Des Hanafin will have been an extremely familiar figure to many of the readers of this newspaper down the years. He was a long-serving Fianna Fáil Senator and a founder and the long-time Chairman of the Pro-Life Campaign. Des died last week, aged 85. He had been unwell for a long time but was still as active in public affairs as his health allowed him to be.
He was fully engaged by all the issues of the day until close to the end, especially the two dearest to his heart; the right to life and the welfare of the family.
Des was described in some of the media last week as “deeply conservative”. It would be more accurate to say that he had a deep commitment to the right to life and the true nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman that is child-centred, not adult-centred, which is what marriage became in 2015.
Des Hanafin rose to national prominence in 1983 when the pro-life amendment (the Eighth Amendment) became part of the Constitution via a two-to-one vote in the referendum of that year.
He had fought hard as a founding member of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (as it was called back then) to make this happen, alongside other stalwarts like John O’Reilly.
They feared that eventually the Irish Supreme Court, like the US Supreme Court 10 years before, would eventually create a right to abortion more or less out of whole cloth, that it would miraculously find this right in the Constitution as had happened in America.
They sought to pre-empt this, and they succeeded. Since then, the ridiculous claim has been made by those on the pro-choice side that the amendment and debate of 1983 had the perverse effect of making abortion an issue in Irish public life. But there isn’t the slightest doubt that this would have happened anyway. Are we seriously to believe that our extremely pro-choice media, our pro-choice politicians, the many pro-choice academics and feminist groups would not have sought to make it an issue in any case?
If the pro-life amendment was not in their way, we would probably have an abortion law of some kind on our law books by now, one that would be more permissive than the euphemistically named ‘Protection of Human Life During Pregnancy Act’ of 2013. The reason all these forces are so hell-bent on repealing the Eighth Amendment is precisely because it stands in their way. Des Hanafin helped to put it in their way and that was an achievement of which he could justifiably feel very proud.
The Irish abortion rate – taking into account those who travel to Britain each year for abortions – has been consistently far lower than the British rate itself.
If our rate was the same as in Britain, the Irish abortion rate would not be one in every 15 or 20 pregnancies as it is now, it would be one in every five.
There can be no doubt that, thanks to the 1983 referendum, there are thousands upon thousands of Irish people alive today who would otherwise not be alive. (Perversely, some of these same people will be in favour of abortion, not realising their good fortune.) But it is no exaggeration to say that Des Hanafin helped to save very many lives through his actions.
Des Hanafin also took part in the 1986 divorce referendum helping to defeat that proposal in an almost two-to-one margin. The issue then was whether marriage should be considered indissoluble or not. He believed it should be.
He also played a role in the X-case referendum of 1992, the narrowly defeated attempt to repeal the X-case in 2002, as well as the 1995 divorce referendum which, by the slenderest of margins, passed divorce.
I can’t say I knew Des Hanafin very well. I met him only a few times, but to borrow the cliché, he was larger-than-life. Even when he was down, this never disabled him for long because he was a doer. If something needed doing, he was the man to do it. With the help of his wife, Mona, and his strong Catholic faith, he even managed to overcome his self-admitted problems with alcohol.
The ’doer’ in him also led him to set up businesses of his own, some of which failed, and some of which succeeded. For a long time he was a fund-raiser for Fianna Fáil. When it boils down to it, Des Hanafin was that rare thing; a conviction politician. His convictions were never popular with the Irish media, even though he was liked by the journalists he got to know in and around Leinster House because he was likeable.
As time went on, his convictions weren’t too popular with the higher-ups in Fianna Fáil either as his party became as eager for the good opinion of the media as it once was for the good opinion of the bishops. All that changed was who it tugged the forelock to. The forelock-tugging itself never went away.
But Des stuck by his convictions in season and out of season. He took a very strong interest in the referendum of two years ago as well. I had some contact with him at that time because he wanted to know what was going on.
By then, of course, Ireland was very different from the Ireland of the referendum triumphs of 1983 and 1986.
Liberals would say that Ireland has become more ‘tolerant’. Des would put it another way. He would say we have weakened in our commitment to the right to life in the name of ‘choice’, and we have weakened in our commitment to marriage as a vital social institution, again in the name of ‘choice’.
From somewhere up above he will now be looking down with keen interest on how the right to life of the unborn will fare if it is put to voters next year. It would be the most fitting tribute to him if we manage to win it.