Birgitte Nyborg v Lucinda Creighton

Clare. Just like I pictured it; skyscrapers and everything. Well, a supremely cool lighthouse in Loop Head, anyway. And, Gee, those Cliffs of Mo-hair sure are awesome. The place will always have a piece of my average-sized heart. And possibly some disturbing reverb from my occasional roars at Lucinda Creighton on the box.

Our visit last year coincided with the sleep-deprived government debates on the implementation of Ireland’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Based on the 1992 Supreme Court Ruling, it allows for limited rights to abortion on the grounds of the threat to the life of the woman, and the threat of suicide by the woman.

After months of protracted hearings and debate, and days of will she or won’t she, the Bill was finally passed and Lucinda was shown the door from her parliamentary party. The one she took great care to remind us, repeatedly, she was forced to prise open and slam shut with the might of her own unrivalled courage and conviction.

Two developments collided on the venn diagram of public opinion to produce her magical beatification.

Firstly, Creighton was upfront and unequivocal in her opposition to provision for the threat of suicide.  A high profile junior minister challenging party directive. Her beliefs aired in adherence with the availability of free speech. But by the time the vote came round, Creighton was not the last opponent standing. Six of her colleagues were expelled from Fine Gael following their defiance of party policy by voting against it.

Secondly, the media, having cynically played Creighton’s resoluteness off against similar concerns from her female colleagues, soon forgot the other 24 Dáil members who voted against the Bill. Focus rapidly zoomed in on Michelle Mulherin’s U-turn as evidence of a lack of sufficient moral conviction and selfish careerist motives. In turn, the weight of Lucinda’s unyielding convictions won her the higher moral ground.

With the exception of Vincent Browne, this narrative appeared to go unchallenged by the mainstream media. Over the following days, Lucinda’s bravery frontloaded the headlines. By this stage, it was Lucinda who was providing most of the commentary from what appeared to be a temporary altar built on the shoulders of cameramen and microphones. A new secular saint was born.

Danish TV drama is not a clinically approved petri-dish for lab analysis of Irish politics, but like much of popular culture, it has its usefulness in showing us something about how the world works. Watching Borgen over the year since these queasy events has helped shaped a few questions that were achingly absent during the carnival.

Birgitte Nyborg is the impossibly charismatic leader of The Moderates, a centre-left party occupying the ruling seat in the governing coalition. As PM of Denmark, Nyborg presides over the usual dilemmas pertaining to a range of domestic (welfare reform, criminal justice, immigration) and international (rendition flights, international trade, war and humanitarian intervention) affairs. Negotiating policy is based on skilfully balancing trade-offs between those ideologies among her coalition partners and opposition, with the best possible outcome for the common good of the Country and its citizens. Or pragmatism, in short. Backed up by commendable communication skills. It is classically Danish in its leftist leanings. To illustrate the complexity of fixed morals in the political bear pit of government, Nyborg emerges as an exemplar of a liberal idealist forced to surrender to seemingly unpalatable compromises.

Negative public opinion against her intensifies the longer she fails to bow to internal pressure to upgrade spend on military hardware in the wake of Danish peacekeeping casualties in Iraq. She caves in. Proposed early retirement age leaps up and down as the policy pieces are moved around the chess board. They settle on a half-way year. Business oligarchs are courted and double-bluffed. Everyone’s a winner. The cracks in capitalism are assumed, but the purest form of liberal policies prove an ineffective panacea alone.

More than once, Nyborg is accused of undermining her party’s ideals and the lines between political necessity and retention of power at all costs become blurred. Are the risks she takes to pitch for the role of mediator between two warring African countries indicative of the vanity and glory-seeking many accuse her of, or her fundamental humanitarian impulses she cannot ethically ignore? Probably both.

Was Michelle Mulherin’s U-turn a case of outright redundancy protection, a simple case of toeing the party-line, or surrendering to the will of the people?

Was Lucinda’s steely reserve in the face of party discipline purely a case of moral conviction at a heavy price, a self-serving move that elevated her public profile, or an exercise in placing personal conviction above consensus and the will of the electorate?

We’ll never really know. Partly because the prevailing responses to these questions came only from Lucinda.

Fine Gael was upfront in its coalition deal with its governing partners. The Bill was to be passed. It was informed by a Court ruling mandated by the electorate in a referendum 20 years previously. Time for a cabinet to do its work for the common good long built on electoral consensus. A no-brainer. The issue of conscience a moot point.  As Vincent Browne emphatically pointed out throughout – abortion is already available to Irish women if they have sufficient means, and an acceptable form of identification for Ryanair, to have one. Nyborg would credit the electorate and her cabinet with more cop than wilful border blindness and hypocrisy.

At no point during the media spectacle was Lucinda asked to consider the worth of the moral convictions of those who voted as a matter of conscience. Those ‘brave’ Dáil members who used their conscience as an instrument to balance personal and party ideologies with the best possible outcome for the Country and its citizens. Pragmatism, in short. The stuff that progressive modern democratic politics is based on. Not parish pump politics in which progress is stifled or buoyed up by the mettle of individuals rarely tested. Nyborg hails from a tradition of the former; Ireland is built on the latter. The implementation of the Bill presented a break-away moment when fresh realities bubbling below the surface for two decades would finally flower. When notions of bravery and conviction would be re-defined.

As an individual who felt stifled by her party directive, Creighton was free to declare her position, bare her fangs, and bow out. As an accidental arbiter on standards of political conscientiousness, it was a role she cheerfully grabbed from a willing media. Nyborg would not have been arrogant enough to accept such a misplaced honour.

That any of these women share similar genitalia should be neither here nor there, but stories of halos and villains in battles involving wombs are always easier to write when women are the chief protagonists. As politicians, all of them, like their colleagues, and the parties to which they belong, are weak to overtures from compromise, party leaders, personal gain, and the will of the people.

Would the woman with the most courage of her moral convictions please stand up?

You can all sit down now. And Lucinda, please close the door gently behind you on your way out this time.

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