50.50: Opinion

Ashling Murphy’s murder must bring change to Ireland

Ireland has embraced social change in marriage equality and abortion rights. Now it’s time to end this culture of male violence against women

Una Mullally.JPG
Una Mullally
25 January 2022, 9.53am
Message at a vigil for Ashling Murphy, 17 January 2022
Mickey Rooney / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The format social discourse takes when yet another horrific murder of a woman occurs is, unfortunately, all too familiar: outrage, women sharing their experiences of assault and harassment, declarations of ‘never again’, and claims that a watershed moment is nigh.

In Ireland over the past fortnight, following the murder of 23-year-old Ashling Murphy, this familiar discourse has flooded social media, newspapers, radio, TV and parliament itself.

But the capacity for a nation to change and address such a huge problem depends on a willingness to do so. For Ireland, our recent era of self-examination may leave us better positioned than others to begin dismantling this fundamental tenet of patriarchy and misogyny: male violence against women.

Murphy was murdered while out for an afternoon run along a canal bank after her day’s work as a primary school teacher. Shock, anger and sadness overtook the nation, which descended into a period of grieving and reflection. Dozens of vigils for Murphy were held across Ireland, and elsewhere.

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These included some disturbing scenes, such as a man who joined one online vigil and began masturbating. Or the “men’s rosary” group that disrupted a vigil in Limerick, drowning out women’s voices with their own PA system (though the group denies this). Some far-Right extremists tried to kick back at the reality of men’s violence being systemic, and also to push racist and xenophobic narratives about the suspect arrested for Murphy’s murder.

However, the general reaction to this tragedy has demonstrated the shift that has occurred in Irish culture and society.

Maybe Irish feminism, having achieved so much, can help create even more change. It was clear from the reaction of most men participating in social media discussions following Murphy’s killing that they’re ready to be part of that change, just as they were part of the Repeal the 8th abortion rights movement a few years ago. When it comes to how feminism broadly functions in a society, we are living in a country that is very different – in a positive way – from our biggest cultural influences, Britain and the US.

Marriage equality and abortion rights

Socially, Irish society is in a phase of huge change, which began with the 2008 crash and ensuing ‘Great Recession’. The country responded to economic devastation, loss of sovereignty, mass emigration and crippling austerity policies not (as elsewhere) by gravitating towards populist, right-wing politics or scapegoating those deemed ‘other’.

Instead, it began a phase of progressive social movements focused on equality and autonomy. This is a remarkable thing, with lessons for the rest of the world.

‘Wedge’ issues in other countries became points of unity in Ireland. The importance of the recent marriage equality and reproductive rights movements in bolstering social cohesion cannot be underestimated. Both movements were rooted in empathy, and centred the importance of listening to and respecting personal experience.

As a result, legalistic, theological and inflamed ideological counterpoints were rendered useless. That’s not to say they weren’t raised, it’s just that they had no impact.

What these movements also did was place the weight of civic engagement on individuals and groups, making everyone take up the responsibility of participating in social change. Avoiding hierarchical structures allowed organic, countrywide, grassroots movements to emerge, driven not by instruction but by invitation and encouragement.

This decentralised, autonomous system empowered people to have a stake in the changes ahead. Individuals, many of whom had never engaged in activism before, led collectively. This post-2008 era has also steeped a new generation in a different kind of politics, and in activist movements as the arbiters of social and political change.

The marriage equality and abortion rights movements were also porous. People found their own way in, with their own language and used whatever tools were available to them. By the time the country came to vote, the population was, by and large, informed, engaged and had weighed up the issues without fighting about them.

In both referendums – to legalise same-sex marriage (2015) and to legalise abortion (2018) – the Irish people voted overwhelmingly for progressive change. Political parties reinforced the support for change, but mostly stood back and allowed people to unfold the change within themselves, and then bring it back out into society.

By embedding civility and empathy in discourse […] by being vulnerable and listening, a new kind of social cohesion has been created

Perhaps the most important changes we’ve gone through in recent years are emotional ones – our relationship to one another, and how we communicate our needs. By embedding civility and empathy in discourse, by striving to lower the temperature in debate, shirk binary arguments, centre experience (not just theory or opinion) and by being vulnerable and listening, a new kind of social cohesion has been created.

Time to tackle misogyny

Now it feels that, on the issue of violence against women, a similar movement could blossom, based on the foundation of our social culture: ‘having the chats’.

This expansive Irish feminism is also less tribal. Issues that have divided feminists elsewhere do not have the same impact here. Ireland’s Gender Recognition Act, introduced in 2015, garnered none of the transphobic vitriol currently rife in the UK – although that doesn’t mean there haven’t been attempts subsequently to stir it up.

However, for the most part, Irish feminists are wise to such tactics and can clearly see the contours along which this so-called ‘debate’ is traced elsewhere. Schooled in campaigns that required unity, there’s a cultural sense that on issues of equality, particularly women’s rights, we need to build on recent progress, be ambitious and proactive, and grow our own way. Nobody has time to waste on manufactured culture wars.

With new generations steeped in feminist politics, and older generations demonstrating a remarkable flexibility in terms of self-reflection and change, could Ireland, historically known for misogyny, now become a country known for tackling it?

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