Following a television interview given by the Sinn Féin leader, Máirtín argues that the pro-life movement should emphasise the issue of violence as it pertains to abortion. He also discusses McDonald’s invoking of ‘private morality’ to shield abortion from criticism and the economic and cultural context in which abortion has been normalised among Sinn Féin’s voter base and Irish society generally.

Image: The Times/Collins


On 6 September 2020 Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald TD joined Joe Duffy as his third guest in the current season of RTÉ One’s ‘The Meaning of Life’. The programme has been on the air since 2009 and had been hosted from the start by Gay Byrne until his death in 2019. Fellow RTÉ persona Joe Duffy has taken the helm as interviewer in the thirteenth season. RTÉ describes the programme’s purpose as being to open up the ‘hearts and minds’ of ‘the world’s most high-profile artists, thinkers and leaders … to explore the big questions about life, faith (or lack of it) and meaning, and how their own personal experiences have shaped the person they are today.’

The McDonald-Duffy interview could be the subject of a long analysis across a number of areas that it touches. Both Duffy and McDonald could be critiqued for much of what each of them says and the agendas that they play to, but for this blog post, I’ll largely restrict my focus to the limited, disappointing and misleading exchange between Duffy and McDonald on abortion.

Sinn Féin: legitimising and legalising abortion since 2018

For context, it’s important to bear in mind McDonald’s position as leader of the party that received the highest number of first preference votes in the February 2020 General Election. Sinn Féin has the second highest number of seats in both the Dáil and Stormont Assembly. Sinn Féin has played a prominent role in building support for and introducing legal abortion-on-demand systems in both jurisdictions within 14 months of each other (January 2019 for the 26 counties, March 2020 for the six).

While it’s a matter for a blog post in itself, the history of Sinn Féin’s relationship with the abortion question is not straightforward and even to this day the party remains mistrusted by the most zealous pro-choice campaigners who remain paranoidly sceptical of Sinn Féin’s 2018 de facto total conversion to the pro-choice position. Recent legislative changes on both sides of the border, which Sinn Féin sought and actively ushered into place, have resulted in 7,330 publicly acknowledged legal abortions on the island since January 2019. As the Minimise Project has covered, 6,666 took place in the twenty-six counties in 2019 and 664 in the north in the period March to October 2020. As multiple pregnancies (twins, triplets etc.) are not accounted for in either sets of figures, the loss of human life is almost certain to be higher than the number of acknowledged acts of abortion.

The Irish economy’s role in making abortion a cross-class dominant cultural value

Given Sinn Féin’s 2020 electoral successes south of the border, coupled with continued favourable opinion poll results for the party, and its secure position as a political force north of the border, it is important that Sinn Féin is put squarely under the spotlight and held accountable for its decisions on abortion and its role in legitimising abortion to its voter base. Important to the context of McDonald’s interview and Sinn Féin’s pro-choice policy is an understanding of the impact of economic and cultural change on the Sinn Féin’s voter base. That is a base that previously would not have found itself aligned with elite, liberal (1) and neoliberal (2) Ireland, described in the 1980s by Desmond Fennell as our ‘Anglo-Americanised bourgeoisie’, whose aims he identified as including hyper-individualism, consumerism and abortion. (3) 

The Sinn Féin voter base in the 26 counties has expanded considerably since Fennell made his remarks. Sinn Féin won 1.9% of first preference votes in the 1987 general election and 1.2% in 1989. Its voter base has expanded particularly over the past 20 years, a period that has seen transatlantic-inspired individualist culture become pervasive in Ireland, in tandem with seemingly eternal government policies that have deepened Irish society’s dependence on the transatlantic neoliberal economic order. Widespread dependency on any order for material gains unsurprisingly has implications for the culture of society as a whole. Today pro-choice abortion positions are much less the exclusive preserve of a section of the Irish elite than they were when Fennell wrote. For example, 75.5% of Sinn Féin voters and 75.9% of Fine Gael voters surveyed in the RTÉ – Behaviour and Attitudes exit poll on the 2018 abortion referendum voted to remove the right to life of the unborn from the Irish Constitution.

