An Irish solution to an Irish problem

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In Irish political discourse, "an Irish solution to an Irish problem" is any official response to a controversial issue which is timid, half-baked, or expedient, which is an unsatisfactory compromise, or sidesteps the fundamental issue.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

Earlier usage[edit]

The idea had been commonly held that Ireland's problems should be addressed by solutions developed in Ireland, rather than based on foreign models; this was sometimes expressed using some variant of the anaphora "an Irish solution to an Irish problem". Examples of the rhetorical device include:

  • Eamonn Cooney said about unemployment in 1931: "There is no Irish attitude being adopted towards Irish problems. As the leader of this Party has stated, there is an Irish solution for these problems."[7]
  • The president of the Irish Medical Association said of the Mother and Child Scheme in 1954: "if we want a health service we will not get it by aping the Socialists, Monarchists or Communists of other countries. We believe that there is an Irish solution to an Irish problem."[8]
  • Tom O'Higgins said about health insurance in 1956: "May I express the hope that we will try more consistently to bring about an Irish solution to our own problems without seeking merely to apply here something they have done successfully or otherwise elsewhere?"[9]
  • Conor Cruise-O'Brien said about the Northern Ireland troubles in 1970: "Unless one can see it as an Irish quarrel, it is not possible to bring about an Irish solution for it or even to begin moving towards that."[10]
  • Patrick Hillery said about EEC accession in 1971: "Different applicants have different problems. The Irish solution to the Irish problem is what we should look for. The Norwegian solution would not suit us as well as our own. Neither would the British solution."[11]
  • Ajai Chopra, the head of the IMF's mission to Ireland, described the 2010 intervention of the EU-IMF-ECB troika as a lifeline that presents 'an Irish solution to Irish problems.'[12]

The same device has been used in other countries. Sargent Shriver called the Opportunities Industrialization Center "an American solution to an American problem" in 1967;[13] Hillary Clinton described her 1993 health care plan as "an American solution for an American problem by creating an American health care system that works for America."[14] In 1977, Hector Laing of United Biscuits cautioned against applying its work practices at its American subsidiary Keebler Company by calling them "a British solution to a British problem."[15]

Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979[edit]

Contraception had been prohibited in the Republic of Ireland since 1935.[16][17] However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that married couples had a constitutional right to privacy which encompassed family planning.[16][18] In 1974, Minister for Justice Patrick Cooney introduced a bill to accommodate this,[19] but it was defeated on a free vote in which Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave was among those opposing it.[16][20] Fianna Fáil came to power after the 1977 election, and Charles Haughey became Minister for Health. He introduced a bill —subsequently the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979[21]— to allow contraceptives to be available, only by medical prescription, "for the purpose, bona fide, of family planning or for adequate medical reasons". Physicians and pharmacists who had moral objections would not be obliged to write or fill such prescriptions.

Introducing the second reading of the bill in Dáil Éireann on 28 February 1979, Haughey concluded:

I hope Deputies will accept that this Bill is the result of careful and earnest consideration of a difficult situation and that it is a sincere attempt to meet that situation in a reasonable and acceptable manner. There is very little support for a situation in which all forms of artificial contraceptives could be ... freely available ... We must, on the other hand, [follow] the Supreme Court decision in the McGee case ... It is not easy to devise legislation which satisfies both these criteria. ...

I recognise that this legislation will not satisfy everybody. There is no legislation which would. There are diametrically opposing views sincerely held on practically every aspect of this issue. ...

This legislation opens no flood-gates, ...

It provides that who find the provisions unacceptable need not involve themselves in any way. This Bill seeks to provide an Irish solution to an Irish problem. I have not regarded it as necessary that we should conform to the position obtaining in any other country.

I commend the Bill to Deputies on the basis that it will be found acceptable by and meet the wishes of the great majority of sensible responsible citizens.

