Old Irish Laws in a New Irish World

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A young Irish law professor and politician talks about subtle conflicts between Ireland’s modern society and old Irish laws governing some “hot button” issues

Interview, August 2005

Whatever new trend follows the Celtic Tiger in Ireland, it seems likely that Ivana Bacik will play a role in it. A 35-year-old barrister who holds a law professorship at Trinity College once occupied by President Mary McAleese, Ms. Bacik has tested the political waters once, making a respectable showing in her first, unsuccessful run for an MEP (representative to Europe) with the Labour party. It seems a sure bet that before too long, she’ll be in the political spotlight again.

Ms. Bacik, in spite of her Czech name, is Irish born and bred. Her father immigrated there after World War II, and, she hastens newgrangeto say, “My Mom is a Murphy from Clare.” But with her sharp-looking political website, proficiency in four languages and a long list of writing and lecturing engagements, she’s a kind of high-profile young women that hardly existed in Ireland just one generation ago.

A reader suggested I try her book Kicking and Screaming – Dragging Ireland into the 21st Century (O’Brien Press) which details the many strange, archaic laws still lying beneath Ireland’s modern surface. It’s written from an “unashamedly liberal, activist campaigning perspective,” Ms. Bacik cheerfully admits. “Even in Ireland, there are not many people to the left of me.” But in a phone interview across the Atlantic, she offered inside observations that might interest an observer anywhere on the political spectrum.

Do you think Ireland today is more like the US than other EU countries – particularly from the standpoint of having very free markets?

There’s a big debate here about whether we’re “closer to Boston or Berlin.” I think we prefer to take the best of both. Our social model is closer to Europe. When I’m in America, I feel European. But in Brussels, we Irish also like to think we’re outsiders. We’re somewhere in between.

How much is Ireland being influenced by directives from the EU?

It’s very influential. It’s clearly driving many of our new policies on protecting our environment and health and safety law. But the EU is a strange creature. We get all roads and no public transport from it, for instance. There’s a good deal of resistance to the idea of the EU doing too much on defense, which I think is fueled by opposition here to the Iraq war.

I was amazed by the description you wrote of The Church’s role in Irish public schools. It’s different than in America, isn’t it?

Primary schools in Ireland are really “semi-public.” Although our constitution says that The State will not “endow any religion,” it has been interpreted to mean that any religious denomination can establish a school and get state funding to support it. So we have a strange situation where any religion with enough adherents can get a school. We have a state-funded Muslim school in Dublin, but the vast majority of our state-funded primary schools are Catholic, of course. There are now also several “inter-denominational” schools, where two different religions are taught as conflicting philosophies. The teachers have to teach Catholic and Protestant views both as the truth.

I understand The State doesn’t actually own most public schools.

That’s right. The state funds and supervises the schools, but the majority of them are actually owned by churches. Churches appoint the official “patrons” of these schools, which gives them a lot of influence. The patron, who in most cases is either the local bishop or parish priest, appoints the school’s statutory board of management and can remove it. (the Roman Catholic Church controls over 90% of schools). In 2002, a principal of an inter-denominational school in Meath was dismissed by the patron because he wanted Catholic children to do their preparations for First Holy Communion after school hours. The patron insisted that all instruction in two different faiths, to the same group of children by the same teacher, had to occur during school hours.

Has this arrangement changed over the years?

It’s been very tough to reform the patron system. All the various churches oppose changing it.

Do you think Ireland will ever be ready for an American-style separation of Church and State?

It’s difficult to seek a complete separation. The Catholic influence is still a very powerful force, particularly in rural Ireland.

Do most of the so-called “Irish yuppies” drift away from The Church?

A lot of them stop going to church when they’re young, but many of them return as soon as they have children.

You were originally drawn into politics by the issue of abortion. Is the political environment around

It’s actually quite similar in the sense that it has been dominated by constitutional and case law rather than legislation. We’ve had American groups come over and try to influence the situation here. Operation Rescue has sent people over to give training to anti-choice or pro-life groups here. Partly as a result of this, the law here was recently changed to prevent foreign funding from being used to influence political campaigns here. A huge number of Irish women still go to England for abortions, by the way.

Concerning divorce law, your book described some very strict rules on living arrangement for couples going through the process. Can you explain a bit?

Before divorce was legalized here in 1995, you had what we called the “Irish divorce,” where married people lived in the same house for years, often without speaking to each other. Now the law requires that couples live together for at least four out of the last five years before they can divorce. So now we have what’s called an “Irish separation,” where people live on two different floors of the same house until they’re able to complete their divorce.

The oddest part of your book, to me, was the section on prostitution. Is it actually true that it’s legal under certain conditions according to Irish law?

The law restricts public display of prostitution, but not really the act of selling sex. This is true in English law as well. The law is mainly focused on keeping the sale of sex concealed. Even now, it is not an offense for a woman to offer sex for sale in private, or for a man to buy it. It’s only a crime if the sale occurs in a public place. The reason for this very peculiar state of the law lies in the long, highly complicated development of prostitution laws over centuries. A very old influence is the Victorian belief that men needed the services of prostitutes to avoid unleashing their impulses on “respectable women.”

Where do you see the greatest changes coming in Ireland’s legal system?

Legal change comes slowly here, but we’re certainly seeing imminent changes in corporate regulation. Immigration laws may tighten for economic migrants, despite the fact that we need them here because of shortages of qualified and unskilled staff in many areas. Finally, I think the legal profession itself will see considerable reforms.

You’ve spent a good deal of time in the US. Do you have any impressions on where the relationship between America and Ireland is headed these days?

Lots of us have spent time living and working in the US, and I think it’s generally been a very positive experience. There’s also a recognition here that US firms have played a major role in the Irish economic boom. But I would say that many Irish people have difficulty with US foreign policy right now, in particular with the Iraq war and President Bush’s refusal to sign multilateral agreements like Kyoto. On the other hand, Irish people are equally ambivalent about the EU, which has also contributed to our prosperity, but which has undemocratic aspects about it.

Do you find it difficult being a young woman in politics in a relatively conservative country?

I find it very stimulating. People are polite to me, though there are still very few women in politics – in fact women in the workplace have far fewer protections here than in other EU countries. There’s a very strong women’s vote here, though. When I was canvassing in my first election, young women seemed delighted to speak with me. Older men were also very supportive. They seem to like the idea that their daughters could someday be in politics.

For more information on Ms. Bacik, visit www.ivanabacik.com