They think this for two reasons. The first is civility for civility's sake. It is the hand shake before a game of rugby. We may knock seven shades of shit out of each other during the game, but we shake hands after, because ultimately, we are all friends and we respect each other. The second reason is a tad more cynical. In a public debate we are not really addressing the arguments of our opponent, but using the platform to persuade the audience. And an audience may be put off by an excess of passion. 

I am troubled by this.

I am a middle aged, straight, white man who is also an atheist. When describing myself, I place atheism high on my list of defining characteristics. Most atheists of my acquaintance do not. For them, atheism is merely incidental. If I could spend the rest of my life debating atheism with those atheists, I would have a life of overwhelming contentment. The thing is, I am so privileged, I could do that. 

While I am passionate about the constitutional and institutional discrimination that atheists experience, I don't have children and I have no interest in being a judge or the president, so that discrimination touches me in theory only. I can debate that discrimination with great civility and even empathy, because I believe I understand why so many Irish people feel atheism is a threat to their identity. 

As attractive as a life wholly immersed in arguing how many Dawkins can dance on the head of a pin is to me, I can't help thinking that equality in law for atheists, can and should only be achieved when more irrational and obvious discrimination is dealt with first. 

Until LGBT people enjoy the same privileges as I do, I will continue to struggle to get angry about the discrimination I sort of experience. Until women have the same level of physical autonomy as I take for granted, I will continue to be a tad embarrassed about the 'burden' of my atheism. 

But back to civility. I am troubled by the question, is it fair to expect a gay person or a woman in search of control over her own body, to play the game of debate? Short answer is, I don't know and I will now write several hundred more words exploring that, don't know. 

Thought I am neither gay nor a woman, I struggle with my contempt for those who oppose LGBT rights and women's choices. I struggle there, much more than I do with my feelings for those who think atheists are not quite Irish. Yet I think I have it within me to debate in a faux-respectful manner with those people. 

It would be an act of purest cynicism, but I would do it, because 'the game' requires the pretence of civility. Obviously there are people who wish to overthrow and abolish the game as currently played, but I have little faith in such ideologues establishing anything better than the status quo. 

I do not think I have any special insights or abilities or that I would even be any good at debating on the side of the LGBT community and women, I just know that after twenty years working with vulnerable children and adults, I have a game face that is hard to crack. 

Which brings me back to my question, should people who are the direct victims of discrimination be polite to those who would deny them equality? The game does require it as the audience/voters will hover between disinterest and apathy. We do live in a world where many people get rich because they know how best to convince an audience that black is white. And these people sell their skills to whomever is buying. 

I simply do not know how I would react if I was in the presence of someone who was calling for, even demanding, that I be discriminated against in the most basic aspects of my life. I simply cannot know if I could keep my game face on, could keep my eye on the big picture, could remember the rules of engagement. And because I doubt my ability to restrain myself, I cannot expect people who are true victims of discrimination to keep calm, and with angelic patience, wade through the shit directed at them. 

Yet the game requires it. 

If there is a downside to privilege (and there really isn't) it is that I simply do not know what it is like to be thought of as less. Meaning I can empathise with Irish people who fear and loathe my atheism, more than I can empathise with my gay friends and the women I know who were forced to travel for terminations.  

So I can't say if LGBT people and women should be civil in their demands for equality. But I can be certain that knowing they must play to the rules of a game that defines them as less, must make civility taste more bitter than I can ever imagine. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Kerryman letter re Freedom of Speech

As appeared in Letters - The Kerryman - 4 February 2015 edition 

(Wrote this letter in response to this article)

As I read Brian Whelan (January 21) condemn the actions of the recently murdered French cartoonists, I thought of the film 'Life of Brian.' Banned in this country for many years, I think I watched it at least a dozen times before the ban was lifted. The little men who banned it, thought it offensive, even hateful.