This point is relevant to illustrating that pro-choice outlooks have become dominant cross-class cultural values in Ireland. This writer hopes to address how that has happened more comprehensively in the future. It suffices to say for the moment that positions on abortion do not exist in a vacuum; they are tied intimately to what else is happening in society and the values and interests that loom large. The Ireland of 2020 is most visibly a product of successive governments’ macro-policy of positioning our country as a landing pad for global economic giants. In that setting, consumerism, hyper-individualism and the profit-motive have thrived as cross-class cultural values. That reality cannot but have had an impact on how people view substantive matters like abortion. That reality cannot but have an impact on how politicians, including Mary Lou McDonald, view the world, how they view the motivations of citizens as voters and what they believe will bring them electoral success.

Image: McDonald welcoming the passing of abortion legislation on Twitter in December 2018. As well as voting in favour of the legislation, Sinn Féin TDs joined TDs from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, PBP/Sol and the Soc Dems to oppose amendments that intended to ensure both pain relief for humans to be killed by surgical abortion and medical treatment for babies that survive ‘unsuccesful’ abortions.

Unjustified violence – the fundamental wrong of abortion

In a previous blog post, Muireann correctly pointed out that to win the abortion debate, winning widespread acknowledgement of the unborn’s undeniable humanity is in itself not enough. As Muireann highlighted, sadly being recognised as human is not enough to stop systematic and lethal violence being sanctioned and deployed against certain categories of humans. This has long been an ugly feature of human societies, and it remains so, even if the categories of humans considered worthy and unworthy of state protection have changed over time. The nub of the issue for this writer is that abortion is wrong because abortions are acts of unjustifiable violence against human beings, human beings that are both (i) defenceless and therefore deserving of proactive protection, and (ii) innocent, in that no fair case can be made that they ought to be intentionally subject to harm, let alone be intentionally killed.

In a section of the ‘Meaning of Life’ interview focused on Irish republicanism post-Belfast Agreement, McDonald tells Duffy, ‘[t]here is no justification for violence’. She stresses that it is her view that post-1998 the circumstances are such that they allow for ‘a viable, democratic, peaceful pathway for the realisation of republican objectives’, which she distinguishes from pre-Belfast Agreement years. McDonald pinpoints the Agreements as a marker of when Irish republican use of armed force went from being arguably legitimate (although she avoids explicitly saying so) to illegitimate. Whatever one’s position is on the Belfast Agreement, the legitimacy of war or the use of arms in long-standing conflicts that move between phases of war and uncertain peace, most people would agree that premeditated violent acts as ordinary, routine, systematic features of a society are neither legitimate nor desirable.

It would be interesting if the Dublin Central TD could clarify whether or not her position that ‘[t]here is no justification for violence’ is narrowly confined to the issue of ending partition. McDonald believes in the legitimacy of abortion and has campaigned and voted so as to make it a legalised and increasingly normalised practice. To maintain that there is no justification for violence in any circumstance would run contrary to legalising abortion and normalising it. Abortion is violence, even if McDonald does not acknowledge it as such, and McDonald is fine, to say the least, with abortion. Therefore, McDonald is fine with that manifestation of violence. A lesson in this for the pro-life movement is that we should aim to ensure public recognition of abortion, first, as violence, second, as unjustified violence, and third, make it the case that no one can credibly maintain that he or she opposes routine violence while also seeking to normalise abortion and further its availability.

As an aside, it is worth stating that both pacifists and non-pacifists can, and should, oppose abortion. Non-pacifists opposed to abortion may consider that there are times when it is morally permissible to engage in physical and even lethal force, such as in an anti-colonial struggle. Someone who claims to be a pacifist but has no objection to abortion is de facto not a pacisfist.

In the 1980s, both Desmond Fennell and the late Fr. Des Wilson wrote of the highly partisan use of the term ‘violence’ in the context of Anglo-Irish conflict. (4) Fennell and Wilson outlined the British government’s use of the word ‘violence’ to indicate illegitimate physical force and distinguish it from what the British government wanted the world to see as morally legitimate uses of force by British state actors. Regardless of the debate over ‘violence’ as a term and its connotations, this writer would make the point that there is a crucial difference between physical force as a means and violence as an end. It seems to be the case that non-pacifism, or at least non-adherence to a strict interpretation of pacifism, seems to be the position of most people today and of most people historically. For example, there is little demand throughout the world for the disbandment of armies.

