independent

Monday 21 April 2014

June 12: the day we chose democracy over theocracy

IT felt as if there should have been a thunderclap. But yesterday, when separation of church and State finally happened in Ireland, it was heralded neither with a bang nor a whimper.

And it wasn't the end of the world, either. On the contrary, a beginning seemed possible – a chance for tolerance and pluralism to put down roots.

The long-awaited division between church and State was revealed by a few sentences from the heart during Leaders' Questions in the Dail: a short yet impassioned statement from a Taoiseach who understands where duty lies. And it isn't in Rome.

Even now, backbone and resolve are needed to face down a Catholic hierarchy intent on imposing its views on the body politic.

A Catholic hierarchy impervious to the wishes of Irish citizens, as expressed in two referendum results. A Catholic hierarchy which fails to grasp it has forfeited the right to dictate to people how to lead their lives.

Yesterday, regardless of his personal beliefs, Enda Kenny held firm to his public obligations as Taoiseach. He did not allow himself to be bullied or cajoled by the glint of a bishop's ring. Instead, he prioritised the will of the people above the will of the Catholic top tier.

He shared an insight into the pressures he has experienced during these past eight months of the abortion debate: "I am now being branded by personnel around the country as being a murderer – that I'm going to have on my soul the death of 20 million babies.

"I'm getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls, and it's not confined to me."

I can well believe it. While it's only a shadow of what the Taoiseach has been subjected to, I too have received the most appalling letters and emails calling me a murderer for supporting abortion legislation. Vile comments about my personal life and about my mother were lobbed into the mix. Other pro-choice journalists have been targeted in similar fashion.

When I mention them to practising Catholics, they shrug off these poison pen missives as the work of loonies and suggest they are a laughing matter. Strangely enough, nobody who slits open an envelope or clicks onto an email and finds such vitriol feels like chuckling.

Either wittingly or unwittingly, the Catholic Church unleashed a group of zealots to stifle debate and influence legislators.

It enflamed fanatics with its rhetoric, and it cannot now wash its hands of their actions.

The Taoiseach didn't mention the bishops directly. He's not trying to provoke a fight – although he isn't running away from one, either.

He referred obliquely to the hierarchy, and to the religious orders, who last weekend criticised the Government's unchanging position. A democrat, unlike those who oppose freedom of choice, Enda said everyone was entitled to their say – but he made it clear he disagreed with the bishops.

It can't be easy for him to shake off that barrage from pro-lifers, to be on the receiving end of emotive tactics such as a plastic foetus in the post, especially with his constituency base in the traditional Catholic heartland of the West.

And who knows what the bishops and other clergy are saying to Enda behind the scenes? His courage and determination are commanding – as a citizen I, for one, am grateful.

"This is about saving lives, not ending them," he insisted, citing his constitutional duty to legislate for the X Case and give legal clarity to medical staff. He's right: he does have that responsibility, as other Taoisigh before him did, but they ducked away from it.

Since Savita Halappanavar's tragic and avoidable death in October put abortion back on the political and social agendas, women have been saying it is possible to be both pro-choice and pro-life; that having a termination does not make a woman a baby-killer.

And now Enda has said it, as well: "This is about saving lives, not ending them," he told the Dail.

In disregarding the paper tiger threat of excommunication, he called the Catholic Church's bluff. Nevertheless, it must have acted as yet another pressure on a conflicted Government when the Cabinet met yesterday to agree the wording of the legislation.

Lately, senior clerics have taken to calling the question of excommunication a red herring. But senior members of the hierarchy undoubtedly brandished it as an ultimatum – a weapon which once would have beaten a politician back into line. No fools, some of them retreated when they saw its impact was counter-productive.

The crozier-shaped stick didn't disappear entirely, however. Only a few weeks ago, Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, due to replace Cardinal Brady as primate, rather quaintly said politicians voting for abortion legislation would be excommunicating themselves. Convenient, no?

This, from a church which has still to pay €380m to the State in redress payments for child abuse. Not only were taxpayers obliged to bear the lion's share of the compensation burden, which reached almost €1.5bn, but the religious orders have yet to make all the cash and property transfers agreed.

Incidentally, there wasn't so much as a whisper about excommunicating paedophile priests. The upper echelons of Catholicism operate by an odd set of standards.

In the interests of credibility, leaders need to earn the right to lead. I'm not convinced Archbishop Eamon Martin has earned his leadership spurs yet, although Enda certainly has with that line for the history books: "I'm a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach."

Never before has it been spelled out so unambiguously. It brought him a smattering of applause in the Dail, including from the Opposition benches – he deserved a standing ovation.

Let's note the date because it's an important one.

On June 12, 2013, democracy won out conclusively over theocracy in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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