Then I thought about Father Ted. An entire sitcom dedicated to mocking the type of people who banned Life of Brian and hundreds of other films and books. 

After that I thought about the thousands of barbs, small and large, that gay people will have to endure, as we approach the marriage equality referendum.

There are people who think gay children should not be subjected to the prejudices of others. They reason that children do not have the fortitude to cope with wounding words. They would see their enemies silenced, for is not attacking the beliefs and rights of any group, a form of hate speech?   

We should certainly consider banning ridicule and offence. We should consider it so that we may realise how monumentally dangerous this would be. If a belief or ideology cannot survive being mocked, then it's probably not a worthwhile idea in the first place. 

The little men who demand the silence of others, should remember that one day they too may be silenced. 



Thursday, January 8, 2015

What do we want from health care?

I sometimes catch myself feeling nostalgic about the Progressive Democrats. This is not an ideological pining. It's more akin to missing the 'good old days' when Liverpool always won or when petrol cost half what it costs now or even when I used to drink vodka. It is an emotional attachment. The PDs were formed when I was about 11 and I identified with them from the night I saw them on the news. 

Nostalgia and sentimentality are not wholly useless pastimes. While I welcomed the PDs destruction, due to their gross errors while in government, my occasional unguarded feelings towards the party, does allow me a certain empathy for those who stick with parties that disappoint them. Understanding, but not sympathy. Misplaced loyalty should be understood so it can be overcome. 

One of the key failures of the PD administration was in Health. I had high hopes when Mary Harney took over that department. She was clearly smarter than most of her colleagues and more importantly, wasn't in thrall to parish pump politics. 

She was hamstrung from the beginning by having to take on the HSE. The HSE was a good idea in principle, but was horribly bloated from day one, due to Michael Martin conniving with the public sector unions. 

Expenditure on health mushroomed under Harney, but there was no serious reform. The Centres of Excellence, were a good idea, but Harney left few improvements behind her. 

What I find most disappointing about that, was during the Bubble, there was time and money to have a conversation about health care in Ireland. A conversation not necessarily ideological laden. Yes the PDs were a free market party, but their partners, Fianna Fáil were never what one would call ideological and certainly the Opposition represented all ideologies and none. 

A conversation about what we want and how best to achieve it. (Though of course this is my blog post, so it will be about what I want and how I think it can be best achieved)

Obviously, as a former PD and current member of Fine Gael I must be a fan of capitalism. Guilty as charged. I am a capitalist. I think a free and open market can be the least bad option for achieving prosperity, or at least for finding the resources for funding that prosperity. I also happen to think that the State is the least bad option for ensuring that this prosperity reaches as many people as possible. To some that may appear to be a contradiction. I don't agree. I am neither a libertarian or a socialist. I wish to live in a state with a carefully calibrated balance between my freedoms as an individual and the state's power to ensure my freedom is not merely the freedom to starve to death or die for a want of some antibiotics. 

So, what do I want from health care?

First, I do not embrace any philosophical obligation to help my fellow man. Intellectually, I regard myself as free to step over a sick person on the street, as I am free to pretend not notice all the homeless people I saw in Dublin last week. 

That being said, humans are a social animal. We have evolved empathy. Not noticing those homeless people took a toll. I cannot see a homeless person without selfishly listing off to myself all the disasters I would need to encounter before I too would end up on the streets. My privilege is having so many supports in place, that me sleeping on a street would require several and improbable calamities occurring simultaneously. 

(How to deal with homelessness eludes me, though I am less than impressed with this government's efforts thus far)

Health however, or more accurately ill health, cannot be dealt with by merely having a wide circle of friends and family. It requires expensive expertise. And it can visit anyone at anytime. 

I wouldn't step over that sick person because my basic humanity would stop me, but also my primeval self-interest would kick in. I would not want to live somewhere where I would be stepped over. It is bad enough having to inure myself to the shivering bodies sheltering in doorways. 

