Ireland

(Getty)

By Jamie Smyth, Ireland correspondent

Ireland has decided to hold a referendum to change its constitution to recognise gay marriage, marking the latest step in the transformation of one of Europe’s most Catholic countries into, arguably, one of its most socially liberal. Just nine European countries (most recently France) recognise gay marriage and opinion polls suggest a majority of Irish people support introducing it.

“The right of gay couples to marry is, quite simply, the civil rights issue of this generation, and, in my opinion, it’s time has come,” Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said at last years Gay Pride festival in Dublin.

The centre left Labour party has prioritised the issue of gay marriage while the socially conservative Fine Gael party do not want to be rushed on an issue, which could alienate rural supporters. Read more

Esther Bintliff

Irish President Michael D Higgins smiles during the official announcement of the Irish presidential election's results on October 29, 2011 (PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)

(Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)

On Thursday morning, a small storm erupted in Ireland over an interview given by the president, Michael D. Higgins, to the FT’s Dublin correspondent, Jamie Smyth.

President Higgins, who is 72 years old, a published poet and a former government minister, argued that EU leaders needed to rethink their “hegemonic” response to the crisis.

“There is a real problem in what was assumed to be a single hegemonic model… The unemployment profile in Greece is different from the unemployment profile in Ireland. You need a pluralism of approaches… We have 26m people unemployed… There are 112m at risk of poverty, a contraction in investment and falling demand.”

Higgins’ remarks were quite frank for someone whose role is largely ceremonial. Some members of the public commenting on the Irish Times website praised his candidness: “He may be small in physical stature, but he is not averse to standing up to the heavyweights of the EU”, said one; another wrote: “THIS IS THE KIND OF PRESIDENT I HOPED FOR WHEN WE ELECTED MICHAEL D. HIGGINS!!!”.

Not everyone was positive. “By speaking out on matters which don’t concern his office, he is skirting dangerously close to creating a constitutional issue – and he does not have a mandate for that,” said ‘PaulFlynn’. When a Sinn Féin representative mentioned Higgins’ remarks in the lower house of parliament (the Dáil) later on Thursday, the parliamentary speaker immediately warned: “Don’t go there with regards to the President, we don’t discuss the President in Dáil Éireann.”  Read more

A protest in memory of Savita Halappanavar in November 2012 (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)

A protest in memory of Savita Halappanavar in November 2012 (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)

The first time a referendum on abortion was held in Ireland, it was 1983 and I was 12. Our local church in a small town in the south east was crowded and silent as the priest told those who supported the ‘right to abortion’ to leave now.

No one left, or if they did, I was too transfixed on the pulpit to see them go. If the Catholic church didn’t fight this, I remember the priest saying, then it would slide into irrelevancy, not much good for anything except perhaps fighting to save the whale. In those pre-environmentalist days, it was a reference that completely baffled me and I assume much of the congregation. Who wanted to save the whale?

Outside the church, there were people with collection tins and petitions. Later I remember a debate at my convent school; a teacher asked who agreed that abortion was murder and got a unanimous show of hands. A pro-life campaigner came to school and I remember not just the three foot foetus on the projector but also the scary realisation that anyone who did have an abortion would most likely end up in a wheelchair.

Nearly 30 years on and several referendums later, an inquest this week investigated the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who died in an Irish hospital last October after a miscarriage. Her family say hospital staff repeatedly refused her requests for an abortion. A midwife told her an abortion was not possible because Ireland was a “Catholic country”. On Friday – what would have been her fifth wedding anniversary – the inquest found her death was by ‘medical misadventure’. Her husband said his wife’s treatment had been “barbaric and inhuman”. Read more