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History shows the size of Government’s task to steer a course on abortion debate



Date Published: 09-Jan-2013

For a year in every decade, the issue of abortion has dominated the political agenda. In the early 1980s, it was the amendment to the Constitution intended to protect the life of the unborn (an amendment that has caused considerable difficulty since then). In 1992, it was one of those in extremis cases that test the law to the limits.

The circumstances of the X case were terrible. It involved a 14 year old girl who became pregnant as a result of statutory rape by an older man. She threatened to commit suicide if she was made carry her pregnancy to term.

The Supreme Court, in the first substantial test, of the amendment decided that an abortion was lawful if there was a substantial risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother. It held that the threat of self-destruction constituted such a risk.

The decision has been a problematic one. In the two decades since the decision there has been no legislative response. It wasn’t a case of inaction.

Two referendums were held to try to change the Constitution to incorporate the X case judgement, but without the crucial part of the decision that allowed a threat of suicide to be accepted as satisfying the test of a substantial risk.

Both referendums failed, the second by a paper-thin margin. The reason it was lost was because pro-choice advocates and groups with extreme anti-abortion views both campaigned for a No vote… for very different reasons.

Once it was defeated, whatever weak breezes were in the sails of political parties on this issue dwindled away.

A government gave the go-ahead for guidelines to be issued for the medical profession but no serious effort was made in the intervening years to grasp this nettle. It got caught in the political doldrums.

The Supreme Court judgement was clearly the law but it was becoming increasingly difficult for doctors – and indeed for lawyers – to divine what was permitted and what was not.

A new government came into power in the early months of last year. It was made up of two parties that had very different views on the matter. Labour had included legislation to give statutory backing to the X-case judgement in its manifesto.

The commitment by Fine Gael was more guarded and a considerable bloc of the party’s TDs, both old and new, had very strong views on abortion. However, it wasn’t just the X-case anymore.

The European Court of Human Rights had held that Ireland’s current laws on abortion – based on a reading of the Constitutional provision, the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that made abortion a felony, and the Supreme Court case – had infringed the personal rights of a cancer sufferer.

The judgement has been portrayed in some quarters as being permissive and pro-abortion but that is not the case.

It rejected two cases in which women sought abortions on grounds of poverty and choice. In the third case, C, it held there was no accessible and effective procedure to establish whether a cancer patient qualified for a lawful termination of pregnancy if the pregnancy posed a possible risk to her life.

This was a grey area for which the law was, and is, unclear. When the programme for government was being drafted, both parties agreed that an expert group would look at the matter and recommend a solution.

There was a view that the majority of Fine Gael TDs and Senators – including its leader – favoured new guidelines for the medical profession rather than a new law that would liberalise abortion laws too much.

In the end, the group chaired by High Court judge Sean Ryan recommended a legal solution supported by regulations. "The matter we are asked to consider, which is essentially a technical question, is part of a larger debate," said Judge Ryan in the report.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past



A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.


For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr



Date Published: 23-Jan-2013


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Archive News

Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup



Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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