The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Saying Yes: Ireland’s Seismic Shift

They won’t admit it, but the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland is worried. Ireland just isn’t the staunch Catholic fortress it used to be. The landslide victory (62%) for marriage equality in the plebiscite of 2015 horrified conservatives. What happened to Ireland? What happened to the staunchly conservative, almost fanatical Catholicism of the Irish people? Then the abortion ban in the Constitution was repealed by voters, and still anxious for more individual freedom they abolished the crime of blasphemy. All this would have been unheard of a couple decades ago.

Paul Valleley, professor of pubic ethics at the University of Chester, offered some suggestions as to why is happening. He lists two major reasons: one is “the Catholic Church has lost its grip on the Irish,” something he attributes to “self-destruction” by the church as a result of priestly child abuse, as well as the physical and psychological cruelty by nuns and priests at various church institutions, such as the infamous Magdalene laundries.

The decline, however, hasn’t been limited to just the Catholic sect. The Irish Times reported, “the decline is general all over Ireland for all churches.” In fact, the more conservative Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the largest Protestant sect had an even more “dramatic fall-off” than the Catholics. They saw membership decline by 40% since the 70s. Weekly attendance at Catholic mass is around 20–22% in Dublin. The Church of Ireland (Anglican) reported in 2015, only about 15% of purported church members attend services and only “13 per cent of worshippers were aged between 12 and 30.” The number of Catholic priests has dropped by 43% since 1995 and three-quarters of priests will be over age 60 by 2030.

The Irish Examiner noted:

Since the foundation of the modern Irish State in 1922, religion has been the social cement that provided cohesion and stability, and it was religion primarily that shaped our common moral framework.

Our value system was rooted in religion, and in his book Moral Monopoly, Tom Inglis of UCD has traced how the Catholic established a monopoly over Irish morality. That monopoly has now been broken….

Irish women were unhappy with the Church and its stand on contraceptives and women drifted away. It was especially hard for them to take Church teaching seriously when priests and nuns clearly weren’t doing so behind closed doors. “The desertion of the Church by women seriously undermined the basis of religious faith. After all, traditionally it was the mothers of Ireland who transmitted the faith from one generation to the next,” wrote the Examiner.

The 2016 census shows dramatic changes since one only five years earlier. In spite of healthy rates of population growth — especially by European standards — the number of Catholics dropped by 132,200 from 2011 to 2016, a decline of 3.4%. Apostolic and Pentecostals dropped by 4.9% and those saying they had no religion almost doubled, increasing from 269,800 to 468,400, up 73.6%.

To see how quickly Ireland has changed remember in 1987 the Irish voters rejected a referendum to allow legal divorce, even though the vote was intensely close: 50.28% to 49.72%. But, all the Church did was to delay the inevitable. By 2016 a vote was held which approved divorce with a waiting period, a new referendum is planned to reduce the waiting period from 4 years to 2.

If a 62% vote for marriage equality horrified the Vatican then upcoming referendum on abortion will go even further. The Irish Times reported:

Today’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows, 65 per cent of Irish voters who expressed a preference are in favour of and 35 per cent against repealing the Eighth Amendment if the proposition is to provide abortion on request up to 12 weeks.

In June, 2017 Leo Varadkar was made Taoiseach, or Prime Minister. In March, 2018 Varadkar and his partner, Matt Barrett, spent time in D.C. and New York City where they led the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which has historically been very antigay. But American Irish seem to finally be catching up with the change in values taking place in Ireland itself. Varadkar said, “I had a chance to meet the Mayor (Bill de Blasio) earlier and attend Mass, and I’m going to be able to march in the parade now with my partner which is something that is a sign, I think, of change, a sign of great diversity, not just in Ireland, but in the community here as well.”

In D.C., Varadkar was invited to breakfast with Vice President Pence, a known antigay politicians, and Barrett was invited as well — diplomacy can civilize even Republicans. The “public” remarks at this occasion, however, were off limits to the media — which is contrary to long-held traditions regarding such meetings. One can only assume Pence doesn’t know the meaning of “public” or couldn’t deal with photos of him eating with a gay couple made public.

After the meeting Varadkar said, “I did privately manage to speak to them about equality, about my support for equal rights for women and the LGBT community here in America and also in Ireland.” Now, this author is so old, I remember when America was able to lecture other world leaders about equality of rights and individual liberty.