Image: Desmond Fennell, a writer and public commentator, argued in advance of the 1983 right to life amendment referendum that a ‘Yes’ result would act as ‘a declaration by Ireland that it will not conform, in the matter of abortion, to the consumer capitalist empire which surrounds us, which we are part of, and which is pressing us continually to conform.’ (5) Cover photo of Desmond Fennell’s biography About Being Normal: My Life in Abnormal Circumstances.

For a non-pacifist, using physical force as a means, in particular circumstances, to achieve a worthy objective may be countenanced. Violence is not pursued as an objective or a permanent outcome. To seek violence as a permanent and ongoing end is repugnant. Abortion is recurring violence as an end. Abortion is first and foremost a subset of violence. To legalise abortion and to install a system of abortion is to install regularised, state-backed violence and killing. To hold the availability of abortion as an objective is to hold violence as an objective. Violence and death are the clearest and most materially evident outcomes of abortion, not a subjective notion of how gender relations ought to be, something which is frequently used to obscure and mystify the fundamental and material reality and result of abortion.

Abortion is unjustifiable violence because:

(i) it is designed to kill innocent humans. Victims of abortion violence are not unintended casualties, unlike many civilians killed in war. Instead abortion victims are humans that are targeted for elimination.

(ii) innocent humans targeted for abortion have no capacity to mount a physical defence from attack or avail of a recourse to law. The law has been purposefully changed so as to put the state’s conception and institutions of justice beyond the reach of the most vulnerable (and those who speak up for them). McDonald and her party have knowingly and brazenly been a direct accessory in making that happen.

It is truly unfortunate that the pro-life movement in Ireland, and in many parts of the world, has been unsuccessful in convincing the population at large of the uniquely violent and horrific nature of systematic and state-sanctioned abortion. Perhaps the pro-life movement globally has shied too much from speaking of abortion as violence.

As people committed to vindicating the right to life of every human from their earliest day, we need to work hard to ensure that political leaders are unable to proclaim their opposition to violence while they initiate, normalise and defend violence against the innocent and defenceless in the form of abortion. The first step is to compel political leaders to acknowledge abortion as violence, compel them to acknowledge that their support for abortion is support for deadly violence. The onus must then fall on those political figures to explain how such violence is justified, an uncomfortable and difficult scenario for them, given the nature of abortion as intentional violence against the weakest humans.

Image: McDonald (right) and Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin vice-president, celebrate on the main media stage at Dublin Castle alongside an array of politicians from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour as the result of the 2018 abortion referendum is announced. Dublin Castle saw party-style scenes indulged in by pro-choice campaigners and politicians celebrating the removal of the right to life of the unborn from Bunreacht na hÉireann. Around this time, Sinn Féin sought for the British government to introduce abortion-on-demand into the north of Ireland. In March 2020 abortion, with Sinn Féin’s support, became legal in the north as a result of legislation passed by the British Parliament in 2019.

McDonald, Duffy and the abortion question

27 minutes into the 32-minute ‘Meaning of Life’ interview, Duffy asks McDonald about abortion. His phrasing of the question is muddled and leaves a lot to be desired. He asks, ‘Did you get any flak for your stand on abortion, for your stand on marriage equality, as a Catholic?’ At the start of the interview, McDonald had said she is a Catholic, albeit one with no ‘sense of deity when I pray’.

Both by jamming same-sex marriage into what started as a question on abortion and having McDonald answer ‘as a Catholic’, Duffy presented McDonald with little challenge. Even describing her campaigning for repeal of the 8th Amendment, as part of a battalion of establishment political, cultural and media figures, as a ‘stand’, while absurd, placed McDonald positively from the get-go in the question. Contrastingly, placing McDonald on a sort of pedestal was something Duffy had clearly and consciously not done in his earlier questions on Irish republicans’ use of force. By the time of the abortion question, Duffy and McDonald were back on the same team; Sinn Féin was back on the side of neoliberal, pro-choice orthodoxy, and so, as is the case with all good media-political coalitions, the question was loaded in McDonald’s favour.

