Wednesday 21 August 2019

'I offended a lot of people' - Taoiseach apologises over 'sinning parish priest' comments

Varadkar likened Martin to 'priest who sins himself'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images

Hugh O'Connell, Aoife Walsh and John Downing

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has apologised for remarks comparing Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to a sinning priest.

On his way into a meeting between the government and representatives of almost 30 different churches and faith communities, including the Catholic Church, this afternoon, the Taoiseach told reporters: “Yeah look I said something in the heat of a debate in the Dáil yesterday.

"It was a rather bitter and personal debate on both sides but in doing so I offended a lot of people who I never intended to offend I am sorry for that, I do apologise and I am going to withdraw the remarks.”

He had been facing calls from his own party to clarify the comments.

The comments came after a series of very bad-tempered Dáil exchanges on Wednesday with the Fianna Fáil leader, whose party props up his minority coalition.

Mr Martin directly accused the Taoiseach of being "petty, silly and idiotic".

Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Earlier today, Fine Gael senator John O'Mahony told the Seanad that he expected clarification from Mr Varadkar about remarks he described as "not acceptable".

Mr Varadkar compared Mr Martin to a priest "who preaches from the altar, telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself". He made the comments in response to Dáil questions from Mr Martin about the national development plan yesterday.

The comments have been criticised by Martin and a succession of Fianna Fáil TDs.

In a tweet responding to the apology tonight, Micheál Martin said the Taoiseach had "apologised through the media to those who may have been offended by his attack yesterday".

He added: "One correction to what has been said. Tone of debate wasn’t bitter or personal.  I was asking him about an over run on costs of Dunkettle Interchange Project.".

They were also condemned by Alphonsus Culliane, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, who told RTÉ that they were "very hurtful, unfortunate comments'.

Speaking on RTE Radio One today, Bishop Cullinane said: "I would like to stand up for the 99pc of priests across the country who are working hard and they're loved by their parishioners.

"If any of them are listening in I would like to say to them well done, you're doing a great job and keep it going."

He said that the comment is "very hurtful", adding that "It is ironic that today in Dublin castle the state is hosting a church-state dialogue, wih representatives from religions of all types across the state, and now we hear one particular religion being singled out."

After attending a mass held in Waterford city that drew around 3,000 people last night, Bishop Culliane said locals expressed their deep offence at that Taoiseach's comment.

"Many ordinary people expressed how deeply offended they were by the comment of our head of parliament. It's unfortunate and it's unfair.

"It's not balanced. It's treating everyone with the same brush. 99 pc of priests are trying to do their best and work hard.

Speaking in the Seanad on Thursday, Mr O'Mahony, a former TD, made an unexpected intervention on the order of business, saying: "I too would welcome clarification from the Taoiseach on what he said yesterday. I would hope that that clarification would state clearly that it didn't mean as it sounded when it came out because if it does I would want to completely disassociate myself from those comments.

"I think criminal acts by either priests or politicians or gardaí or anything else need to be weeded out and treated with the full rigours of the law. But I think to pain everybody with the one brush is not acceptable and I would that that's not was meant and I would welcome and expect clarification sooner rather than later."

Fianna Fáil senator Jennifer Murnane-O'Connor said the comments were unacceptable and needed to be clarified. Independent senator Rónán Mullen were "deeply stigmatising".

Yesterday, Mr Martin had repeatedly asked the Taoiseach how overspending on flagship projects, such as the new national children's hospital and rural broadband, would affect other big projects.

After several clashes during the morning session, Mr Martin returned to the subject, asking about an upgrade for the Dunkettle Interchange outside Cork city and hospitals for Cork and Limerick.

Mr Martin said the National Development Plan had been launched to great political fanfare amid promises of staying in budget and on time. But it was now clear that the cost of the children's hospital had doubled to €2bn, while rural broadband was close to €3bn.

"Some of the costs in the plan were little better than thinking of a number and hoping to be right," the Fianna Fáil leader said.

Mr Martin went on to accuse the Taoiseach of being "petty, silly and idiotic" for suggesting Fianna Fáil was against projects when it raised questions about costs.

The Taoiseach hit back, saying he was "bemused" to find Mr Martin accusing him of being personal, partisan and engaging in name-calling.

"He kind of reminds me of one of those parish priests, who preaches from the altar, telling us to avoid sin, while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself," Mr Varadkar said.

Following the exchange, Mr Martin tweeted that Mr Varadkar's comments "reflect more on the Taoiseach than anyone else".

Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen responded to Mr Varadkar's apology saying the Taoiseach should make it directly to Mr Martin in the Dáil.

He said the original 'sinning parish priest' remarks were and "unfortunate and quite ridiculous comment, supposedly he said because of the heated exchange that was taking place."

Mr Cowen added: "I mean Micheál Martin was only asking about Dunkettle Interchange and the costs associated with it like many other capital projects that are going nowhere but north."

Mr Cowen said Mr Martin "simply wanted clarification as to the cost" and claimed Mr Varadkar then "breaks into this false outrage."

"I mean he says he’s apologised to those who may have been offended. If he wants to apologise to Micheál Martin I’d imagine he’d go back where he made the comments and apologise to him there," Mr Cowen added.

He argued that there seems to be a tactic on the part of Mr Varadkar and some of his colleagues since the local elections "to have this sort of personal attack".

Mr Cowen added: "We’re not going to rise to that.

"We’re not facilitating government because we have a whole lot of time for Leo Varadkar.

"We’re there because we have a whole load of time for the people we represent and are interested in certainty and security and ensuring that this country makes all the right preparations for Brexit and ensures that we look after that side of things.

"We’ll fight elections on another day when we get the opportunity," he said.

Meanwhile, finance minister Paschal Donohoe defended the Taoiseach.

He said: "The Taoiseach knew himself that the words he uttered yesterday in the heat of a political debate, as we moved into today, caused unintentional offence to priests, to those who are in religious orders and those who worship and pray in our churches."

Mr Donohoe added: "He acknowledged himself today that he wanted to apologise for it, and he would’ve known it was particularly appropriate that he apologised for it given that he was meeting many members of different faiths today."

He also said: "I know if upset was caused across today, it was not his intention. He was in a charged debate in the Dáil and he wanted to make that clear today."

Irish Independent

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