Ombudsman and Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly’s address at ACCORD Conference

03 Mar 2012

Keynote address by the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, Emily O’Reilly, celebrating 50 years of Accord, the Catholic marriage care service – Europa Hotel, Belfast – 3 March 2012

Good afternoon everybody and I’d like to begin by thanking Accord for the invitation to speak to you here today.  I would also like to pay tribute to your organisation and to the countless numbers of volunteers down through the years who have achieved so much for so many couples striving, at times very much against the odds, to keep their marriages and their families together.

The discreet and confidential nature of your work means that it largely goes unremarked and unheralded by the world outside the counselling room doors, but its impact is no less for all of that.

I should also say that when I first told my husband that I had been invited to speak at a conference essentially about life-long marriage, he was somewhat concerned. I suspect he feared the curse of Hello magazine, that phenomenon which condemns anyone talking about their marriage in public to an immediate free pass to the divorce courts. He calmed down when I told him that a joyous exposition of our wonderful marriage was not what Bishop Jones had me marked down for.

But what I did have to consider was how one begins to deal with the wider issues around this conference and this celebration and what I, as an outsider to Accord but an insider to the reality of Irish life as it is lived today, might say to you.

Thirty, even twenty years ago, when family life was largely traditional, homogeneous and unremarkable, it would have been easy simply to praise your work and extol the virtues of traditional marriage. To do so would have been as unremarkable as praising Tayto crisps and Kerrygold – part of what we are, no competing brands vying for the top spot.

And so I began to reflect on how the two major institutions represented in this room today, the two brands that did dominate much of the last century – the Catholic Church, and traditional lifelong marriage – have both undergone radical change in the fifty years since Accord was founded and nobody here needs instruction on what those changes are.  Existential crises face both and in this country, at this time, the State is unsure, as to what extent either should be supported.

On the Church side, we have the political controversy over the Vatican embassy, the move to remove direct Church control from the schools, accusations that some members of Government are, as some commentators would put it, “bent on pursuing a secular agenda”.

And while some might protest at the suggestion that the State’s cooling on the Catholic Church finds an echo in a similar cooling on traditional marriage, it is undoubtedly the case that those who support Catholic marriage and view its support as a matter of public and not just private interest, do see the introduction of divorce, and of late of civil partnerships, allied to an official unease at discriminating in favour of the traditional family at the expense of other types of family units, as an undermining of the support structure that traditional marriages need to survive. As the little boy says in the children’s movie The Incredibles, when everything is special, nothing is special.

Church opposition to any of these measures is treated little differently to that of any other interest group, and whatever spin is put by either side on any of these issues, there is no doubt that this State is a colder place for Catholics than it was in 1962 or even in 2002.

And I make that statement as a matter of empirical fact and not as a value judgment.

The real question to be asked is does that cooling matters to anyone outside of the band of the devout?  Are there public interests at risk in the current State attitudes to Church and to traditional marriage or is this reflective of a current of dominant Western thought that Ireland simply can’t duck out of?

Much of what has happened was undoubtedly inevitable. In this globalised world, our little country was hardly going to be immune from the contemporary Western cultural influences of secularism and individualism and where the pursuit of personal growth as a dominant value would, like everywhere else, undermine the traditional values of long term commitment, self-sacrifice and all of those intangibles that serve not just the individual but the community.

The power of the Catholic Church in this country was a political construct as much as a religious one and for the first few decades of this State it suited successive governments to blur the lines between State control and Church control as it set itself apart from its former coloniser.  But times changed.  And by the time the clerical and institutional abuse scandals were exposed from the mid-1990s, government was already discreetly changing the locks on the doors of Leinster House.

But before we sanctify the old ways and demonise the new and vice versa, we must be honest and clear sighted in our understanding of both. The traditional marriages of the past did much to embed community values and to provide secure foundations for children as they made their way in life.  Lifelong marriage as a norm undoubtedly helped to create united cohesive communities and to develop shared sets of values which also supported children in safe and secure environments.