It is worth presenting McDonald’s answer to the open-goal question in full:

Well, yes I got some flak, as you would expect. I operate in the secular world in my duties so I’ve no difficulty making a distinction between, you know, the sacred and the secular and I understand the churches will preach their view. I am a civic leader so I have always struggled to understand people who say that they’re conflicted on that point. I think the moment you step forward into the public domain and you go up for public office it can only be on the basis that you serve faithfully without fear, without favour, irrespective of race, colour or creed, every woman, man and child, you know, that you serve. That’s the only way that you can do it. I think for public office it’s absolutely essential that you can do that.

By having McDonald answer his question on abortion ‘as a Catholic’, Duffy allowed McDonald to reiterate the false perception that opposition to abortion is an optional religious concern from start to finish. Putting aside valid counter-arguments to McDonald’s dubious implication that Catholics (or people of any faith presumably) ought to cease being morally guided by their faith upon being elected (presumably to be guided instead by Sinn Féin’s amoral, electorally determined needs), we ought to reiterate the basic point that Duffy and McDonald are either ignorant of or more likely would rather not acknowledge. That is, a belief in a supreme being or membership of a religious organisation is absolutely not a necessary prerequisite to recognising that it is fundamentally wrong to intentionally kill innocent and defenceless human beings. It is equally wrong for anyone, whether they hold religious beliefs or not, to assist in the organising of systematic methods of killing the defenceless and innocent, and/or normalise such activity.

The combined efforts of Duffy and McDonald have the effect of fueling the demonstrably untrue, but oft-repeated claim that only the most doctrinaire Christians (specifically Catholics) could possibly take issue with abortion. Ironically, McDonald’s assertion that ‘the moment you step forward into the public domain and you go up for public office it can only be on the basis that you serve faithfully without fear, without favour, irrespective of race, colour or creed, every woman, man and child’ sounds much more like an argument to strenuously oppose abortion, not normalise and celebrate it. The fact that abortion kills the youngest of humans, that it is employed globally as a mechanism of gendercide against females, that pregnant women on low incomes are more likely to be conditioned into thinking that (i) they have no option other than to pursue an abortion and (ii) that such a de facto directed ‘choice’ is liberating, and that in the United States pre-born humans with black skin are more likely to die by abortion than pre-born humans with white skin completely undermines McDonald’s notion that she, an enthusiastic supporter of abortion, is a leader in some great forward march for social justice.

Image: McDonald (far right) with Sinn Féin figures Pearse Doherty, Louise O’Reilly and Michelle O’Neill carry pro-choice Sinn Féin referendum posters, including two that directly associate McDonald personally, as distinct from Sinn Féin, with the pro-choice cause. Note posters’ mention of ‘compassion’ and ‘trust’. Irish Times/Rolling News

Sinn Féin’s selective social justice

Duffy follows up McDonald’s initial response, again putting the Catholic Church, and not the humans being killed by abortion, at the centre of the moral quandary that he makes out McDonald, ‘as a Catholic’, is somehow grappling with. For her part, McDonald does not give any hint of struggling morally with the matter. Duffy says:

Well, you know what the Church says about politicians and parliamentarians who vote for abortion.

McDonald replies:

Listen, I mean for a long time I have thought that the great strength and the really animating piece for me as a Catholic is the absolute, that commitment to social justice. So, I look to the Capuchins, I look to Brother Kevin, I look to the Saint Vincent de Paul. And that’s the piece that I think is transformative and brave and really Catholic, you know.

I think the kind of, you know, emphasis on private morality, particularly for women, I think, is wrong. I think it has been socially damaging for women. It has left us with the history books filled with Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes and all of the oceans of tears that that has brought us.

In this reply, McDonald acknowledges the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice and mentions the daily work undertaken by Catholic groups in Dublin and across Ireland to support very vulnerable families and individuals. In McDonald’s mind, that’s as far as Catholic teaching and work ought to be allowed to go. She refuses point-blank to recognise that the same ethics guiding Brother Kevin and the Capuchins to feed Dublin’s homeless and guiding St. Vincent de Paul members to help support struggling families are the same ethics that underpin the Christian position on defending unborn human life.