Nor would I wish to have to worry about money. Not that an emergency case would have to produce a credit card before getting onto an ambulance. More that, I would prefer to live in a country where a poor person has the exact same access to medical care as a rich person, both in quality and timing. This isn't altruism. I had to give up my Medical Insurance last year and it makes me feel vulnerable.    

I want everyone to have access, because I want access. And I think most people would agree with that, in principle. That's my stall set out. I want everyone to have the best available care, because I want me and mine to have the best, even though I can't afford it. 

Now if we could achieve a broad consensus on that, we might think we've done a good day's work. The problem is paying for it. Not that I'm underplaying the importance of establishing the principle of everyone having access to the best health care available. There will be ideologues and 'pragmatists' who'll rail against it. And others who would divide people into 'deserving' and 'undeserving' sick. They would have to be wholly defeated. A prisoner serving life for murder must be entitled to the same care as a child with cancer. If we get to play favourites, then it's not really a principle, more a guideline. Give people the power to play god and they will play god. And if they are corrupt, which some of them inevitably will be, then money will again decide who gets what and when. 

But cost must then be addressed. And when deciding how best to meet the cost, one must also look at methodology. This is where the ideologues will run amok. I don't care how it's done, though mostly I don't care because I don't how it can be done. If research showed that a model based on the NHS, entirely funded by taxes, was the best, I'd go for that. If research showed a wholly privatised system worked the best, I'd go for that. I have no problem with profit. I'm a carer by profession. I get paid and would not work for free. I'm also not a big fan of paying taxes, but if the State did it best, then I'd pay the extra taxes. 

Unfortunately, all I see at the moment is confusion, inefficiency, a lack of resources and a crippling lack of vision. 

Perhaps we could first decide what it is we want. Let's achieve that one thing in health care, let's identify our ambition for health care in this country, then perhaps deciding how to reach that goal won't seem so crisis led and chaotic. 

The privilege of free speech.

I'm still trying to process yesterday's massacre. It's difficult to put considered words to my emotions. Usually one wouldn't have to be considered. When something as awful as the murder of 12 people happens one shouldn't have to watch what one says. But when a few extremists, from a minority, perpetrate an outrage, the responsible thing to do is moderate one's reaction.  

Muslims are in a vulnerable position in Europe. In an ideal world, these newcomers would be seeking to fit in, rather than to blend in. Part of fitting in, rather than blending in, is looking different. Be it because of skin colour or religious dress, European Muslims do generally stand out. This difference is extenuated by Muslims not feeling obliged to forget who they are, just to make us natives feel more comfortable with change. I like that. 


Unfortunately not everyone does. Even in the best of times there are those whose identities are so fragile or malformed that difference and change feels threatening. It's a phenomenon that's made worse in times of economic strife. Europe has obviously been experiencing an economic crisis so the backlash is getting better organised and most worryingly, better dressed. 


It becomes more complex when religion is conflated with race. It gets yet more complex when a liberal wants to criticise Islam and finds that the far-right is making similar criticisms and the far-left is acting as an apologist for religious extremism.      


So how do I emote responsibly? How do I give words to this fear and rage without descending into the language of hate?


I didn't feel like this when Anders Breivik murdered dozens of children. Of course there no one suggested that those children shouldn't have provoked a deranged extremist by being members of Norway's Labour Party. He represented such an insignificant strand of psychotic extremism that I did not feel threatened by his actions. Nor did I have to hedge my condemnation, for he was white and Christian.     


I want to be free to attack Islam. I regard it as being as ludicrous a lifestyle choice as Roman Catholicism, but how do I ridicule and other it, without using words that an Anders Breivik would nod approvingly at? 


How do I point out the supernatural nonsense, the homophobia and the misogyny? When I criticise Roman Catholicism, no one in Ireland will be worried about their churches being attached, job opportunities lost, their citizenship being withdrawn or their children attacked on the streets. It's easy being a liberal in Ireland with a bone to pick with the Catholics. 


