A QUESTION OF CONSCIENCE

25 May 2018 No Comments by The Northern Standard

In one of his most famous soliloquies, Shakespeare has Hamlet muse that “conscience does make cowards of us all”.

In terms of moral restraint and the exercise of responsibility that foregrounds the common good to the demotion of self-interest, this is perhaps a true observation.

But, in the context of the debate that has preceded tomorrow’s vote in the referendum to repeal or retain the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, Hamlet’s viewpoint cannot be sustained.

Conscience is ultimately the driving force which has emboldened people on both sides of the argument to present their case with fervour and conviction. And, although isolated elements of the campaign on both sides have sometimes strayed into the thickets of inaccuracy, over-simplification or wilful or inadvertent misinterpretation of opposing views, in the main this has been a robust and respectful discourse.

Whatever the need for tomorrow’s referendum might say about us as a nation, a considered view of its discussion reflects us in a positive light. We are a much more confident, articulate people than we used to be, less parochial and insular in outlook, better able to speak our mind and to listen to others’ points of view.

We have always been fond of disputation but, thanks in part to the improved quality of our education system and the appreciating sense of ourselves as part of Europe and part of the global weave of humanity made more intimate by modern communication means, we have refined and better informed the part of our national character that tends naturally towards colloquy.

And yet, the fact that we are setting out tomorrow to vote on a constitutional provision of great moral and medical significance suggests that we are still in the process of maturation as a people and as a nation. The extremely sensitive topic of abortion, and the extremely complex issue of its legislative accommodation, are now a matter of urgent moment because for years they belonged to that realm of social concern that was consigned to the shadows and the whispers – like an insistent debt, the time has come for the bill to be settled.

It is not, in our editorial view, the job of this or any other newspaper or media outlet to tell you, the reader, which way to vote. We have endeavoured over the weeks since the referendum was announced and a date for it set to facilitate the making of an informed decision by opening our columns to the viewpoints being advanced by the advocates of both a Yes and a No vote. We have strived for balance in our coverage and tried to achieve clear delineation between the factual reporting of referendumrelated meetings and events and the expression of opinion by those campaigning on both sides of the argument.

If we now step forward somewhat on the eve of the decision, it is merely to encourage our readership to exercise their vote tomorrow. It goes without saying that this is an extremely important issue – the passion of feeling it has evoked on both sides is eloquent of that. But passion often occludes judgement, and in arriving at a determination of the issue we would encourage the voters of Cavan/Monaghan to evaluate the merits of the evidence presented to them, to be swayed by the concrete fact rather than the Cri de Coeur, as heartfelt as that might be.

Ultimately this is a question of conscience, and every voter must be satisfied that the mark they make on the ballot paper is the one that sits most comfortably with their instincts and worldview.

Tomorrow will not determine the abortion question definitively for Irish society whatever the referendum outcome. If No prevails and the 8th Amendment remains part of the Irish Constitution, tragic and intractable dilemmas of the type which led the country down the pathway to the May 25 vote will continue to recur and our national legislators will have to return to a task that they have told us equates to confusion worse confounded because of the Constitutional status quo.

If Yes prevails, our national legislators have the perhaps more navigable but by no means straightforward task of introducing abortion laws that are proportionate, compassionate and judicially sound.

Irish society will not be rent apart by the outcome of the 8th Amendment referendum, but whichever of the Yes or No voices goes ultimately unheeded tomorrow will not fall silent. When that happens, it is very important that the dissenters do not become voices in the wilderness. This should not be a winner takes all referendum.

During the course of the campaign, many people, the majority of them women, have come forward to tell personal stories which, in a not-too-distant Ireland, could never have been shared with the closest of confidantes never mind committed to newsprint or given flight on the airwaves. Some of the stories have made the case for a Yes vote, and some for a No.

Perhaps the most important thing about this referendum is that, perhaps for the first time in Irish society, a safe space was created where these stories could be told. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, that is what our legislators, and the nation as a whole, should seek to preserve – a space of tolerance where we listen rather than lecture, where we extend compassion and empathy to people faced with difficult and isolating decisions, and where people are not made to feel out of step with the times because of deeply felt faith-based outlooks.

Heading into our second century as an independent people, we are moving away from the old Ireland of shadows and whispers towards a place of openness and true independence of the mind and of the heart. How far we have progressed on this journey will be determined not so much by the outcome of tomorrow’s referendum but by how we react to the result, and by what our legislators do with the decision that the people present to them.

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