A smack on the head is just what you get: Cóir, Youth Defence and the Catholic Right September 22, 2009Posted by smiffy in Lisbon Treaty.
Whatever your views on the Lisbon Treaty, pro or anti, I think everyone on here who is both honest and sane would agree that its ratification won’t bring about the introduction of abortion in Ireland. This post is about neither the Treaty itself nor abortion.
With that in mind, I’d suggest that this week’s ‘Lisbon Treaty Sheer Brass Neck’ award should go to Niamh Uí Bhriain of Cóir. Responding to Bishop Noel Treanor’s statement that there is no religious reason for a Catholic to oppose the Treaty, she said
“Bishop Treanor’s intervention was quite extraordinary,” she said. “He threw himself into political campaigning because of his support for the treaty.
“But, worst of all, he felt free to misrepresent and attack No campaigners. I would remind the Bishop that the days of belting Irish citizens with the crozier are thankfully long gone,” she said.
The irony of Cóir accusing others of misrepresentation, and of Uí Bhriain seemingly celebrating the declining influence of the Catholic Church is funny enough, but not enough to clinch the prize. Instead, she gets it from the crozier remark. Those of us who know Niamh Uí Bhriain as Niamh Nic Mhathúna, founder of Youth Defence, and who remember the tactics of her and her buddies in the early 1990s might be allowed a raised eyebrow at her new-found aversion to belting people with sticks.
More seriously, those commentators and letter-writers who consider the Bishop’s statement (and today’s from the Conference of Bishops) to represent a refutation of Cóir, or who find it odd that fundamentalist Catholics would position themselves in opposition to the Church hierarchy completely fail to understand the nature of Cóir (or, more correctly, the Cóir-Youth Defence-Family and Life collective of organisations, operating out of Life House on Capel Street) and what has happened to the Catholic right in Ireland over the last 15 years. In fact, the emergence of Cóir in the second referendum (and in the absence of Libertas) as arguably the most visible organisation campaigning against the Treaty, and possibly the most influential group on the Catholic right is one of the most intriguing developments in Irish politics in recent years.
It should come as no surprise that Cóir and the Bishops find themselves on opposing sides, as its earlier incarnation, Youth Defence, was established as a direct rival to the mainstream, respectable Catholic organisations – the likes of SPUC, Pro-Life Campaign, Family Solidarity – which dominated the ‘liberal agenda’ battles of the 1980s. The founding myth of Youth Defence is that they originated a group of young people, worried about babies in the weeks after the ‘X’ case first came to light, who spontaneously came togehter and went onto Michael Cleary’s (thank you, historical irony) radio show seeking support. The story’s here on the Youth Defence website, which is actually pretty good.
The truth is somewhat different. The founding members were closely associated with – in some cases the children of – individuals like Una Bean “Wife-Swapping-Sodomites” Mhic Mathuna, and Mena Bean Uí Chribín (of Santry Woods Post Office cum Marian Shrine). These people had been involved in the abortion and divorce campaigns in the 1980s, but by the early 1990s were considered so extreme by the more respectable Catholic right (William Binchy, John O’Reilly, Des Hanafin et al) that they were seen as a liability in an Ireland which had elected Mary Robinson. While the crazies certainly attracted the support of individual clergy, the Catholic hierarchy shared the reservations of their lay-colleagues, and tended to give them a wide berth. In return, the Youth Defence crew never showed any great deference to the bishops, or any particular respect to the right-wing great and good.
While they were still a relatively marginal force in the 1992 abortion referendum, they grew in significance over the next decade. Unlike the Pro-Life Campaign, they remained extremely active between referenda, including a direct, distasteful involvement in the C case, and violent action occupation of IFPA and Marie Stopes clinics. They grew in influence in the 1995 divorce referendum as in the form of the No Divorce Campaign (responsible for the infamous ‘Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy’ posters) they made a significant impact on public opinion in the course of the campaign, arguably overtaking the Anti-Divorce Campaign in influence. The 2002 abortion referendum represented a significant turning point, as unlike in 1992, they stood in direct opposition to the Pro-Life Campaign, which advocated a Yes vote. While, of course, Youth Defence can’t claim credit for the defeat of that referendum, they were certainly a major factor in getting an anti-choice No vote out, without which the amendment would most likely have passed.
None of this is going to come as news to anyone on here. However, what I find so fascinating about Cóir is that at a time when the popular influence of the Catholic Church is ebbing, and the mainstream lay-Catholic pressure groups are becoming more and more marginal, this far-right fundamentalist organisation has managed to maintain its position as a significant political player in the State. Interestingly, despite its consistent street presence, and ability to push its message so vociferously during referendum campaigns, its electoral ambitions remain modest. Apart from the odd misjudged adventure such as Justin Barrett’s European campaign, or its links with Libertas over the summer, it’s never shown much ambition to engage in parliamentary politics. This may be due to a reluctance to open its finances to the kind of increased attention such a move would involve, but one wonders what the prospects of a Cóir Dáil candidate would be if they put their minds to it.
To the best of my knowledge (and I’d love to be corrected on this), the growth of Youth Defence has never been the subject of a sustained work of political analysis. Emily O’Reilly’s ‘Masterminds of the Right’, while slim, was a good account of the role of the Catholic right in the 1970s and 1980s. However, it was published in 1992, just before the emergence of Youth Defence, and the political context has changed immeasurably since then. As, like most of the readership of this site, I work my way through ‘The Lost Revolution’, it strikes me that there’s a very important untold story – perhaps a book – in the development of the wider Youth Defence movement, and what it means for the future of Catholic political activism in Ireland.