Comment & Analysis

Challenging the liberal narrative of ever more progress
Massive changes to Irish family life don’t get highlighted by the media, writes David Quinn

Those of a liberal persuasion tend to congratulate themselves on the changes that have taken place in Irish society over the last few decades as we have become more ‘tolerant’, more ‘compassionate’, more ‘open-minded’ and more ‘mature’. They like to remind us of ‘how far we have come’ compared with the Ireland of say, the 1950s, or even the 1990s, and then invite us to go further still along the road to ‘progress’.

RTÉ’s Prime Time has been on air now for 25 years and to mark the occasion, the show has been running a series of ‘retrospectives’ about the major debates that have taken place in that time. Half of the show that aired on Thursday evening of last week was about the social debates, including abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage. I took part in the studio discussion following the report which looked back on the last 25 years.

Detrimental

The report was what you would expect, that is to say, it mostly invited the audience to celebrate the social changes that have taken place since 1992.

In fact, Prime Time presenter, David McCullagh (one of the station’s fairest presenters, by the way), asked me straight up following the report which of the changes outlined in it have really been detrimental to Irish society, another way of asking, haven’t we traditionalists got it all wrong? David put it to me that despite the introduction of divorce, the marriage rate in Ireland is actually higher now that it was in 1995, the year of the divorce referendum.

I didn’t challenge that particular point. I’ve looked it up in the meantime. The marriage rate in 1995 was unusually low. It was an atypical year. But overall the marriage rate in Ireland was low then and remains low. It is in or around the EU average, which is far lower than it was in the 1960s. Marriage is not as popular as it was once and that’s a symptom of our highly individualistic societies.

I did, point out, however, that the number of people in Ireland who have suffered a broken marriage has soared over the years. In 1986, according to Census data, 40,000 people had separated. By the Census of last year, the number was closing in on 300,000. That’s a huge increase, although it should be admitted that our marital breakdown rate is still low by Western standards.

By the way, during the divorce referendum of 1995, newspapers like the Irish Times predicted that introducing divorce would decrease levels of cohabitation and births outside marriage. The exact opposite has happened, as we shall see.

Challenging the liberal narrative of ever more progress is difficult because liberals control what gets talked about, to a large extent. What confirms their narrative of progress gets highlighted. The worst episodes from our past history get similarly highlighted. What is inconvenient, tends to be ignored. 

Thus, the Prime Time report did not tell viewers about the seven-fold increase in the number of broken marriages since 1986. 

The report could have looked at other changes in the patterns of family life, for example, at the fact that more than a third of children are now born outside of marriage compared with only 5% in the early 1980s and about 15% in 1990, slightly before Prime Time first aired.

There has also been an enormous increase in the rate of cohabitation. Why do liberals never highlight, never mind, raise the alarm at figures like these? It’s because they don’t think they are very important, or else they see them as manifestations of personal freedom. If family patterns are changing, they tend to think, then that it is a good thing because people have more choices than they did when society was stricter and more traditionalist.

They do not care to consider the sometimes detrimental consequences of these changes for the adults involved, for society as a whole, and particularly for children. As I pointed out on the show, when marriage goes into decline via a low marriage rate, a growing incidence of divorce and separation, through a growing rate of births outside marriage and a growing incidence of cohabitation, more and more children end up being raised without the presence of a father.

Looked at objectively, it is very hard to see how this is a good thing, a mark of ‘progress’.

Liberals rarely worry about rates of abortion either. They really only worry about a lack of access to abortion. Thus, when you point out that one in five pregnancies in the UK end in abortion every year, amounting to almost 200,000 abortions annually, they tend simply to ignore the fact. Like rising marital breakdown, it is, for them, simply another manifestation of personal freedom. 

Would a future Prime Time be alarmed if our abortion rate rises to British levels? It seems doubtful when the massive changes to Irish family life don’t get highlighted, never mind raise alarm bells.

This is why it is so hard to challenge the liberal narrative. It has huge blind spots that prevent it from seeing certain facts, or, when they are presented, seeing those facts as particularly significant. This wouldn’t matter so much if conservatives had the same chance as liberals to present their case to the public, but they don’t, not even close. In all seriousness, how many members of the public are remotely familiar with the sort of figures I have presented above, let alone have heard a full debate about them?

Changes

Thus, we are inclined instead to think the changes of the last few decades have, for the most part, been an unalloyed good when the picture is far more mixed than that. Maybe one day our media will get around to presenting the public with a more nuanced picture of what is really happening in our society, a more rounded picture that better enables the public to assess whether the social changes have been good or bad, or a mixture of both, which is what I believe.