(Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding)

The recent rape trial in Belfast, media coverage of texts and WhatsApp messages from those involved and the acquittal of all four defendants gave rise to a true national conversation, much of which was played out in the media.  

Away from the noisy and aggressively intolerant echo chamber of Twitter, some very worthwhile discussions took place, for instance, when The Irish Times writer Roe McDermott joined other panelists on TV3’s The Tonight Show.

McDermott, a strong feminist voice on the panel, put it best when summing up how the language used by the young men involved the trial demonstrated their contempt for the (at the time) 19-year-old complainant.

“They believed that they were more powerful for having done something to a women, not with a woman, to her,” McDermott said.

The problem in our midst

That language was clearly not nearly enough to convict the defendants, but it was enough to ruin their reputations in the eyes of the public.

What’s more, it has shone even more light on the manifold problems of misogyny and misconduct by men.

The evidence is shown in alarming statistics on rape and sexual violence, in the number of sexual harassment cases and settlements, in unwanted comments heard on streets, and in unwanted contact felt in pubs and nightclubs.

Many women reading about the Belfast trial would have had cause to ponder whether some of the men in their own lives used such vulgar words or thought such obnoxious thoughts.

Even if they were fortunate enough to be assured that the answer was ‘no,’ the evidence all around them suggests clearly that many men have abandoned all standards in their behaviour towards women.

Fighting the wrong enemy

That a serious problem exists is hardly debatable. The solution to it alas, is not going to be easy to find.

Roe McDermott has – along with many other leading feminists – diagnosed the problem as one of misogyny, and she is staking her hopes for a solution on a greater societal understanding of sexual consent.

It’s an approach which has gained some converts in high places. Responding to what happened in Belfast, the Government has announced an overhaul of sex education at primary and secondary-level, with the issue of consent likely to be at the heart of the revised curriculum.

There is a lot to be said for this. Our sex education curriculum is in all likelihood badly behind the curve, being designed as it was before a range of societal and technological changes altered the real-world experiences of the average young person irrevocably.

Yet in another appearance on RTE’s Prime Time in early April, McDermott demonstrated a hostility to values not her own which is not likely to produce positive results.

Appearing alongside David Quinn of Iona Institute fame, McDermott began by making sensible and interesting remarks about the importance of children being taught from an early age that they can refuse physical contact.

So far, so good, and Quinn agreed with introducing consent classes in schools. He also suggested that young learners should be encouraged to think about whether or not they were ready for sex with a particular person. “I think we’ve got to teach people that when you’re old, you should get to know, like and trust each other properly first,” he said.

For Roe McDermott, this was unacceptable.

“I think that rhetoric sounds innocuous enough and it sounds positive, however, claiming that you need to get to know somebody and you need to really like them, that is a coded phrase that is basically synonymous with being in a committed and loving relationship: which is a value system being placed on sexuality,” she shot back.

“What you’re actually doing is enforcing shame, and I think this country has seen the effects of shame.”

Out with the old – all of it

Middle Ireland will welcome consent classes, but parents will not be enamoured of an opinion leader who thinks that encouraging kids to at least know their partner well before embarking on a  sexual relationship constitutes the enforcement of shame.

Note the difference in approach too. Quinn is a conservative Catholic. He surely disapproves of premarital sex.

But being a realist – and being far more moderate than his legion of adversaries would acknowledge he is – Quinn accepts that simply repeating age-old refrains against what he considers sinful won’t help young people in today’s environment.  

Instead, by proposing an approach which accepts reality while seeking to retain some link between sex and commitment, he wishes to mitigate the worst excesses of the present age. He’s also clearly open to dialogue on what policies are pursued.

McDermott’s response is to see his offer and slap it away. To make matters worse, she unfairly labels those who simply want the next generation to think seriously about actions before engaging in them as being guilty of perpetrating shame.

Faced with the avalanche of new dilemmas which the sexual revolution has wrought, she evokes grim images of the past – “the effects of shame” – without stopping to ponder whether there were any positive characteristics associated with that Ireland at all.

Her faith that our salvation lies in consent alone is also misplaced. Ireland’s relationship with alcohol is tortuous, and as long as young men and women make so many decisions under its influence, they will be likely to make do things which they end up regretting, whether they consented to them at the time or not.

McDermott wasn’t the only one to use the aftermath of the trial to direct fire at those of a more traditionalist bent.

Within a week of the verdict, Socialist Party TD Ruth Coppinger also took it upon herself to propose new legislation which would remove religious ethos from sex education in schools entirely.

That religion has nothing to do with what happened in Belfast or the broader societal problems is irrelevant. Religious education is old-fashioned, and must be scrapped.

As with McDermott, Coppinger and her acolytes use every opportunity to attack the values of yesterday in a vain attempt to solve the problems of today, in an approach which is likely to fail the young adults of tomorrow.

Male honour: old-fashioned, time-tested

No national conversation in Ireland could be complete without hearing from the leading intellectual of the Left: Fintan O’Toole.

In his Irish Times article written in the wake of the trial – ‘We need to talk to our boys about male honour’ – this frequent holder of dissenting views spoke for the majority when reflecting on the guidance provided for his father long ago.

“As soon as hair began to appear on my upper lip, signaling the start of the rough passage from boyhood to manhood, my father took me aside,” O’Toole explained. “There are two things you have to know if want to be a man, he said. Never, ever, raise your hand to a woman. And never put your hand on a woman unless she’s told you she wants it there.”

In an exceptionally balanced article, O’Toole describes the “very specific code of honour” which once existed, demonstrates its strengths and at the same time acknowledging its limitations.

The events in Belfast and the conduct of the young men towards the complainant led O’Toole to reflect more on what may have been lost. “It is not just that they had no sense of male honour in the way they wrote about the young woman,” O’Toole wrote. “It is that the exact opposite applied, that they felt honoured in each other’s eyes by crude and terrible boasting about the way she had been used. What should have been shameful was a source of great pride.”

O’Toole cleverly juxtaposes the shamelessness of these young men with the supreme selflessness of the recently-fallen French police officer Colonel Arnaud Beltrame who exchanged places with a woman being held hostage knowing that he would almost certainly be killed.

This was an act which embodied “a very old-fashioned sense of male honour…It also contains courage and self-sacrifice and protectiveness.”

Where McDermott, Coppinger and others of their mindset rush to dismantle the foundations of today’s society, O’Toole strikes a Burkean conservative note in his summation: acknowledging both the importance of preserving the good and the necessity of making the changes which evolution always entails.

“What I wish I knew is whether those codes of honour can be activated without falling back on old myths of masculinity, whether we can invoke for our boys the good parts of ‘manning up’ without the ridiculous or dangerous ones. All I can suggest in this dark moment is that we have to try.”

Blending old and new

Progress can be made, but if it occurs, it will occur slowly.

Fintan O’Toole benefitted from the advice of his father. Yet many young boys have no father in their lives to seek advice from or to try and emulate. The fact that this is the case should give pause to those who believe that progress and modernity are synonymous.

That same belief underpins much of the hostility to old-fashioned values, and is making it harder for those who recognise that part of the solution to recent failings involves a recognition of the value of that which was lost, and the construction of a revised code of chivalry.

There is always hope. If the sacrifice of Colonel Beltrame proved anything, it showed that heroes still exist.

The journey ahead will be long and difficult, but making his story known would be a worthwhile first step. Young boys search for heroes. He was that, and much more besides.