A Conversation with Josepha Madigan

Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Josepha Madigan, led the successful campaign to pass the country’s Referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, paving the way to legal abortion for the first time in the nation’s history. She defied the threats of antiabortion protesters by forging ahead with her speech on women’s ordination at a meeting of We Are Church Ireland. Her decision to lead prayers at her local parish after the priest failed to show landed her in a feud with Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who later came to her defense and denounced groups that issue threats in the name of the church.

What or who inspired you to become involved in Irish politics?

My father was the man who inspired me to get involved in politics. He was from Kiltimagh in County Mayo. My dad was a solicitor who also entered politics himself. He was a Fianna Fáil councillor, so he was in a different political party altogether, but he always taught us to think for ourselves. He knew I was running for Fine Gael, but he was my biggest fan. I think one of the cruellest moments of my life was the day of his funeral, because he used to call me every day and ask, “When are the posters going up?” and I would say, “They are going up tomorrow, Dad.” Then the day of his funeral, the posters were up on the poles, and it was just a really cruel moment. So that would be a big regret I have, that he didn’t get to see all the things I’ve managed to do in politics. Losing Dad was like losing your bedrock. It was very difficult.

My dad died two weeks before I was elected as a local councillor, which was a really difficult time. The only reason I kept going through the campaign was because I could actually hear him in my ear saying keep going. So the last two weeks of the campaign were really difficult, but I just kept going for him. My sister Edwinda died from cancer a very short time later, so we had a really difficult time in our family back then. I was fighting a local election and then a general election and grief often hits you later; you know, you can be quite numb at the time and then the grief comes later. It’s quite difficult to deal with that, but you know they are both still with me somewhere.

What advice would you give a young person who is thinking of becoming involved in politics?

Like Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I still think politics is a noble profession, and you can do so much good with the stroke of a pen, and you can’t do that in any other profession. If you know that you are a principled person and you are there to do good, then politics is the best thing to do.

Follow your instinct. I’ve always followed my instinct. Becoming a politician was for me about following my instinct. I would be a big follower of Marianne Williamson. She has already declared as a candidate in the American presidency for the Democrats, and she is somebody I would follow hugely. Effectively, I am guided by my heart and what I think is right thinking, and I think if you believe in that, then you don’t feel in anyway self-conscious about what you are saying. So that would be my advice: Follow your instinct.

Is there any particular woman or man in history who you admire and have been inspired by and why?

Some of the historical figures that inspire me are Maya Angelou, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Marianne Williamson. Each has overcome their own personal challenges to serve the world in a variety of spheres—from civil rights, to the arts, to politics. They each show how important our own experiences of overcoming challenges are in guiding our judgment and actions. They show the importance of never giving up!

How did you manage the challenge of being Catholic and the Minister leading the government’s campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment?

I don’t see any conflict between being a Catholic and a Minister campaigning to repeal the Eighth.

Because I am a Catholic, a committed Catholic. But I’m also a compassionate person. I want to help women. That’s what the Eighth referendum was all about, helping women in crisis pregnancies.

Removing the Eighth Amendment was the only way for us to care for victims of rape or incest. The expert advice on this was clear; we could not legislate for rape and incest. There was no way for us to care for the women and girls who could not continue with a pregnancy in tragic circumstances. We were further traumatizing them by sending them away for their termination. We were compounding their misery and punishing them by shaming them into having to journey far away from their home country to other, more humane shores. It had to stop, in my opinion.

Removing the Eighth Amendment was the only way for us to care for parents whose baby had a fatal fetal abnormalityWomen and couples who received this type of heartbreaking news and who wished to terminate their pregnancy were, until the referendum, forced to travel abroad. They then had to carry their baby home on the plane or boat in a coffin. Unconscionably, some waited for their dead baby to be sent back in the post.

Recently, I spoke to a woman who, when told the news at 20 weeks pregnant that one twin had died and the other wouldn’t live, had to endure the further torture of having to go to Northern Ireland to receive the help she so desperately needed. Our Ireland, our republic, had nothing to offer her.

I did get abuse during the campaign. On one occasion, there were protesters outside the Dáil who followed me over to my office in my department, but … a member of the Gardai … saw what was happening and came over to me and escorted me to my office. But you know that sort of thing happens. You can’t let that flap you. It was a really difficult campaign for me as campaign coordinator for Fine Gael, but I would do it all again in a heartbeat because it is about helping people and that is what we did.

I was only four months in the job as a Minister when I was appointed campaign coordinator, so it was big jump for me. I had to manage a team of 16 people and, ultimately, deliver. The main objective for me was to keep the conversation as dignified and respectful as possible, and I think we managed that, and I’m really grateful for that. The overall aim was to help women who found themselves in very difficult situations. I think we did that.

What’s the best thing about being a Catholic?

The best thing about being a Catholic is undoubtedly the sense of community that is within the church—people gathering on a regular basis from all different backgrounds and experiences to share in the transformation of the bread and wine and to listen to the readings of the Gospel. This sense of solidarity and togetherness is lovely, and is so important for me. These communities of faith across the world have such an impactful presence in their local communities, educating children, working with the poor, helping the sick, providing community facilities and supports. The church community is at the heart of many localities across the world, and this sense of vocation and volunteerism is so admirable.

If you could change one thing about the institutional Catholic church what would it be?