My husband and myself – and here I risk invoking the curse of Hello – are currently parenting five children between the ages of 12 and 21 and I will not pretend that it is all unalloyed joy.  And as the children each experience their various ups and downs, of varying degrees of seriousness, I do not know how I would manage without the support of my husband and vice versa … if only for the comfort of being able to vent to someone who completely understands, and I raise my hat to all those single parents who do it so magnificently on their own because it is the most difficult and the most responsible thing that we adults do in life.

But the overwhelming dominant norm of traditional marriage was enabled to be precisely that, a norm, because anything outside of that was treated as profoundly abnormal and either rejected or punished.  Male homosexual practice was criminalised, unmarried mothers institutionalised or shunned, the children of the outside the norm families similarly treated – anything that did not fit the dominant cultural norm was to be jailed, institutionalised or forced to flee.

And even within many lifelong marriages, the lifelong part was quite deliberately engineered though financial coercion on the part of the State.  I speak of the marriage bar, the lack of property rights on the part of married women, her legal indivisibility from her husband, and other measures which served severely to limit the life choices of Irish women.

Attempts to even the financial playing pitch as between husband and wife were met with strong opposition from those who valued life-long marriage but who knew, consciously or unconsciously, that a little bit of coercion greatly helped the personal commitment along when a relationship might be in danger of falling apart.

Consider the Dáil debate over the introduction of The Married Women’s Status Bill in 1958, a bill which was essentially an anti-fraud measure but which did, in order to effect this, give married women a separate legal identity.  One Fine Gael member, Tom Finlay, who later became Chief Justice said, “In an attempt to tidy up the law, we may create a situation in which husbands and wives will find it easier to part, or easier to follow the temptation to part than is the case at present.”

Around the same time, there was much concern at the plan to introduce women Gardaí.  At one point the debate centred on the waste of money this might cue if these women had to leave the Gardaí on marriage as was the then law.  But rather than get around that problem by doing something with the bar, one Deputy suggested that they, in effect, employ only plain women – not horse faced ones, he suggested, but sufficiently plain so as not to attract marriage proposals.

Arguably, individualism also flourished in those days but it was the individualism of the male who, while subject to many of the legal constraints imposed on women, did enjoy an independence of action that women could only dream of.  What is remarkable about those years is that while no child born out of wedlock ever lacked a father, not one single man ever scrubbed a sheet in a Magdalene laundry.

I am currently reading Claire Tomalins’ biography of Dickens and it is a book I would highly recommend to all of you.  Dickens’ wife Catherine features strongly in the narrative but her voice is silent as it is Dickens who strides the public stage and who is in control.

We get barely a sense of Catherine, certainly nothing she said is reported but we do learn about her endless pregnancies, at least ten in all, child after child born into a traditional family unit but with a father who clearly no longer loved his wife and who betrayed her time after time. The dominant image is of Catherine trapped in perpetual pregnancy while her self-absorbed individualistic husband does, in effect, whatever he pleases and all of this within the starchy confines of Victorian England. And while everything Dickens did was larger than life, the core of his marriage found its mirror image nonetheless in the lives lived by many couples in Ireland when commitment to life long, faithful marriage was at its most intense.

But if the good old days weren’t quite so good in every respect, we also need to examine the claims, positive and negative, that are made about today’s new cultural and social norms.

It seems clear, no matter how statistics are manipulated or spun, that marriage is in decline throughout the western world and that new forms of social units are now being normalised. Having children is decoupled in many instances not just from marriage itself but from other forms of longer terms commitments.   The decline is particularly sharp in the US and in parts of Western Europe, and Ireland is hardly going to stand in a league of its own in this regard.  Couples are marrying later in life and there seems to be some evidence – although one gets utterly bamboozled by the figures – that marriage is increasingly becoming the preserve of the better off and the better educated, an essentially middle class phenomenon. If the trends in the US – where married people with children living under one roof now comprise just 20% of households as compared with 43% in 1950, Accord might find itself dealing in a niche market.  Might marriage become the elite institution of the future, and if it does, who counsels the rest?