In May, 2018 Irish voters again went to the polls and Irish airports, train stations and ferry terminals filled with voters returning home so they could vote on the abortion issue. The Irish constitution had explicitly given equal rights to a fetus. But voters overwhelmingly threw that out with 66% in favor of liberalization. The New York Times reported:

…it was not clear until the end that the momentum toward socially liberal policies would be powerful enough to sweep away deeply ingrained opposition to abortion.

“What we have seen today really is a culmination of a quiet revolution that’s been taking place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years,” Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said at a counting center in Dublin before the results of Friday’s vote were released, giving an early indication of the final outcome.

The Times asked whether social liberalization would continue. It would. But they seemed oblivious to the role that economic liberalization played as well, as we shall see shortly.

Religiously based legislation took another walloping at the hands of Irish voters in October 2018. In many ways this walloping started in 2015 withremarks by actor and comedian Stephen Fry, an outspoken atheist. Fry was asked what he would say if he met a god in the afterlife and he answered honestly, but honesty was a crime when it came to religion.

A complaint was filed to have Fry arrested for answering. Police began investigating Fry and the incident but finally dropped the case in 2017 “because officers could not find a substantial number of people that had been outraged by his remarks.”

Once again the matter was brought before the Irish voters and once again they embraced principles of classical liberalism. By a vote of 64.85% to 35.15% voters supported decriminalization of opinions on religion that the religious may find offensive. Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said, “Ireland is rightly proud of our reputation as a modern, liberal society. By taking this decision, we have again sent a message to the world, a strong message that laws against blasphemy do not reflect Irish values and that we do not believe such laws should exist.”

The only thing propping up Catholic numbers is the hold the sect has on government-funded schools.

The Catholic church runs nine out of 10 state-funded primary schools, and about half of secondary schools. It sets criteria for admitting children and recruiting teachers, and determines religious education and instruction.

Unbaptised children are unable to get places in over-subscribed local schools, forcing their parents to look further afield from their homes in ever-widening circles. The result is long school runs and children separated from friends and their communities. Many non-religious parents find it easier simply to swallow their misgivings and baptise their children.

Privately run Educate Together is trying to compete for that funding and has 2.4% of all schools in its network. They don’t discriminate on the grounds of religion, the way the Catholic run schools do. The Guardian noted:

Educate Together, which runs 77 [up to 82 since this was published] non-religious state primary schools in Ireland — 2.4% of the total — says it cannot meet demand for equality-based education. “We are very significantly oversubscribed,” said the chief executive, Paul Rowe. “There is a huge thirst for an educational environment based on equality and respect for all. We could easily open another 25 schools to satisfy demand right now.”

Michael Barron, director of Equate and a longtime advocate for LGBT rights, said: “The desire for change is massive, and I think we’ll see an even bigger shift over the lifetime of the next government. You can’t say we’re a progressive country that prides itself on equality while discriminating on religious grounds in schools.”

A poll carried out in 2016 for Equate found 46% of Irish said they wanted their children to attend a secular school and one in five said they knew of insincere baptisms of children as Catholics, solely for the purpose of admitting them to a local school.

The Role of Economic Liberalization

The second reason given by Valleley, however, is the one on which I will concentrate, and the one of greater interest to libertarians. Valleley wrote:

Ireland had joined the EU, giving it access to markets much larger than previously when its trade had been predominantly with Britain. That, combined with an influx of foreign investment, transformed Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. Its economy grew so powerfully in the 1990s that Ireland became known as the Celtic tiger.

With that affluence, and an increased engagement with Europe, came a shift in social attitudes. Emigration, so long a potent norm in Irish society, fell away. Brighter and more enlightened Irish talent no longer looked abroad but remained at home and fostered change. The Economist named Ireland the best place to live in the world. “Rising material wealth seems to have expanded minds as well as wallets,” as one Irish commentator put it. Secularism became linked in the public imagination with the benefits of urban modernity and religion was relegated to an association with the poverty of the rural past.

Ireland, according to Seán Ó’Riain’s The Rise and Fall of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, was in crisis, with “massive government debt accompanied by severe unemployment, immigration and weak labour force participation among women.” But a series of liberalizing market reforms led to “rapid economic growth and, even more significantly, exceptionally high employment growth in the second half of the decade. The numbers employed in Ireland almost doubled between 1988 and 2008, increasing by one million jobs.”

To understand how significantly Ireland changed a look at the Economic Freedom of the World report for 2017 is useful. In 1990 Ireland was in a lackluster 18th place, but by 2015 it had risen to 5th place. In comparison, the U.S. was in 3rd place in 1990 and fallen to 11th by 2015. The conservative Heritage Foundation has their own Index of Economic Freedom and they place Ireland in 6th place while the U.S. is even further down the list at 18th.