Having a go at a minority, sets off, or should set off, alarm bells in the mind of a liberal. Yes, I could say, but they attacked free speech. They attacked a value as dear to me, as many people hold religion to themselves.  


The problem is that I don't live in a country that takes free speech seriously. I live in a country with blasphemy laws and that bans atheists from certain high offices. What right do I have to feel so offended by an attack on free speech in France, when a satirical cartoon, in an Irish newspaper, depicting Roman Catholic Priests was pulled due to the 'offence' some Roman Catholics chose to take? 


Should I wait for Ireland to get its house in order before commenting on religious attacks on free speech in other countries? It's an argument that can be made. 


I think I feel defeated. How do I, with every privilege, being born a straight, white man, in Western Europe has gifted me, argue the case for untrammelled free speech? How do I make the case to a gay adult, who has survived all the bigotry this country has thrown at them, that the next generation of gay people must also endure the witless homophobia of the Roman Catholic Church? 


I can attempt to explain that if we empower the State to silence Catholic bigotry, we've then empowered the State to ban gay 'propaganda' as Russia has done. I can attempt to say that the responsibility of people, of good conscious, is to drown out the noise of institutional bigotry. That we must argue for and model behaviour that inspires minorities, that so inculcates them from the hate, that the words and deeds of the tiny minded, becomes wholly irrelevant. I have to argue that free speech is worth suffering for?


Saying those things makes me feel like I am a middle aged man in 1914, urging and cheering the young men off the war, safe in the knowledge that I will never be called upon to suffer their fate. 


Do I condemn the cowardice of the Irish mainstream media for not printing any of the cartoons that so offended the extremists? I wouldn't be the one courting a violent death. 


I had hoped that writing this would help me process my feelings and give me a renewed sense of purpose. But it hasn't. I'm left with the feeling that expending any time, effort or passion on an ideal such as free speech, is merely to display my privilege in garish colours. 


Perhaps that's the point. Free speech does remain a privilege. A privilege, but not a priority? 

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Battle of the Five Armies (spoilerful review)

I chose to wait until I'd seen the movie twice before reviewing it. I'm glad I did as the review I'd have written after the first view would have been unremittingly negative. It's not that I thought it a bad film, it's that the entire experience was ruined by one early scene. Watching it a second time however allowed me to enjoy a great deal of the rest of it. 

(And as I warned at the beginning, this is spoiler heavy)

I shall begin with the issue many people have referred to since The Hobbit project became a trilogy. Was a trilogy justified and did the three films succeed in dealing with any concerns expressed? I must admit to being unsure. I do not posses the ability to step outside my enduring love for Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth. I would have gladly, enthusiastically and without hesitation embraced a ten film version of The Hobbit. Similarly I'd have been overjoyed with a twenty film version of The Lord of the Rings. So I cannot offer a sensible appraisal of this trilogy's merit. 

I can suggest that Peter Jackson did succeed where Tolkien failed, turning The Hobbit into a fully fleshed out prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Though, it should never be forgotten, the good professor did provide all the necessary details for Jackson and his writing team to make that adaptation. So yes, it does work as a prequel in a way the original book did not (and was not initially meant to be). 

But three films? This review can't offer an answer. I would suggest however, that despite its mighty length, there were still pieces of the story that did not get resolved or were not given due attention eg the Arkenstone, Beorn, Gollum, the white jewels, Legolas's mother, Thorin's funeral and sundry other elements. All I know for certain is that I want more. 

Another often mentioned controversy is Tauriel, a wholly invented Jackson character. Was she created just because a Hollywood Blockbuster needs a strong female character? I don't care why she appeared, I just know I love her. From my earliest readings of the books, I was always struck by the power of the female characters in Middle Earth. They did not appear very often, but they had a wonderfully pervasive presence. Galadriel, Arwen and Éowyn are characters I adore. Tauriel is a worthy addition to that triumvirate. 