But sometimes it isn’t the statistics that demonstrate the changes that have come about. It is when a young male says to you, when appraising his slightly older girlfriend, well “I think she’s make a good first wife”, or when a young child, when told of the impending civil partnership of some gay friends of his parents doesn’t bat an eyelid, or when the country doesn’t go into hysterics when Pat Kenny does an item about the First Gay Wedding Fair in the country, or when a child comes home from school and says that Mary in his class’s mummy is now living with Jack in the same class’s Daddy.  And then you see them all at Mass together.

And this is the new reality and this is the reality that each and every one of you will have to work with and I have no doubt that the slow leeching of the cultural and legal supports that once helped to keep even slightly dodgy relationships going, does add considerably to your task.

A culture of human rights, added to a national revulsion, a national shame at how we treated many of those who did not fit the norm, has enabled an increasingly dominant live and let live, be happy, go your own way, follow your own dreams culture. And while all of this can cue gross selfishness and self absorption to the detriment of the common good, it is also a culture that has as part of its core, a recognition of the humanity of each individual soul.

I speak in particular about the gay community who from a position in this country twenty years ago, where the abuse and even murder of gay men barely registered on the Richter scale of outrage because of course, these were other, lesser, we now have entered a time where these human beings, indistinguishable in God’s eyes from anybody else are allowed to participate and to express their own selves in a way and with a general tolerance that would have been unimaginable a few scant years ago.

In 1985, a young gay man, Declan Flynn, was beaten to death by four youths in Fairview Park in Dublin. The young men were on one of their regular “queer-bashing” sessions. They didn’t intend to kill him but they did and in an interview with journalist Maggie O’Kane for Magill magazine they said they fully expected to get at least seven years in jail for the crime. In the end, they served not a single day, the judge giving them all suspended sentences.  He saw no purpose, he said, in sending them to jail for killing the young man.

And I know that for some of you, this is not easy to hear.  But if this Church is to about anything, it has to be about love and I don’t mean that in the romantic sense, I mean it in the sense that Jesus Christ meant it for to love is to listen, to understand, to tolerate, because the pain that is inflicted when people are not listened to or understood or when their humanity is downgraded is immense and we, of all people, should know that now.

Some time ago, I spoke to an elderly woman that I met who confided in me that her son had told her that he was going to enter a civil partnership with his male partner of some twenty years. She loved her son but she found this heard to bear; she didn’t know if she could attend the ceremony, how she was going to pretend that she was happy or comfortable with what they were about to do.  So I knew how much this mother loved her son and I also suspected that her son very much wanted acknowledgment of what he was doing and that his long term commitment should be recognised and celebrated. Equally, I appreciated that for a woman of her generation, it wasn’t easy to throw off the cultural norms she had grown up with and embrace a new reality.  So I told her that this was all about her relationship with her son, that she was getting older and that perhaps she wouldn’t want to die in sadness at the thought that she hadn’t been able to bring herself to celebrate something with her son that meant so much to him, even if she did have her fingers crossed behind her back.

I don’t know whether any of that changed her mind but I do know, with absolute certainty, that the thoughts all of us will have on our death bed will be about the extent that we showed love and how we experienced that love in return.

But in your work, in these times, the issues you deal with revolve around the pressures that people feel in keeping marriages intact not just because they themselves are going through difficult times for a myriad reasons, but also because the world outside is displaying so many alternatives and the dominant culture is becoming somewhat indifferent as to whether they stay married or not.  Yet the fact that they have come to counselling in the first place suggest that they do want to stay married.  Yet it is arguable that, were the same people living in the US, for example, where marriage appears to be in significant decline, many of them would have separated by now or not even gone to counselling in the first instance.