I would change the role that women play, or rather don’t play, in the church. Fifty percent of the congregation are women, yet they have no voice. I read with interest the recent letter by the bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Middlesbrough, John Crowley, who wrote in support of women  priests:

“Men and women have complimentary gifts,’’ he said, “neither competitive nor simply stereotypical. Humanly and spiritually speaking, therefore, it seems a crying shame not to tap in fully to this rich treasure of talents for God’s greater glory.”

I would agree with Bishop Crowley that it is indeed a calling from God that will set one on a path to the priesthood. It is then up to the church to discern the suitability or otherwise of that person. But what happens if the person receiving the calling to the priesthood is a woman? Do we really believe that God would discriminate against her—assuming she fulfills all the other criteria—as the Catholic church does purely based on her gender?

I suppose what shocks me the most about the lack of women priests in the Catholic church is the fact that we are having a conversation about women priests in 21st century. It almost seems elementary. How many women actually want to become priests I don’t actually know, but it’s the fact that we are prohibit and bar [it] that is something I find repugnant. Having spoken to many priests and nuns about this and trying to ascertain what they really feel, I’ve heard lots of views, including that there would have to be a world council of bishops, a synod and perhaps another Vatican council to even consider change.

But I really think that at grassroots level, ordinary members of the church like myself need to speak out, particularly if they have a platform. In my view … a significant percentage of the clergy who share my view, but they are too afraid to speak out publicly. I think if we, the grassroots, speak out, it might have a ripple effect, and then the clergy may speak to their superiors and, eventually, it reaches the pope. I don’t know what Pope Francis’s view on this is. I know Pope JP2 was vehemently opposed.

But I’m getting great support, letters, emails; everywhere I go, people are coming up to me and saying keep talking about this, keep raising it as an issue, and I find that very reassuring. Former president Mary McAleese was probably the first person to raise this as an issue, and that has made it easier for me to talk publicly about my views, and I hope that will lead to a domino effect and start a much larger conversation about women’s role in the church.

You are a dab hand at using social media to communicate your ideas and work—how come?

I use social media all the time. It’s a huge part of the modern-day way of getting your message and views across to the wider public. But I have been a longtime critic of social media companies. I’ve said in the past that, if left unregulated, they could pose one of the biggest threats to Western democracy.

When I was on the backbenches, I introduced legislation that, if adopted by the government, would allow for social media companies to be hit with unlimited fines if they fail to remove posts that risk prejudicing criminal trials.

As a Minister, I cannot bring forward that legislation, but I have a backbencher who is sponsoring it right now, so I hope that will make it into the floor of the Dail soon. Because I think this is an issue that needs to be tackled. We have incitement to hatred laws that are already in existence, but it’s a very fast-moving world that we live in terms of the digital world, and it’s very hard for legislation to keep up with that.

But we have to keep up with that, and I think—in particular I think—the biggest issue is in relation to children and cyberspace. You can protect them from the monster across the road in a physical way, like telling them not to speak to strangers, but it’s very difficult—perhaps if both parents are working and a child is on their own and a device—it’s very hard to police what they are looking at. I think that is a real concern and something we really need to tackle urgently.

You have been a prolific Minister for Culture in a country that can rightfully boast an abundance of cultural talent, but what particular aspect of Irish culture (writing, poetry, dance art or dance theater, etc.) speaks most to your own very personal enjoyment and thrill?

I remember for my 10th birthday party, I went to see Swan Lake, and I brought 10 friends because it was my 10th birthday and just being completely overwhelmed by the production here in Dublin. It was so beautiful and mesmerizing and fantastical. That is a really vivid memory, you know, because I was learning ballet in school. But to see the beautiful women and how they could dance, it was just amazing. So … my first introduction to the arts in Ireland … struck a chord with me, and I suppose you could say it has never left me in the intervening period.

But also I love reading. You know, my sons are of the digital age, whereas I can remember when the microwave came along, I remember when email came in, obviously, I remember when the Kindle came in, but you know, I grew up with books. We didn’t watch a lot of television, so I remember reading Kane and Able under the covers at age 11 and being shocked, you know, for example, the rape scene, and I can still remember that vividly. But it was how an author could create a whole fantasy world, and as the reader you could be transported to somewhere else through the power of the written word. That’s art.

There are so many books that I just love. I love Marianne Williamson books. I have to say A Return to Love is a really special book. I remember reading In God’s Name by David Yallop, about the workings of the Vatican and the alleged assassination of Pope John Paul the First. That had an incredible effect on me, but if there was one book I think I would have love to have written, it was Papillon or The Count of Monte Cristo. They are just classics that remind me of being a teenager, awestruck and taken away into another place.

If you are solo working out, walking or going to the gym, what is the song at the top of your playlist that really gets you going?

I have a pretty eclectic taste, but two songs I really enjoy are “Africa” by Toto and “Chandelier” by Sia!

In closing, the Irish, the Greeks and the Romans have had lots of wise sayings—is there any one that you try to live by that you can leave us with?

One saying that I really like is “Per tenebras lucem quaero,” which means, “Through the darkness I seek the light,” or shine a light in dark places. I think this is a very valuable phrase to live by for a number of reasons. It is about seeing the positives in all situations and not letting life’s difficulties or challenges get you down. Every cloud has a silver lining, and while things can often seem very disheartening or tough, it is important to know that things will get better, and to take the good with the bad.

It is also a principle that guides my actions in politics, seeking to promote transparency, probity and honesty in my work. The public have a right to be taken seriously and be fully informed as part of the political debate.

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