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The age of our craven deference is finally over

Historic is a term from which professional historians traditionally recoil and rightly so. The banalities of popular usage have debased its meaning beyond redemption. But there are still rare events that not only deserve but demand to be described as historic. The publication of the Murphy report is one such event: a truly historic landmark in the sad and squalid story of Church-State relations in independent Ireland.

To understand why this is so it is first necessary to understand how twin circumstances governing the foundation of the State shattered the non-sectarian idealism of Irish republicanism: partition (accomplished by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920) and the Civil War of 1922-23.

Partition created an unnaturally large Catholic majority in the 26 counties by amputating the Protestants of north-east Ulster who might otherwise have ameliorated the overweening Catholic triumphalism that came to characterise the Irish Free State. That effect was compounded by the repression of the Catholic minority in a Northern Ireland whose prime minister proclaimed "all I boast of is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state".

It is too often forgotten that James Craig's notorious assertion was immediately preceded by his asking Northern Ireland's critics "to remember that in the south they boasted of a Catholic state". But, in an overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland, the old Unionist taunt that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule had no force because Rome Rule had become more a cause for pride than for shame.

The impact of the Civil War was less obvious but arguably more insidious. Church and State shared a common concern to forge a national identity in the postwar aftermath of shame and disappointment. Supporters and opponents of the Treaty of 1921 might slaughter each other about the legitimacy of the State but they made common cause in their unswerving allegiance to the Catholic Church. When Fianna Fail first came to power in 1932 they were no more disposed than the government of 1922 to question the authority of their church, particularly on such matters as health, education and sexual morality. Thus, to take but one example of this politically competitive Catholicism, the Cosgrave government made divorce illegal and de Valera's made it unconstitutional.

Catholic triumphalism in independent Ireland was born of the hunger in a poverty stricken and politically riven State to find something to celebrate. Cosgrave's government presided at the first great occasion for celebration, the centenary of Catholic Emancipation in 1929; de Valera's at the second, the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. But it was the inter-party government of 1948-51 during the Mother and Child crisis that offered the most grotesque examples of the public deference of Ireland's politicians to the Catholic Church.

"I as a Catholic obey my Church authorities and will continue to do so", John A Costello, the Fine Gael Taoiseach, told the Dail. The Labour Party was just as pusillanimous but that was scarcely surprising given that its successive leaders for nearly 50 years -- William Norton (1932-60) and Brendan Corish (1960-77) -- were members of the Knights of St Columbanus. But it was Sean MacBride, former chief of staff of the IRA and then minister for external affairs, who went to the heart of the matter in a memorandum to his cabinet colleagues.

"Even if, as Catholics, we were prepared to take the responsibility of disregarding [the Hierarchy's] views, which I do not think we can do, it would be politically impossible to do so . . . We are dealing with the considered views of the leaders of the Catholic Church to which the vast majority of our people belong; these views cannot be ignored."

The political reality was that the craven deference of Irish politicians to the Catholic Church accurately reflected the no less craven deference of Irish voters, a deference that found its most disgusting manifestation in the revelation that some child victims of sexual abuse were punished by piously disbelieving parents for daring to say such things about the clergy. The Murphy report marks the culmination of the gradual collapse of deference since the Seventies not just because of what it says but because of the way it says it. The substance of the report is shocking; the language is direct, unambiguous and utterly unforgiving. No fudge, no grey, just the starkest black and very little white. A few examples will suffice.

The State authorities facilitated the cover-up by allowing the Church institutions to be beyond the reach of the normal law enforcement processes.

The abuse of children in Dublin was a scandal. The failure of the archdiocesan authorities to penalise the perpetrators is also a scandal.

The connivance by the Garda in effectively stifling one complaint and failing to investigate another and in allowing Father 'X' to leave the country is shocking.

Not one of four archbishops -- McQuaid, Ryan, McNamara and Connell -- reported his knowledge of sexual abuse to gardai throughout the Sixties, Seventies or Eighties.

The paramount reason why the Murphy report is such an historic landmark is because of the historic responses its avoidance of equivocation has elicited across the political spectrum. Most notable, perhaps, was Enda Kenny's reaction. Although Fine Gael has traditionally hugged the Catholic Church more closely than any other party, his unhesitating demand for the resignation of those bishops denounced in the report who are still clinging to the tattered remnants of their power and privilege spelt the end of an era.

The most immediate and impressive reaction in Fianna Fail came from Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern: "This is a republic -- the people are sovereign -- and no institution, no agency, no church can be immune from that fact," and he gave an assurance that "the era where evil people could do [evil things] under the cover of the cloth, facilitated and shielded from the consequences by their authorities, while the lives of children were ruined with such cruelty, is over for good . . . a collar will protect no criminal".

Others have been slower to read the straws in the wind. The reaction of the Vatican and of the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppi Leanza, to the publication of the report has been as arrogant, insensitive and contemptible as their refusal to respond to the Murphy commission's request for documents. There followed the Taoiseach's clumsy and mind-bogglingly deferential defence in the Dail of the Vatican on Tuesday. But 48 hours later the penny dropped with a resounding clang after Mary O'Rourke, always a good guide to grassroots feeling in Fianna Fail, complained about the Papal Nuncio's discourtesy, "parading around Ireland in his wonderful glitzy clothes, but not replying to letters" and Labour's Michael D Higgins highlighted as "absurd" that the Papal Nuncio could serve as the dean of the diplomatic corps. Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin got the message and on Thursday night did what he might have better done a week earlier when he requested the Papal Nuncio to meet him to discuss the Murphy report.

When Archbishop Leanza goes to Iveagh House he would be well advised to remember that the wheel of Church-State relations has indeed begun to turn full circle when politicians are now competing in their expressions of anti-Vatican sentiments where in previous decades they competed in burnishing their Catholic credentials; that, in Pat Rabbitte's words, the Vatican seems "to misunderstand the earthquake they have set off in [Irish] society. Whatever happens, it is the end of the age of deference."

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History and Director of Archives Acquisitions at UCD

Sunday Independent