And every couple has a different idea of what is tolerable in the marriage.  An affair may break one marriage but not another.  The empty nest might drive some couples apart and bring others closer, financial worries might break some families yet remain just about tolerable for others.  Sexual boredom might cue a flight in one marriage yet be managed in others for all sorts of reason, the desire nonetheless for companionship and friendship.  Physical and emotional abuse is on different planes – no one should feel compelled to remain in relationship through fear or duress.

But there is still one issue which should compel married couples to put aside their own desires for flight or self-fulfilment or whatever personal imperative might be leading them away from their commitment to marriage, and this the children of the relationship.  All bets must be off when it comes to safeguarding the happiness and security of children. I have no doubt that there are intolerable situations where a parent has no option, or feels that they have no option, but to separate and then manage the care of children as best as they can between them but that has to continue to be the avenue of lest resort.

As adults we have made our choices, our children do not have that freedom or independence, they utterly rely on us for their happiness and certainly through their early formative years and only in extremis should we put that happiness and security at risk.

I am aware that when this issue is raised many single parents and many adults raised by single parents will attest to the fine job that was done in their parenting. But here I am not talking about outcomes; I am well aware that children from the most ostensibly stable, and conventional families are capable of going off the rails much to the bewilderment of their parents who felt they had done everything by the book down to sacrificing perhaps their own personal desires and ambitions in order to keep a family structure happy and secure. I am also aware that the children of single parents are not predisposed to dysfunctionality.  But from my own experience as a mother, I am acutely aware of how much the security of the stable home means to children, how much equally they love their parents, how unwilling they are to take sides, to betray one for the sake of the other, and how much they long for everything to be the same, to be happy, even to the point of domestic boredom.

So I’m not talking about who became a doctor or who went to jail and what impact the family environment had on them long term, rather I am talking about the daily bits of happiness that children care about when they are precisely just that, children.

I am not always sure that we as parents are aware of the small things that happen in our lives with our children that leave the, most profound marks on their souls.  Now that my children are older and into remembering mode I am frequently startled by a reminisce of some tiny event – the way that I made homemade pizza on a Saturday night, the way their Dad always read out the Santa letter on Christmas morning, the way we always went to a particular local restaurant to celebrate birthdays with a cake and the whole place singing Happy Birthday, the way even that the table was always set in a particular way when a grandparent came to visit.

And because all these things still touch them in their adolescence I can’t bear to think of what they would have felt on the days I didn’t make pizza because it wasn’t my turn to have them on the weekend, or when Daddy no longer read the Santa letter because he was somewhere else now on Christmas mornings.

I am sure this is familiar stuff to many of you. I too have heard tales from friends of how Christmas in particular was handled in the wake of a break up and for the mothers who told me these stories, it was as though they were describing the wrenching off of a layer of skin such was their pain on those Christmas mornings when it wasn’t their turn.  Even I found the details unbearable as I had such a visceral sense of what it must have been like. And yes, the children weren’t exactly bawling their eyes out because it was still Christmas and every adult in their family circle was over compensating for what they were doing without but I have no doubt that a part of them will always remember those times, no matter how parents and grandparents tried to make it lovely for them, will always be pierced with a tiny arc of sadness.

And equally, their parents, no matter how profound and insuperable their marital difficulties were, will feel, if only in memory, that profound sense of loss.

Some of you may have read about a new book by the UK author Rachel Cusk in which she documents in relentless detail the tale of her separation and divorce from her husband.  There has been much internet chatter about the seemliness – to use an old fashioned word – of her endeavour and while some have praised its honesty and its observations others have wondered about the value of this kind of confessional journalism and marvelled at its sheer narcissism.

I read one extract in a newspaper and was struck by Rachel’s certainty of the rightness of her view of the marriage and how disparaging she was of her husband’s take on it. Her version, she called the “truth”

while her husband’s side of things was classified as the story.  All her life, Rachel said, had been spent trying to reconcile story with truth. It’s something, she said, almost as an afterthought that children do when they’re trying to reconcile divorcing parents.

