Ireland – after a year away

We’re back in Donegal after being away for a year. Just up the road in Portnablagh we met this – very Irish – quaint even. But then I thought of Portadown days. The dead were brought home. People gathered with tea, cake and the ubiquitous pavlova. This happens in communities where families have lived close for generations. A funeral is a community event and everybody understands how it is done properly. That is something precious.

And we had another example of what makes this kind of community special. A puncture on Saturday when we needed to go to the Stena Terminal in Belfast on Sunday. People like us go on the internet and ask, ‘Where can I get a puncture repaired on Sunday?’ To which the answer is ‘With great difficulty or not at all’. At which point a single phone call revealed that our nearest neighbour over the hill had what was needed and fixed it in five minutes. Good communities are full of people with skills and kindness.

Beaches around here are magnificent – and virtually deserted. The one we were on today had lots of children having surfing lessons. Some quick research shows that the Surf Schools are real engines of tourist development – making the most of our difficulties with travel – showing adults and children alike that there is very little to beat a Donegal beach, even in the rain

Meanwhile I think about what are the really big issues here.

Well Brexit obviously and the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ireland is an enthusiastic member of the EU and is also passionate about the Peace Process. Brexit faces in other directions.

I’ve also been following an issue which seems to me to illustrate the question whether Ireland is that modern, social-democratic, European country or – or maybe also – a regressive, religiously conservative country. That issue is the plan to build to build a new National Maternity Hospital on the site of the large St Vincent’s Hospital on the south side of Dublin. The issue is that the land on which this €800 million public hospital is to be built is in the trustee ownership of the Sisters of Charity. The state will lease the land for 99 years and the hospital itself will be a private charitable institution.

Ireland has long had difficulty with the question of whether Catholic moral teaching should apply within medical services. That question is obviously particularly acute in the context of a maternity hospital.

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole has been writing about this issue. In June he wrote that ‘A real republic should not have charity delivering public welfare’. And he goes on to say that ‘It is time to put a stake through the heart of this slavishness. Maternity and reproductive services are not charitable gifts.’

The vehemence of his language suggests that he sees this issue as another test case – a nation-defining issue -:for modern Ireland.