— [22]

Haughey was using the phrase "an Irish solution to an Irish problem" in the same approbatory sense as before. In the ensuing Dáil debate, Fianna Fáil TDs Kit Ahern[23] and Niall Andrews[24] quoted Haughey's description approvingly in supporting the Bill. However, liberal opponents of the 1979 Act quoted Haughey's words ironically and derisively in subsequent criticism, bringing a permanent change to the meaning of the phrase.[4][25] Noël Browne said:

The Minister made the remarkable statement that this Bill was an Irish solution to an Irish problem. That was one of the unwisest statements of all made about the Bill. Some Deputies said that the Bill is more concerned with protecting the political interests of Fianna Fáil than it is with protecting women from unwanted pregnancies. ... This is the Catholic Irish republican solution to the Irish problem in the Twenty-six Counties

— [23]

The Minister said the Bill was guided by certain principles and I suppose that is what he meant when he described it as an Irish solution to an Irish problem; a Roman Catholic solution to an Irish problem.

— [26]

Barry Desmond said:

Nobody knows more of the fundamental inbuilt hypocrisy in this Bill than the Minister for Health. The fact that we know it means that we dodge it and come back to the Minister with the stock response "An Irish Bill for the Irish situation." Irish women have some unique aspects of sexuality unknown in other European countries. Irish men possess unique aspects of sexuality unknown to other males in Europe. Therefore, we must have a uniquely Irish solution to the problem.

— [27]

Finally he coined for all time the unique comment that this Bill "seeks to provide an Irish solution to an Irish problem". This stretches too far the extent of my personal credulity.

— [28]

Jim O'Keeffe said:

The Minister, in introducing the Bill, said he sought an Irish solution to an Irish problem. In my opinion this Bill is tinged with hypocrisy and loaded with double-think and is no credit to this House or the party who produced it. ... Of course, there may be a way out—again, an Irish way out, a typically Irish solution to an Irish problem. If the doctor is prepared to issue a prescription and to go through the pretence that the prescription is for medical purposes and not for family planning purposes, that would be a way round the problem. But, if this is so, why should we have this sham and pretence?

— [29]

John Kelly said:

If I am contradicted on that and told by the Minister that I am not doing this Bill full justice, that his Irish solution for an Irish problem is meant to be taken more seriously, I am tempted to reply that the peculiarly Irish nature of the solution lies in the fact that many people on the Minister's side will be content with the appearance of the law even though there is no reality. That is Irish enough and appeals to a certain stratum of Irish mentality abundantly represented in the Fianna Fáil Party—go through the motions and whether the reality follows in the wake of the motions we need not care; so long as we have a badge in our buttonholes and can speak a few perfunctory words, we shall be taken to have our hearts in the right place whatever the context refers to. I believe that is what is meant here. There is a certain sense in the Minister talking about an Irish solution to an Irish problem. The Irish solution is to appear to solve the problem. The reality is that it will remain exactly the same in a year's time as it has been for the last couple of years. ...

I think the Minister was Minister for Justice when the licensing law was changed in 1960 or thereabouts. Up to that time there had been a traffic in bona fides—that was a cynical term—but it was an Irish solution to an Irish problem in a big way. There was an appearance of there being a law in regard to bona fide travellers. The reality was exactly the opposite and so well recognised was the opposite quality to the reality that the bona fide name was actually cynically, but colloquially and without thinking, bestowed on the very establishments which had the benefit of this Irish solution.
— [26]