A second survey published by Cato and others is the Human Freedom Index, which measures not just economic freedom, but personal freedom and civil rights as well. In this broader measure the top ten nations are, in order: Switzerland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, with Netherlands and the United Kingdom tied. The United States manages the 17th position on the list.

Historically, the more market-oriented the economy, the more the well-being of LGBT people and other marginalized people increases, the more socially liberal a country becomes and the more liberties people enjoy. Politicized markets require political power, something minorities rarely have, but depoliticized economies only need an entrepreneur willing to cater to a minority. Soviet-style, top-down economies would never allocate paper for books on gay issues, let alone for a thriving gay media. That required a bottom-up, depoliticized or less-politicized economy, where entrepreneurs only had to buy the paper and find a profit-seeking printer. Even in the McCarthy-dominated 1950s, the United States had publications for gay men and lesbians. In Europe these publications existed since the late 1800s, something not possible in Comstockian America at the time, mainly because postal regulations were used to close down any publication Comstock deemed obscene, such as information on birth control.

It was the Financial Times that noted the role of material wealth on social liberalism. They wrote, “Ireland’s apparent willingness to embrace gay marriage is therefore as much a product of the Celtic Tiger years as it is a reflection of the decline of the Church’s influence.” With rising prosperity, Irish voters started embracing socially liberal reforms, matching the economically liberal reforms of a few years earlier: deregulation and more individual choice. Women demanded and won liberalization of contraception laws and legalization of divorce.

The left-of-center publication, The Guardian, saw a similar shift in Irish values:

“There is definitely appetite for social change and liberalisation — although perhaps ‘normalisation’ is a better word,” said Daniel Faas, head of the sociology department at Trinity College Dublin. “Ireland is rapidly becoming more liberal and tolerant. The sermons preached against same sex marriage were ignored by many voters last May. In the space of 22 years, since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, Ireland has gone from that extreme to embracing same sex marriage. The power and influence of the church has eroded — and it needs to reflect on that.”

Sociologist Tom Inglis said of Ireland, “[W]e have all signed up for cultural liberal individualism and a laissez faire approach to civil rights.

Similar seismic shifts in cultural values occurred in other nations following periods of economic boom. The relative prosperity of the 1950s in America gave way to the social turbulence of the ’60s, which saw the culmination of not only the civil rights movement but the movements for women’s liberation and, of course, gay liberation.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow proposed his famous hierarchy of human needs. He argued people fulfill lower-order needs first and work their way up the pyramid. The lower three rungs are basic needs, such as food, water, and sleep; safety needs, such as employment and security; and social needs, such as family, friends, and love. The higher-order needs are esteem (respect, confidence, and self-esteem) and self-actualization, which is the individual finding personal fulfillment, self-growth and their understanding of the meaning of their life.

These last categories underline the gay rights revolution along with woman’s rights, the Civil Rights movement, the rights of transgender individuals, etc. Now gay rights were not about access to markets; a closeted gay could still access markets even in a prejudicial culture. It was hard, however, to be closeted yet still have self-esteem and self-growth. Once lower-order needs were out of the way, people clamored for those choices in life that make them individuals — different from others. Economic prosperity creates that demand by filling the lower-order needs. While economic reform is necessary for economic prosperity, it is social reform that is necessary for individuals to live as free individuals.

Many have damned liberal economic reforms because they encourage individualism, the theory being that individualism promotes an uncaring, socially isolated, atomistic culture. Yet studies find “the tolerance level of the average American has been climbing steadily since the early 1970s.” The reason tolerance has increased is precisely because people became more individualistic in how they perceive themselves and others:

The increase in tolerance co-occurred with increases in individualistic beliefs such as rejecting traditional social rules around gender, race, religion, sexuality, and drug use. At the group level, tolerance was higher in years with more individualistic language in books and a higher need for uniqueness. These analyses cannot infer causation, but these results are consistent with our hypothesis that increasingly individualistic attitudes may be one cause of increasing tolerance for outgroups.

Rising economic prosperity encourages individualism. With the rise of individualism, it becomes harder and harder to damn those “not like us.” There is no “us” anymore, just many individuals, each with different values and priorities. Intolerance is largely fear of individualism; once you prosper economically, the individualistic genie is out of the bottle, and social change inevitably follows. Depoliticized markets ought to terrify conservatives, for in them social change is born. Ireland isn’t just saying yes to gay marriage, yes to divorce, yes to abortion; Ireland is saying yes to freedom and individual rights for all.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.