I'm also an incurable romantic. I thought her always doomed relationship with Kili was beautiful. That it was transgressive only added to the romantic beauty of it all. And it was doomed. Tauriel did not have the option of choosing mortality as Arwen did, lacking her dual-heritage. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Thranduil reminds her that Kili will surely one day die. Who couldn't be transported back to the time Elrond showed Arwen a vision of her future if she chose a mortal, Aragorn. An eternity of aimless grief. I'm a sucker for that kind of tragedy so Tuariel's inclusion most certainly works for me. 

As for The Battle of Five Armies itself? It did not have the emotional resonance of The Return of the King, which logically it could not have, being part three of six. But I still felt the disappointment as this is simultaneously, part six of six. A seventh may never be made. Though it is a strange criticism to make, make a film that'll keep me going for the next few decades.

Before I continue I should explain what scene almost ruined the entire film for me. The confrontation on Dol Guldur between Galadriel and Sauron and the Nazgûl just didn't make sense. At first Galadriel appears scared of the Nazgûl then she dismisses all nine and Sauron with seeming ease. It's a scene that manages to both understate and overstate her power, with added rubbish special effects to boot. We know that Sauron was defeated at Dol Goldur and that Galadriel was the most powerful elf in Middle Earth, but surely there was a way of telling that story better. It continues to irk me in a way that no other scene in the six films ever has. 

But that aside. I enjoyed it. The opening scene was near perfect. Though it worries how much regret I felt, when Smaug's light was finally extinguished. I never felt that for the Balrog. 

I was convinced by Thorin's descent into paranoid madness and teary eyed by his eventual redemption. 

Bard's assumption of power was admirable. Thranduil's lofty coldness, softened, was wonderful. The battle scenes were spectacular, if a little confusing. How Azog managed to establish his command post still escapes me. (I won't mention the rock worms) I enjoyed the fact that while dwarves hate elves, they will at least treat with them, but show them an overwhelming force of orcs and they will charge them without pause for breath. I'd liked to have seen more of the Charge of the Women and again with the Eagles without any explanation. If I hadn't read the books, I think I'd have lost my mind with the Eagles.    

I really enjoyed the way the deaths of Kili and Fili were handled. The former without any heroism, the latter, his eyes trained on his love while he breathed his last. 

Legolas got to do his circus tricks. You're either going to love or hate that.   

But in the end, The Hobbit is about Bilbo and I think he shone. He is a true adventurer. Bilbo has a charisma that Frodo never had. Be it dwarf, elf or man, Bilbo is always a force to be reckoned with. He has none of Frodo's deference. And that he was already in thrall to the ring by the film's end was made exquisitely apparent. 

And now, the only thing left to do is wait for the extended version. And after that, back to the books and pray to Eru that the rights to The Silmarillion become available. 

May the Star of Eärendil shine upon you. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Secularism?

Gandalf knows I've little interest in competitive 1916ing. I would avoid the sport altogether, except it does provide an opportunity for a little thought experiment. Imagine a class of 35 teenagers is asked to write a short essay about what it means to them, to be Irish. That is 35 individual perspectives on Irish identity.  

Now before you read the essays, ask yourself the following questions; if you disagree with an opinion, does that mean the teenager is wrong? How much uniformity do you hope to see in the essays? Will the essays be much different to what would've been written ten years or fifty years ago? If different, is this a good or a bad thing? Will you value the opinions of the new Irish as much as the old Irish? Do you think you'll be able to detect differences based on gender, income, sexuality, race and religion? Do you think this class of teenagers would write the same thing in ten or fifty years from now?

What I'd hope this experiment would successfully demonstrate, is the fluidity of Irish identity. I would also like to think (and I'm open to contradiction here) is that there is now greater variation in today's multitude of Irish identities than there has ever been since the foundation of the State.