“My own children do that,” she said, “forcing my husband’s hand into mine when we’re all together. They’re trying to make the story true again, or to make the truth untrue.”  To me, what is remarkable about that is that the passage is primarily about her, serving as a further articulation of her omniscience and of the fantasy world her husband supposedly lives in.  But what quite literally shocked me was how she could so blithely write about that exquisitely painful image of her two tiny children trying to mend their broken family by a physical forcing together of their parents’ reluctant hands.

I should perhaps salute her honesty but if I ever had to tell of that I would be beside myself with shame, not at the decision to separate per se but at the fact that my actions had imposed so much pain on two small people.

But when I read beyond that, I saw that Cusk was fully aware of what she had done, fully aware of the effect on her small children, fully aware of her own culpability in this.

“My children”, she said, “have been roused from the unconsciousness of childhood; theirs is the pain and gift of awareness.  I have two homes, my daughter said to me the other day, clearly and carefully, and I have no home.”

“Sometimes they cry in the bath,” she notes.  “Yet it is I who am the cause of the crying. And for a while, I am undone by the contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her.”

From a distance, from outside the windows looking in, as she describes it, there is regret for the small losses of the ordinary life of family.  And sometimes, it is only when it is gone, that you realise how much the humdrum, even the banal meant.  A friend told me of how her unemployed husband had taken to cooking her dinner every evening for when she came home from work.  She enjoyed the meals as he cooked well, and always made a little fuss by lighting candles and pouring wine.  Sometimes she was annoyed with him because she wasn’t comfortable with the house husband arrangement and one day they had a major row and didn’t speak to each other for days.  And during those few days he was so despondent that he didn’t bother making dinner, not to get back at her, but because he hadn’t the heart to recreate that small piece of love and companionship for a relationship that had temporarily gone awry.

And it was only then that she realised how much those dinners meant, how symbolic they were of love, and kindness and the need to share and to be happy just with a simple act. It put things in perspective for her and helped her to rebalance her feelings about what he was going through and how his own situation must be affecting him and yet how in spite of everything, he continued to honour and celebrate their union in the best ways he could.

But while some couples, like that one, will weather the storms of shifting cultural mores, others will feel set adrift, question their union when and if they perceive that the world is increasingly indifferent to the values they once thought they had to hold for all of the days of their lives.

Traditional marriage may continue to decline as new family units continue to be created and the binding twine of law and religion and other social forces continues to unravel.

And that may be a reality that no amount of yearning for the old ways can dislodge.

But I cannot believe that that fundamental need for connectedness and for community will be so eroded or so dissipated that people will not continue to form those family units and seek to do what Rachel Cusk failed to do, to ensure that children remain in the unconsciousness of childhood, undisturbed by the tidal drifts of their parents faltering relationship, having but one home for as long as humanly possible.

And that need speaks to a wider sense of connectedness and speaks to the adult as much as to the child. Rachel Cusk recognised this when she said, “In breaking marriage you break more than your own personal narrative. You break a whole form of life that is profound and extensive in its genesis. You break the interface between self and society, self and history, self and fate as determined by those larger forces.”

And perhaps that is what those who value the traditional married state perhaps fear most.  That in the unravelling of traditional units, in the blending of disparate families, in the separation of procreation from the linear narratives captured in multi-generational family trees, we grow closer to a chaotic state where our connections weaken and where the common good is not ultimately served.

So how do we stop that from happening?  How do we deepen within society that certain knowledge that it is in unions, in families and in communities that we find ultimate fulfilment, ultimate sanctuary, ultimate solace and that the State has a duty not just to recognise this but actively to promote it?

It was suggested by the organisers of this conference that the thread that links my work with yours is the absence of accord that presents in the cases that come to us to resolve, in your case husbands and wives, in my case ordinary men and woman and the public bodies they deal with.

And common to both is the absence of real communication that lies at the heart of the most intractable disputes and by that I mean the failure to recognise the humanity of the other.