  1. ^ Smyth, Lisa (Autumn 1998). "Narratives of Irishness and the Problem of Abortion: The X Case 1992". Feminist Review (Palgrave Macmillan Journals) (60, Feminist Ethics and the Politics of Love): 62. JSTOR 1395547. 'An Irish solution to an Irish problem', as the popular phrase described the evasions, euphemisms and hypocrisy characteristic of the state's treatment of issues around sexuality 
  2. ^ Duggan, Dennis (24 February 1992). "Abortion Furor Galvanizes Ireland". Newsday. p. 8. refers to an Irish trait of solving problems by indirection 
    cited in Weinstein, Jeffrey A. (1993). "An Irish Solution to an Irish Problem: Ireland's Struggle with Abortion Law". Arizona Journal of International & Comparative Law 10: 165. 
  3. ^ Graham, B.J. (1994). "Heritage conservation and revisionist nationalism in Ireland". In Gregory John Ashworth & Peter J. Larkham. Building a new heritage: tourism, culture, and identity in the new Europe. Routledge. p. 147. ISBN 0-415-07931-4. a euphemism for turning a blind eye 
  4. ^ a b Ardagh, John (1994). Ireland and the Irish: portrait of a changing society. Hamish Hamilton. p. 182. ISBN 0-241-13275-4. Haughey described it as 'an Irish solution to an Irish problem' — a phrase that has since been applied to many an Irish compromise. 
  5. ^ Byrne, Elaine (30 December 2008). "Haughey's Irish solution to an Irish problem". The Irish Times. Retrieved 29 September 2009. This phrase, indicative of a prevaricate compromise which allows us to temporarily reconcile our consciences 
  6. ^ Inglis, Tom (2015-01-01). Are the Irish Different?. Manchester University Press. p. 127. ISBN 9781847799579. Retrieved 12 January 2016. denial and doublethink (Irish solution to an Irish problem) 
  7. ^ "Unemployment Relief Bill, 1931—Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 40. 3 December 1931. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  8. ^ "The lesson of enforced medical services". The Irish Times. 9 July 1954. p. 1. 
  9. ^ "Voluntary Health Insurance Bill, 1956—Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 160. 8 November 1956. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  10. ^ "Adjournment (Summer Recess): Motion (Resumed). [Article 44 amendment – NI/EEC]". Dáil Éireann – Volume 248. 29 July 1970. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  11. ^ "Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. – Membership of EEC.". Dáil Éireann – Volume 255. 29 June 1971. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  12. ^ "Ireland making 'good progress' on recovery". RTÉ News. 15 April 2011. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  13. ^ Shriver, Sargent (26 January 1967). "Address to the Second Annual Conccation of the Opportunities Industrialization Center" (PDF). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: p. 2. Retrieved 9 February 2010. [dead link]
  14. ^ Clinton, Hillary Rodham (1997). Claire G. Osborne, ed. The unique voice of Hillary Rodham Clinton: a portrait in her own words. Avon. p. 149. ISBN 0-380-97416-9. 
  15. ^ "A Touch of British Realism". Forbes 119: 32. 15 April 1977. 
  16. ^ a b c Lee, Joseph (1989). Ireland, 1912–1985: politics and society. Cambridge University Press. p. 479. ISBN 0-521-37741-2. 
  17. ^ "§17: Prohibition of sale and importation of contraceptives.". Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  18. ^ "McGee v. A.G. & Anor [1973] IESC 2; [1974] IR 284". BAILII. 
  19. ^ "Control of Importation, Sale and Manufacture of Contraceptives Bill, 1974: First Stage.". Dáil Éireann – Volume 271. 21 March 1974. Archived from the original on 9 June 2011. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  20. ^ "Control of Importation, Sale and Manufacture of Contraceptives Bill, 1974: Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 274 -. 16 July 1974. Retrieved 1 October 2015. 
  21. ^ "Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979". Irish Statute Book. 23 July 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  22. ^ "Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978: Second Stage.". Dáil Éireann – Volume 312. 28 February 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  23. ^ a b "Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978: Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 313. 29 March 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  24. ^ "Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978: Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 313. 5 April 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  25. ^ Drennan, John (30 December 2012). "Extract: How contraception was 'an Irish solution to an Irish problem'". Retrieved 12 January 2016. In a phrase that would haunt him, he claimed that the bill 'seeks to provide an Irish solution to an Irish problem'. 
  26. ^ a b "Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978: Committee Stage.". Dáil Éireann – Volume 314. 9 May 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  27. ^ "Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978: Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 313. 29 March 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  28. ^ "Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978: Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 313. 4 April 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  29. ^ "Health (Family Planning) Bill, 1978: Second Stage (Resumed).". Dáil Éireann – Volume 313. 5 April 1979. Retrieved 29 September 2009. 

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