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John Paul McCarthy: Shatter spoke for Irish Protestants as well as the Jewish congregation

IN his essay, The Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman observed that "what is spoken cannot outrun the range of the speaker's voice". By this he meant that speaker and sentiment must somehow coalesce to generate affecting rhetoric.

The Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, gave a master class in this regard last week with his landmark speech on the Holocaust.

Cutting a chastening swathe through the various arguments about "context", Shatter denounced Irish neutrality as morally bankrupt. Previous Fine Gael politicians have handled the Emergency era fairly roughly as well. Remember that Garret FitzGerald dismissed neutrality as morally inadequate in Ireland in the World (2005), arguing: "I could never regard our decision to opt out of western European defence and to rely for our defence exclusively on a combination of other states in the formulation of whose policy we have no say as being in accordance with our dignity as a state, or with our moral responsibilities."

In order to drive home his point about Irish moral delinquency here, he noted some mortifying similarities between contemporary Irish security policy and those of war-torn Tajikistan. (For a spell, both countries were unique in being members of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation, but not members of the Nato-led Partnership for Peace.)

But even so, there was something special about Shatter's critique. Mr Shatter is the Republic's second Jewish cabinet minister, and his reflections on our non-intervention during the attempted extirpation of European Jewry carry extra moral freight.

De Valera is still an historical titan, author of Bunreacht na h-Eireann's old article 44 that offered symbolic recognition to Ireland's Jewish congregations and the only other member of the prime ministerial goyim alongside Australia's Bob Hawke to have an Israeli forest named in his honour. And put bluntly, only an Irish Jew could wheel out the big moral guns against him when discussing his courtesy call on the German ambassador in 1945.

Shatter suggested that Dev had surrendered to the termites within by then, and that he had lost his "moral compass". And in deploying such a blunt moral vocabulary, the minister will hopefully have sent a new generation of readers off in the direction of the figure who made many similar points about the Emergency, albeit in real time -- namely, Kilkenny essayist Hubert Butler. No one who spends a day with Butler's collection of essays, The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue, can doubt the force and insight of the minister's critique.

Butler wrote brilliantly about the Catholic Church's craven record during the early Nazi period and during the Second World War itself. He wrote for the ages when he described how the mass-murdering Croatian Andrija Artukovich hid in "neutral" Irish Franciscan safe houses after 1945. And Butler also describes how he himself was subjected to repeated clerical slanders in the post-war period when he tried to interrogate Irish Catholicism's shady history of solidarity with Yugoslav Catholic fascists. Anyone wanting to follow up on Butler should check out his essays for sure, but also Rev Dr Robert Tobin's beautiful new biography of Butler, The Minority Voice: Hubert Butler and Southern Irish Protestantism, 1900-91.

Mr Shatter's topic was, of course, European Jewry, but I, for one, could not shake the feeling that he was speaking for Protestant Ireland as well. Reading a Jewish critique of Irish anti-Semitism prompts awkward comparisons and made me at least ask about the specifically Protestant critique of the sectarian element in modern Irish Catholic nationalism.

President Hyde never broke a lance publicly for the many hundreds of his innocent and helpless rural co-religionists who were murdered during 1919-22. President Childers never said a word so far as I am aware about the profoundly sectarian dimension in Bunreacht na h-Eireann's education clauses.

That task was left to philosophers such as UCC's Desmond Clarke who wrote in 1984 that the constitution's liberal veneer is hardly compatible with direct and indirect State financing of religious schools and of an exclusively Roman Catholic seminary like Maynooth College out of general taxes. The only practising Protestant who seems as willing as Alan Shatter to stand up for his diminished flock is Bishop Colton of Cork City.

Mr Shatter's speech showed that "context" comes from the heart, not the archive, and that the proper "context" for assessing our performance between 1939-45 is that provided by Irish Catholicism's anti-Semitic prejudices, such as suffused the work and writings of Arthur Griffith, Peter Berry at Justice, and Oliver J Flanagan TD.

The other "context" to be canvassed is the basic postulate of Irish nationalism, namely its oft-stated belief since the Fenian era that the Anglo-Irish quarrel takes precedence over all others, a belief that drove IRA leader Sean Russell into open alliance with the Nazis.

Rarely has an Irish minister managed to brush against so many awkward historical chimes in the way that Minister Shatter did. His splendid speech shows that Hubert Butler's Ireland was not spent, merely sleeping awhile.

Sunday Independent