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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

Galway have lot to ponder in poor show



Date Published: 23-Jan-2013




GALWAY’S first serious examination of the 2013 season rather disturbingly ended with a rating well below the 40% pass mark at the idyllic, if rather Siberian, seaside setting of Enniscrone on Sunday last.

The defeat cost Galway a place in the FBD League Final against Leitrim and also put a fair dent on their confidence shield for the bigger tests that lie ahead in February.

There was no fluke element in this success by an understrength Sligo side and by the time Leitrim referee, Frank Flynn, sounded the final whistle, there wasn’t a perished soul in the crowd of about 500 who could question the justice of the outcome.

It is only pre-season and last Sunday’s blast of dry polar winds did remind everyone that this is far from summer football, but make no mistake about it, the match did lay down some very worrying markers for Galway following a couple of victories over below par third level college teams.

Galway did start the game quite positively, leading by four points at the end of a first quarter when they missed as much more, but when Sligo stepped up the tempo of the game in the 10 minutes before half-time, the maroon resistance crumbled with frightening rapidity.

Some of the statistics of the match make for grim perusal. Over the course of the hour, Galway only scored two points from play and they went through a 52 minute period of the match, without raising a white flag – admittedly a late rally did bring them close to a draw but that would have been very rough justice on Sligo.

Sligo were backable at 9/4 coming into this match, the odds being stretched with the ‘missing list’ on Kevin Walsh’s team sheet – Adrian Marren, Stephen Coen, Tony Taylor, Ross Donovan, David Kelly, David Maye, Johnny Davey and Eamon O’Hara, were all marked absent for a variety of reasons.

Walsh has his Sligo side well schooled in the high intensity, close quarters type of football, and the harder Galway tried to go through the short game channels, the more the home side bottled them up.

Galway badly needed to find some variety in their attacking strategy and maybe there is a lot to be said for the traditional Meath style of giving long, quick ball to a full forward line with a big target man on the edge of the square – given Paul Conroy’s prowess close to goal last season, maybe it is time to ‘settle’ on a few basics.

Defensively, Galway were reasonably solid with Gary Sice at centre back probably their best player – he was one of the few men in maroon to deliver decent long ball deep into the attacking zone – while Finian Hanley, Conor Costello and Gary O’Donnell also kept things tight.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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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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