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Extract How contraception was ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’

In 1979, Charles Haughey made his famous speech about contraception in Ireland. John Drennan looks back at that day in an extract from his new book.

On the 28 February 1979, Charles Haughey introduced the Health (Family Planning) Act – which would regulate contraception. Speaking in the Dáil he said it was “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. Little did he know this would become a renowned turn of phrase on how to sidestep a fundamental issue.

In his new book, John Drennan takes a look at the speech made that day, saying Haughey was not the first nor the last politician to discover there is no middle ground when it comes Ireland’s moral wars.

THERE WAS SOMETHING uniquely belonging to the 70s surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision in the McGee case on the provision of contraceptives to the public. This refers not so much to the issue as to the activism of the Supreme Court, which regularly forced the political system to defend and protect the rights of citizens. Happily, for politicians at least, the modern judge is more concerned with pension rights than with inalienable rights.

The necessity of liberalising the provision of contraceptives had already provoked one political crisis. Liam Cosgrave, then Taoiseach, had voted against and facilitated the defeat of his own Government in 1974. Unsurprisingly, the contraceptive hare had since been lying safely in the political long grass until, as a special treat for Charlie Haughey, Honest Jack transferred the issue from Justice to Health and told Haughey to be getting on with it.

Irish solution to an Irish problem

The subsequent debate, and Haughey’s famous ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’ certainly didn’t accord with his rakish, musketeer image. But Haughey was capable of adopting many masks. Several years earlier, having summoned Haughey to the palace over Edna O’Brien’s novel, The Country Girls, Archbishop McQuaid had noted ‘the rising politician’s disgust at its contents’. Like so many ‘decent Catholic men with growing families’ Haughey was, according to McQuaid, ‘just beaten by the outlook and descriptions’.

As it was, Haughey’s response would have impressed even Talleyrand. Speaking on the curious bill he had finally cobbled together, Haughey had as his first priority (understandably) the dispelling of the ‘unfounded criticism that the Government is unnecessarily introducing legislation legalising the sale of contraceptives’. It was instead responding to a situation in which there had not been ‘any controls over the importation of contraceptives’ and in which ‘it is, at present, legal for any person, irrespective of his or her age or marital status, to import contraceptives, provided they are not being imported for subsequent sale’.

Happily, the bill Haughey was introducing would now ‘control the availability of contraceptives and restrict effectively their supply to certain authorised channels for family-planning purposes’. The aspirant Taoiseach also made it clear that he was sympathetic to the view that the availability of contraceptives through a large variety of sources and, for example, from slot machines and similar dispensers, should not be tolerated and that ‘advertising of artificial contraceptives should not be
permitted in journals or newspapers in general circulation’.

‘Association for the Ovulation Method’

Critically, Haughey would also be establishing a comprehensive natural family-planning service, because he was ‘convinced of the value and importance of providing such a service’. The aspirant Taoiseach even managed, with a straight face, to
cite the role of organisations such as the National Association for the Ovulation Method in Ireland and told the gaping TDs that later that year he was arranging to hold, with the assistance of the World Health Organisation, ‘an international seminar on natural family planning . . . during the course of which the latest developments in natural family-planning methods will be reviewed and discussed’.

Haughey also promised ‘instruction or advice in relation to methods of family planning which involve the use of contraceptives’ but he warned this ‘can be done only under the general direction and supervision of a registered medical practitioner.’ Section 4 of the bill also ensured that contraceptives shall be sold only by chemists in their shops and that they shall be sold only to persons named in a prescription or authorisation given by a registered medical practitioner. Haughey also noted that when it came to the actual provision of contraceptives ‘it seemed to me most appropriate that the responsibility for providing guidance and assistance in relation to decisions on family planning . . . should reside with the family doctor’.

The careful Haughey also included controls on the importation of contraceptives into the state. There would be a provision for the importation, in personal luggage, of limited quantities of contraceptives required by a traveller for his own use. The Fianna Fáil tactic of solving every crisis with a grant was also in evidence as Haughey noted that it had been represented to him that research into ‘methods of natural family planning and studies of the outcome of trials of methods of natural family planning, were inhibited by an acute shortage of money’.