I happen to think that's a positive development. I remember when I was in school, we were taught that one of the causes of The Great Famine was monoculture i.e. an over reliance on one crop. I can't help thinking that the dreary sameness of Irish culture up to quite recently, had a part in producing a State seemingly incapable of dealing with crises or indeed difference.  

That's possibly why I react so negatively to 1916ing. I keep hearing so many different people insisting that their 1916 is the most authentic and that all you other 1916s are revisionist, reactionary, counter revolutionary, and not the right sort of patriot. And if you even question the motives of the 1916ers themselves, well then you're clearly a West Brit hankering for a return of the Irish Raj. 

It is as if demonstrations of physical bravery sanctify actions however misguided. This deathly piety, infects and animates both left and right with equal vigour. Will those who died in the crossfire of this 'idealism' be remembered? Will those who were maimed in a cause they did not support be afforded equal respect? Of course not. All that matters is that we wave the flag and insist 1916 means such and such a thing. 

What the fuck, you may be asking, has this got to do with secularism? Well let me explain. Traditionally, when an Irish atheist speaks about secularism, we tend to simply attack the Roman Catholic Church. It's almost a reflex at this point. Any and all demonstrations of Catholicism provokes us. We use terms like 'sky wizard' and 'flat earthers' and 'Bronze Age inspired homophobes' (ok I just made that last one up, but you get the picture).

Has this ever proven useful? I fear it hasn't. It inspires a defensiveness we've never really been able to overcome. And when we resort to seemingly neutral terms like 'rights' 'equality' 'pluralism' and the 'UN' we very much meet the same reaction; this is a Catholic country and if you were in Saudi Arabia you'd know your place. 

This failure, no our failure, was brought home to me by a recent incident in my own county of Kerry. 

A cross at the top of Kerry's Mount Carrauntoohil, was vandalised, cut down by someone who climbed the mountain with an angle grinder. Now my first reaction was, there's a cross at the top of Carrauntoohil? Followed by a shudder, then the thought, is there any where in this country free from these Catholic symbols?

Then something unpleasant occurred to me. What if this was one of our lot? And I use 'our lot' in the broadest sense, meaning anyone who might have been motivated by secularism, atheism or anything similar. I prayed to the gods I don't think exist, that this would prove to be a work of pure vandalism or even perhaps a rather energetic environmentalist. Gandalf knows we could do with more environmentalists in Kerry. 

I'm ashamed to admit, that I even momentarily hoped it was of one the many victims of the Irish Catholic Church, exacting some revenge. An unworthy thought. Being president is just not that important. 

Soon after this, representatives of Atheist Ireland were interviewed on local and national radio stations. As a member for that organisation I was hoping they'd see the danger and opportunity this incident represented. I was sadly and emphatically disappointed. 

No sympathy for the communities, who'd erected the cross, was offered. And worse, its restoration was questioned. I was appalled, still am. I engaged with Michael Nugent on Twitter, but I failed to make him realise how badly Atheist Ireland's response reflected on us all. Worse, it now makes the removal of the crucifix in the Kerry County Council Chambers even less likely. The only response from Atheist Ireland should've been, 'this is terrible and how may we help?' 

The cross was put back up, in an almost secret operation, such were the fears of the local communities. Think on that. What hope does a secularist now have in engaging fruitfully with those people? They are actually scared of an organisation with next to no influence and even less power. 

(As it happens, the vandal did turn out to have a gripe with the Catholic Church)

I let my membership of Atheist Ireland lapse. Its clueless and tone deaf behaviour shocked me too much to have anything else to do with it. 

Thing is though, I still support its stated aims of promoting atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state.  

I don't actually wish to spread atheism, but I want everyone to be as familiar with it as they are the various Christian sects, Islamic traditions, Eastern philosophies, weird American cults, astrology and paganism. Which is to say, I'd like Irish people to be as equally ignorant of the several tensions that exist as atheism, as they are the about the divisions, contradictions and rivalries that exist within all the other groups. I want this for one reason and one reason only, so that we can make some progress in creating a truly secular state. 