Outside of straightforward benefit and grant issues that I deal with, the most common desire of the people who come to my Office is that somebody would simply listen to them.

I am never surprised that parents will sometimes push their disabled children in front of the gates of Leister house or that elderly people, as happened recently, will come out of their nursing homes in their wheelchairs and protest a possible closure. What they are attempting to do is force through that human connection between their sensate minds and bodies and the rather less sensate minds of the bureaucracy.  They want someone not to see them as a budget line to be threaded through with red ink, or a PPS number who may or may not meet the ever heightening bar of the medical assessors.  For a disability benefit or a medical card and so they choose to present themselves in all of their humanity in the hope that that act of simple communion will be acknowledged.

As Jacob Needleman Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University puts it “Simply put, there is nothing, nothing in the world that can take the place of one person intentionally listening or speaking to another.  The act of conscious attending to another person can become the centre of gravity of the work of love.”

And that has to be at the centre of your work as you intentionally listen to people and as you encourage couples intentionally to listen to each other.

But there is another piece of work to be done not just by Accord but society as a whole, and Government in particular, and that is to protect family units by mindfully seeking to remove as many barriers as possible from them.

It is not easy in these times.  Financial pressures are immense and do most certainly contribute to family breakdowns.  One member of Saint Vincent de Paul recently described what many families are feeling as the annihilation of hope and how hard must it be to summon up everything that it takes to keep relationships healthy and positive when your very soul feels as an outcast from the wider world.

But if we are to foster a healthier society and foster the sense of community and connectedness that can enable people to survive and thrive in the bleakest of times, we have to ensure that the benefits of marriage, of life-long commitment are enabled to be enjoyed not just by the middle class but by people who feel themselves at the margins, whose own lives may have been chaotic and may find it difficult to know how to begin to form and maintain stable bonds that in turn will provide  stable structures for their children also to survive and thrive.  I read somewhere in the literature I was given in preparation for this conference that the Accord client base tends more to the middle class.  I don’t know what your plans are for then next phase of your development but the fostering off programmes – with Government help – that  seek to support those who instinctively know that long term family commitments are the best things they can give their children but may not have the emotional supports they need to make that a reality.

Because if we as society do not get to grips with a culture where nihilism and the annihilation of hope take root, then the very meaning of what society is becomes lost, then a future economic boom may provide even bleaker rewards than the last one did.

But above all we must not be smug, must not pat ourselves on the back for the gift some of us have of happy stable marriages and imagining that that is a free choice and that more could will it if they chose.

We must always be mindful of the chaos that attends many lives, and of how intention is frequently battered into submission by so much that is outside of their control.

But before I end, I want to recount to you two recent experiences which demonstrated very profoundly to me the great happiness into old age that lifelong commitment to another human being can bring, and also how, even in out increasingly secular age, many people are renewing their engagement with the Church as a means of reaching out of their cut off, personal selves and into a wider community that gives support when times are not good.

A friend recounted how she got a visit from her Dad the other day, who at the age of 90, is still driving.  He wanted to get her advice on what gift he might give his wife on her 80th birthday.  He wanted something beautiful for her and so together they decided on an exquisite pair of pearl earrings.  The way she told the story conjured up an image of a besotted couple for whom age really was just a number and who continued to delight in each other and still desired to make each other happy.

The second story is of a teenage girl troubled by depression and whose parents have begun slowly to bring her back to the church and to church events. It’s not that the family is religious but as this girl’s mother reflected back on her childhood, she remembered that sense of connection the Church provided.  She also believes, rightly or wrongly, that very few young people committed suicide when she was growing up because religion did provide some sort of barrier against it, “I want to show her,” said her mother, “that she is not alone, that she is connected, that she has a community all around her.”

Connectedness and community – the twin strands of what everyone here believes in and strives to bring people back to.  And it is within that space that I believe the Catholic Church, in this country, can find renewal.

I wish you continued success with your work and hope that this great celebration renews and refreshes all that you do.


For further information please contact Martin Long, Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth 00 353 861727678