It is dishonest of McDonald to imply that the cause of social justice applies in only certain spheres – spheres that McDonald happens to politically link to herself – but not to spheres she selectively sequesters as pertaining to ‘private morality’. McDonald’s answer gives the impression that she believes abortion is one such sequestered sphere. She avoids dealing with the matter of lethal violence perpetrated against voiceless humans that is entailed in all abortions. Claiming abortion to be a matter of ‘private morality’ is at odds with McDonald’s 2017 Ard Fheis speech in opposition to a motion that sought to afford Sinn Féin representatives a right to vote on abortion according to their conscience. At that Ard Fheis McDonald said, ‘we will not … use a pretext of individual conscience to avoid a decision on any matter of public policy’. For McDonald, abortion moves from being a matter of ‘public policy’ to one of ‘private morality’ depending on one’s position on abortion. For McDonald, to meaningfully oppose abortion is to breach the boundaries of ‘private morality’ that she has arbitrarily placed around it; to legalise, normalise and further abortion availability is to act in a welcome manner on a matter of ‘public policy’.

It is unfortunate that there are so few public commentators prepared to (a) point out that human lives are lost directly in every abortion, (b) even tentatively suggest that a social justice lens should be applied to the plight of abortion victims, and (c) highlight the skewed and politically self-serving doublespeak of abortion being both a public policy concern and a matter of ‘private morality’. This sorry state of affairs is, however, unsurprisingly reflective of the Irish media’s alignment with the elite-driven values of ‘progressive’ Ireland.

Pro-life people are right to be concerned with improving conditions and the quality of life for people generally. The values that make us concerned with improving the quality of people’s lives and tackling exploitation are the same values that make us oppose abortion. It would be good strategy to emphasise that our opposition to abortion is based on a commitment to espouse the rights and welfare of all humans, a commitment which necessitates opposition to unjustified violence. Mary Lou McDonald et al. should not go unchallenged in exercising a monopoly on the word ‘compassion’ and all that it signifies. ‘Compassion’ was employed as a tagline by the ‘Yes’ campaign during the 2018 referendum to bring about a situation where violence, as abortion, would be normalised and built into the state’s health system. In their provision of practical supports to pregnant women, pro-life volunteers demonstrate that compassion ought to be for everyone, not an Orwellian cover word for the violent demise of some. It would serve the unborn well were the compassion that drives pro-life volunteers, as seen for example in their provision of practical supports to pregnant women, known about more widely as a core underpinning pro-life motive. 

‘Private morality’ as a cultural value, but at what cost?

As well as framing abortion as an issue of ‘private morality’, McDonald name checks Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. McDonald provides no explanation as to how the wrongs of Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes can possibly justify the injustice of systematically killing preborn humans, nor does Duffy seek such an explanation. McDonald’s line, the new orthodoxy’s line, is accepted without challenge. In twenty-first century Ireland, the mere mention of Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes is accepted as some sort of obvious rationale for the justification of abortion-on-demand, the justification of systematic violence. That reflects how intellectually stunted this country is, how monolithic and captured our elites are and the scale of the challenge for pro-lifers.

Of course, the issue of a human (preborn or otherwise) being targeted for killing is not an issue of ‘private morality’. To believe otherwise is to be deluded. To assert otherwise is to gravely mislead. Liberalism, and neoliberalism in particular, have been successful in creating the conditions for far too many people to see abortion, an act centred on the intentional killing of humans, as being a matter entirely in the realm of ‘private morality’ or individual choice, both free market-serving cultural values. It is highly worrying to see an influential Irish politician, and one supposedly of the left, articulate ‘private morality’ as a blanket justifier of unjustifiable acts so nonchalantly. Ending human life as par for the course is no more a matter of ‘private morality’ than homelessness and poverty, matters which McDonald is often keen to raise and around which she orientates much of her political messaging. Invoking ‘private morality’ is yet another bizarre development in a long line of inconsistencies that characterise the modern Irish ‘left’.

Image: McDonald, surrounded by Sinn Féin TDs and Seanadoirí, campaigns for the legalisation of abortion during the 2018 referendum. Note the ‘Trust Women’ slogan. The Times/Rolling News


We all should remember why abortion is fundamentally wrong – it is an act of extreme and unjusitifiable violence. We should not shirk from letting that simple truth be known, but we must do so in ways that are strategic, results-orientated and aware of the realities of the world in which we operate. We must develop a cogent ability and energy to dissect media narratives and framing that obscure and mystify reality and abet establishment figures in doing so too. We must stand up to politicians, media pundits and campaigners who conveniently wrap themselves in flags of social justice while they endorse and normalise the systematic killing of human beings as laudable in ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ Ireland.