Why? Why this need for secularism? And where does having a go at the current fashion for 1916ing come into it? Be patient, I'm getting there. 

Secularism is derided by both left and right as being innately conservative and far too radical. If the Marxists and reactionaries hate you, then you're probably doing something right. The thing is, both are entirely correct. 

Yes the cause of secularism is profoundly conservative. Look at us. We are almost exclusively white men, living comfortable lives. I am not fit to wash the feet of a secularist living in Saudi Arabia. I'd blush in the presence of a Russian secularist. And I'd be tongue tied if I met a woman secularist. In Catholic Ireland I must labour under the yoke of not being allowed be President, a judge or a member of The Council of State. Imagine my rallying call; come all, join me in my fight to have the theoretical right to a pointless, but well paid, office. Help, help, I'm being repressed. 

And yet, the cause of secularism is profoundly radical. For there can be nothing sacred in a secular state. Not the right to have one's opinions respected. Not the right to cut a small child's genitals. Not the right to impose one's beliefs. And never a right to state sanctioned privilege. 

Those of us who identify as non-religious are a disparate lot. That which is the non-religious part of our identities, contributes to our Irish identities. To some, this is a defining feature, for others, it is but a tiny aspect of the over all. But we are about 250,000 of the population. That's a big chunk of people. 

On the other hand (as opposed to other side) there are the 'still' millions who identify as Roman Catholic. This group is as disparate as the many contradictions found among the non-religious. And again, in varying degrees, these multitudinous identities, influence their Irish identities. 

That these identities are privileged is inarguable. That they represent the vast majority of identities, is without question. And that they have the weight of tradition and history behind them, is clear to all. 

They are as entitled to the respect as this 'militant' atheist wishes he was afforded. But for secularism to succeed they will need to change, they will need to cede some of their power, they will need to accept uncomfortably new modes of behaviour. Their perception of Irish identity will need to broaden, in some cases, considerably. 

But if they ask why they should change? Why should they give up anything? Why can't things just stay the same? 

Do I answer with, your God is a sham, I want to be president (in theory), the UN said so, in fact comparing ourselves to Saudi Arabia demonstrates such low national self-esteem you should probably seek help or because you're just being mean not giving me my own way?   

Thing is, there is no right answer. There is no silver bullet for convincing someone that the way things have been done for a century is discriminatory and worse, self defeating. Convincing someone of something, who doesn't want to be convinced, is an exercise is such futility that one must grope for Greek legends for an appropriate metaphor. 

And when that attempt is made with clumsy insensitivity, then that rock gets heavier and the hill steeper.    

But is this a call for surrender? No. Far from it. Nor am I suggesting, hinting or even hoping that secularism is in anyway a natural progression and we need merely sit back and watch it grow.

Even in this time of competitive 1916ing and all the atavist nonsense that it entails, it is clear that Ireland has changed and is continuing to change. While people will (in these few nostalgic riven years) speak about the Irish character and Irish identity, the days of everyone following the flag, step in step (if indeed that ever existed) is long gone. 

There is now, no Irish identity. And if anyone tells you there is, they probably trying to sell you something. There are many identities, many cultures, many ways at looking at the world and now, several opportunities for minorities to assert their claim to equal treatment and esteem. 

And yes, that implies I am putting the non-religious into the category of oppressed minority. And yes, I am. But quell your ire, for this is the key point I am struggling to make in this overly long post. There is a queue of minorities, all standing and waiting or marching and demanding equality. All looking for their threads in the tapestry of Irishness to be recognised. The non-religious absolutely belong in that queue, but near the back. And while standing and waiting (occasionally raising our hands to remind people we are here) our main focus should be in supporting those people ahead of us is the queue. Because if and when we're the only ones left, we won't even have to ask anymore.