Artificial methods of contraception

Conscientious objectors to condoms were looked after in section 11, which made it very clear that ‘no person will be required under the provisions of the bill to take part in the provision of a family-planning service, to give a prescription or authorisation for the purposes of the act or even to be involved in the ‘advertising or display of contraceptives’. In a delightful legislative diversion, Haughey also had to amend the Censorship of Publications Acts to take count of the fact that this bill will authorise the provision under certain circumstances of artificial methods of contraception. As he noted with a commendably straight face :

It would be unrealistic and illogical to provide in the bill for the availability under certain circumstances of artificial methods of contraception and to continue to ban books which advocated or referred to such methods.

There would be substantial penalties for persons guilty of offences under the act. In particular it would be an offence to forge a prescription or authorisation or to be unlawfully in possession of such a forged document. Haughey piously expressed the hope that ‘deputies will accept that this bill is the result of careful and earnest consideration of a difficult situation’.

In a phrase that would haunt him, he claimed that the bill ‘seeks to provide an Irish solution to an Irish problem’. The debacle was a catalyst for one of John Kelly’s most unforgettable contributions. Kelly, who was actually a natural conservative, observed:

We ‘really are a strange people, that five or six ageing men are willing to sit in this parliament and solemnly discuss urine dipsticks in order to decide whether we are going to legislate along the fine tightrope of morality the people expect of us.

Kelly acutely wondered when we had ever applied ‘that exquisite care to deciding other moral issues, to the justification of violence in any part of this country . . . to deciding issues of morality such as dishonesty towards the state, such as failing to make correct income tax returns’.

Moral test for the Republic

Instead we were engaged in discussions that could only be found ‘in a country inhabited by leprechauns whom life had spared from most of the major decisions’. In a touching display of faith in the bona fides of Honest Jack, Kelly slammed the ‘pretence that the matter before us is primarily a health matter’. While it may be ‘accidentally a health matter’, this was yet again a moral test for the Republic.

A disappointed Kelly felt that Haughey ‘would have done himself credit if he refused to be saddled with this dead and stinking albatross of a subject’ which ‘had to be tarted up as a health measure to be respectable.’ In a stark analysis of where Fianna Fáil now stood Kelly noted that ‘this is what the radical party are driven to fifty years after their foundation’.  However, such was the abject state of Fianna Fáil now that sexual permissiveness ‘which for many people is an outcrop of love . . . maybe not always, but for many people it is . . . must be stamped down even by the party of radical reality’.

As Kelly sharply observed ‘that could not be allowed. It could not be said that Deputy X or Y could be allowed go back to the peninsula he lives on and have people pointing the finger at him, that he was permissive about lovemaking, but he can hold his head high if he is permissive about murder’.

Kelly noted that it was time to cease ‘trying to legislate in this private, intimate, notoriously volatile and mercurial area of life in the way we have been doing since 1935′. He added ironically of the abuse of condoms:

I know I am treading in a minefield—I am not sure what an abuse might be.

John Horgan of the Labour Party also took the historical route, noting that such was the fear and terror that sexual matters inspired in the new state that the 1934 committee had met in private to discuss the matter, before deciding that ‘the sale of contraception should be controlled by similar conditions as those which control the sale of dangerous drugs’. One suspects that Haughey wouldn’t have been too unhappy had a similar position been taken on that particular issue.

Noël Browne, meanwhile, sharply rejected the unwise statement that the bill was an Irish solution to an Irish problem. It was instead ‘concerned with protecting the political interests of Fianna Fáil’ to such an extent that the ‘minister is providing a family-planning bill the bias of which is towards the least reliable form of family planning’.

Once Browne had concluded by claiming that this was a bill ‘riddled’ with the ‘Catholic sectarianism of Irish republicanism’. Haughey stated that he had ‘never sought to suggest that this bill was ideal but that ‘it represents a sensible, mature, responsible solution to a complex problem in our society’. The embattled minister ruefully added that ‘in devising this legislation I have sought to tread the middle ground. I am faced with the necessity to make artificial contraceptives available to married persons or for family-planning purposes’.

He was, however, neither the first nor the last Irish politician to discover that there was, alas, no such thing as a safe ‘middle ground’ when it came to Ireland’s great moral wars.

John Drennan is a popular columnist and leader writer on The Sunday Independent. Standing by the Republic is published by Gill & Macmillan publishers and is in all good book shops.

In pictures: Haughey’s former mansion at Abbeville on sale for €7.5m>

5 things that were bothering Charlie Haughey in 1981>

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