We must remember in moments of tiredness and weariness that we are fighting for the defence of and the most basic justice for countless others who cannot fight for themselves and that the cause of vindicating their right to life is worth the time and toil that we give to it. We must fight intelligently, not in ways that damage the cause. We cannot ignore our socio-economic context: the conscious policy approach of successive governments to make our society ever more materially dependent on hyperglobalisation has contributed significantly in normalising abortion in Ireland. We ought to pursue intellectual advancement for a society immersed in a consumerist, on-demand culture and enmeshed under a hegemonic neoliberalism that inspired and sustains that culture. 

With wider intellectual advancement we will be more likely than we are now to succeed in winning the argument that the right to life ought not to be at the discretion of anyone’s ‘private morality’ or choice. The enshrinement of ‘private morality’ and choice as sorts of special principles paves the way for abuse and death, no more so than where abortion is concerned. In just two years, thousands of deaths by abortion have occured in Ireland under the smokescreen of ‘private morality’. In tandem with its sibling, the ‘Trust Women’ slogan, the dogma of ‘private morality’ seeks to cause those concerned with the welfare of actual and potential abortion victims to continue to self-doubt, self-censor and extend a spiral of silence in the context of normalised killing presented as healthcare and ‘choice’.

The right to life is not something to be doled out in some cases and withheld in others, based on the arbitrary inclination of those bestowed with a legally mandated and economically-driven ‘choice’ and adherence to the supposed supremacy of their sense of ‘private morality’. Contrary to what Mary Lou McDonald says, the right to life ought to be for all; in any republic worthy of the title, the right to life would be an equal and universal right.



(1) Liberalism as a philosophy or ideology need not necessarily result in taking a pro-choice position on abortion. It is the prevailing manifestation of what is generally called liberalism that has contributed significantly to promoting and normalising abortion. Liberalism is concerned with the aims of maximising freedom for every individual and achieving non-interference by others. These aims are often qualified by an expression of commitment to no harm being done to others in the process of each individual maximising their own freedom. However, liberalism, in the main, manifests itself as being unconcerned with adhering to that qualifier, especially where unborn humans are concerned. So, as liberalism plays out in reality, it may be said that there is a clear tension between the maximisation of individual freedom and the idea of inalienable rights of others. This is especially the case in relation to the unborn, who, as weak and voiceless humans, have their very humanity and right to life vociferously rejected by many self-styled liberals.

Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, has described liberalism as being concerned with pursuing the removal of external constraints on individuals. He has tied this concept to the expansion of the free market and the ideology of the self-making self. Deneen has identified liberalism as being guided by the idea that human beings in their purest form are liberated, autonomous, freely-choosing, self-making individuals and he contends that liberalism has sought to remake the world in order for that concept of what it is to be human to dominate.

(2) Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism is recommended reading on neoliberalism. Neoliberalism refers to a political-economic ideology characterised by the objectives of reducing capital controls, and promoting deregulation, privatisation and ‘free’ trade. Neoliberalism is strongly associated with the Mont Pelerin Society, which developed its political-economic outlook as a reaction to Keynesianism and collectivism. Neoliberalism can be described as being part of the wider ‘liberal’ family. While neoliberalism, a staunch opponent of socialism, seeks to remove the state from economic roles, it relies on holding state power and power in state and non-state institutions to advance its objectives and protect its gains.

(3) Desmond Fennell, ‘What I really think of RTÉ’, Nice People and Rednecks: Ireland in the 1980s (Dublin, 1986), 54.

(4) Desmond Fennell, ‘Christianity and the use of physical force’, Nice People and Rednecks: Ireland in the 1980s (Dublin, 1986), 60-64; Fr. Des Wilson, An End to Silence (Cork, 1985), 50-51 and 61-63.

(5) Desmond Fennell, ‘Abortion and the massacre mentality’, Nice People and Rednecks: Ireland in the 1980s (Dublin, 1986), 76-77.