2009 was a watershed year for Irish sexual politics – but not in the sense that we usually understand the term. What we have seen is the intense politicisation of sex.
Ireland has never had a particularly healthy relationship with sexuality. The fact that it was long a staunchly Catholic country saw to that – and the fact that the main opposition to Catholicism came from even more conservative ultra-Protestantism didn’t do much to help matters. Still, the past two decades saw a booming economy finally bring about the kind of social change that Ireland, long a so-called ‘Second World’ nation, needed.
The problem is, today’s ideology-free Ireland has little to replace conservative Catholic morals with – and the country badly needs something to guide it. The growth of Ireland’s much-vaunted liberalism was an unconscious development that stemmed from rapid economic growth rather than a hard-fought battle of ideas. The danger now is that as Ireland’s economy contracts the public mood will shift away from the fragile libertarianism that blossomed while we were all too busy enjoying relative wealth for the first time in history to be much bothered with what other people did.
And the signs of a growing panic are already on show.
Sex has always been something of a slimy slope, politically speaking, but the irony is that, today, potential for conservative sexual moralising comes as much from the left as the right.
Liberal outrage has been led by a series of revelations that make the country seem like an incomprehensibly dark place.
December alone saw enough shocking news for a moral panic to be a virtual certainty: the Catholic Church was damned in a report into clerical sexual abuse of children but, more importantly, the state itself was hung out to dry as complicit in the rape and abuse of children for decades – police failed to investigate claims and went so far as to ignore photographic evidence passed to them by their British counterparts.
Then a sexual assault case in a rural backwater resulted in national fury when 50 people trooped into court to show ‘solidarity’ with the convicted assailant.
Next, Áine Tyrell, the niece of the leader of Irish republicanism Gerry Adams, publicly alleged that her father, Liam Adams, had repeatedly raped her from the age of four. This was quickly followed by the further bombshell revelation by Gerry Adams that his own father, Gerry Adams Snr, was himself an alleged paedophile and had abused some of Adams’s siblings.
Meanwhile, to keep the conservatives similarly infuriated, a case is working its way through the European Court of Human Rights challenging Ireland’s notorious ban on abortions and same sex civil partnerships are on their way into Irish law.
But all is not as it seems in any of these stories. The clerical sex abuse is shocking only insofar as the extent to which the Irish state had covered it up. After all, reports of priests abusing children are nothing new. And yet the Irish media continues to take the soft option of blaming the Catholic Church, an act which lets the state off the hook for not only failing to deal with perpetrators but for failing to provide a secular public education system in the first place – much of the abuse took place in residential educational settings.
The sexual assault case in Listowel, County Kerry was a fairly straightforward case of justice being done. Widespread public anger at the local demonstration of support for the convicted man is understandable, but politicising a criminal conviction is never helpful. The simple fact is that even criminals have friends and no matter how distasteful the courtroom stunt was, we cannot rewrite the law in the name of not hurting the feelings of complainants.
Worst of all, though, is the strange notion that despite decades of both feminist theory and criminology, most Irish people still seem to equate rape with sex rather than violence and domination, as though rape and sexual assault are a mere result of ‘over-sexed’ men and not the violent criminal assaults that they should be viewed as.
Speaking on one of the country’s premier current affairs radio discussion programmes, one commentator actually said that young men must be educated so that they don’t rape women: ‘My first reaction is one of a parent, you know, the responsibility we have to remind our sons that, you know, a moment’s sexual gratification leaves a lifetime of horror with the victim.’ (1)
The sexual abuse allegations surrounding the brother and late father of Sinn Féin party leader Gerry Adams, meanwhile, were never going to be unpolitical, but the chances of the full truth coming out, let alone of justice being done, are now next to nothing.
The weakening of constrictive Catholic morality is to be welcomed but Ireland must work hard to ensure that a new secular morality is created before we can celebrate the decline of clerical control, otherwise sex – both normal, healthy sexual activity and the hot-button issue of sex crime – is likely to take centre stage as the most destructive social force to whip its way through the nation in decades.
Ireland’s status as a sexual backwater meant that condoms were effectively illegal until 1993, the same year Ireland was finally forced to repeal its laws criminalising homosexuality. But instead of these changes ushering in an era of social liberalism, we skipped directly from ancient conservative Catholic moralising to postmodern anxiety driven by liberal prejudice about the dangers of sexual activity – am argument that is no more appealing when it comes from liberals than when it was the preserve of the right.
The argument must be made for consenting adults’ rights to do as they please and, at the same time, smash the seductive but false link between consensual sexual activity and sexual abuse. They are not the same thing.
(1) Gavin Duffy speaking on the Marian Finucane programme, RTÉ Radio One, 20 December 2009
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed to the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner, the Sunday Business Post, the Sunday Times and is Ireland correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.