Sunday 8 December 2019

How Northern Protestants in the Dáil would have questioned power of Catholic Church

Local historian Catherine Corless with her husband Aidan. Ms Corless’s research led to the
discovery of the unmarked grave at the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co
Galway. Photo: Andy Newman
Local historian Catherine Corless with her husband Aidan. Ms Corless’s research led to the discovery of the unmarked grave at the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway. Photo: Andy Newman
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Various threads have begun to unravel in Irish life as one shameful episode after another is highlighted: from concerns about conditions in mother and baby homes run by nuns, to an intellectually challenged woman's 20 years of abuse in her foster home, with warning flags persistently ignored.

A pattern can be traced in these unwinding strands - deferral to authority, a tendency to look away from disconcerting truths and reluctance to challenge Catholic institutions.

With the glow still warm from last year's centenary celebrations, it is increasingly clear that the fledgling Republic made a catastrophic mistake in outsourcing health and education to the Catholic Church - meanwhile neglecting its inspection duties.

Embedded in the new Irish State, the Catholic Church grew ever more authoritarian, extending its reach to exert political and social control. Some of its work was beneficial, especially in a country as poor as Ireland, but the unfettered power was problematic.

Ireland's institutional history, from the industrial schools to the Magdalene laundries to the mother and baby homes, is a source of dismay. But self-flagellation serves less purpose here than action. We must become serious about separation of Church and State.

Education is a key example of ongoing, inappropriate Church influence. Almost 97pc of state primary schools are under Church control. Allowing the continuation of a baptism barrier in admissions' policy cannot continue.

It is indefensible that State-funded schools can show bias, with the freedom to cherry-pick pupils baptised as Catholics on the grounds of protecting their religious ethos. Do they also apply religious ethos requirements to teachers employed there (using our money)? If so, do the State's laws have anything to say?

Clearly, current admissions' policy is discriminatory - a child's religion ought not to be a factor. Even if a school building is owned by a religious institution, for decades it has been maintained, renovated and extended by the State, while teachers' salaries and pensions are paid by the Exchequer.

And while we're in a reforming mood, the inclusion of religious instruction during school hours, also promoting the Catholic ethos, is highly questionable. Civics should be studied, instead of prioritising one religion above another in the national curriculum.

How did Ireland find itself in a position where Catholicism held undue sway in areas far beyond its remit? For that, we must look back to the foundation of the State - to partition.

The creation of two states on either side of the Border, run along repressive and ultra-conservative religious grounds, has caused misery and hardship on this island. Imagine how Ireland might have flourished if it had developed without the drawbacks of partition.

In the North, Orangeism would have been restricted. As for the Irish State, Protestants were a loss, where a sizeable minority in the Dáil would have challenged Catholic Church power accrual.

Protestants also had the urge to practise social control, of course, and did just that in Northern Ireland. But they would have opposed the land and power build-up engaged in by the Catholic hierarchy.

I'm not suggesting no Tuams would have happened - Northern Presbyterians are far from progressive on women's rights - but they would have objected to handing over education and health to Catholicism.

Consider WB Yeats's Seanad speech in 1925 against the Free State's proposed divorce ban - perhaps his most eloquent parliamentary contribution. Church-led proposals to outlaw divorce were "grossly oppressive", according to the poet, arguing on both moral and political grounds. However, he lacked support in a Catholic-heavy jurisdiction.

"If you show that this country, Southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North," he warned. "You will create an impassable barrier between South and North, and you will pass more and more Catholic laws, while the North will, gradually, assimilate its divorce and other laws to those of England. You will put a wedge into the midst of this nation." Yeats also said "men and women who are held together against their will and reason soon cease to recognise any duty to one another".

He also spoke out against strict censorship laws introduced in 1929, driven by ultra-conservative Catholicism averse to "unwholesome" foreign influences and immorality. That damaging legislation could be interpreted as one more example of the harm caused by partition.

It is tempting to criticise a sheep-like population of earlier years for paying insufficient attention to scandals flourishing in their midst. But that ignores the historical context - the poverty, lack of education and the way the Catholic Church's institutional authority was backed up by the State.

Plus, sexuality was tightly controlled. A social revolution has happened since the 1990s. At university in Dublin, I remember being asked to buy condoms for fellow students when I went home to the North for the weekend. It was 1985 before they could be bought without a prescription. That sounds like the Dark Ages to young people today.

Attitudes to contraception have shifted, but abortion remains a thorny and divisive subject. On Wednesday, International Women's Day, thousands of pro-choice supporters marched in Dublin for a referendum to reform Ireland's highly restrictive abortion regime.

We are in our comfort zones complaining about abuses suffered half-a-century ago. But people are reluctant to make the link that civil rights continue to be denied to women today, with autonomy over their bodies withheld from them.

Enda Kenny made a fine speech in 2011 expressing Ireland's horror at institutional abuse, and lambasting the Vatican for attempting to frustrate inquiries into "the rape and torture of children".

He tackled similar ground this week, referencing the "social and cultural sepulchre" uncovered by the Tuam babies' scandal, but this time the Taoiseach said society was also to blame.

Families could have resisted and kept their pregnant daughters, and some did. A sense of shame was instilled by an autocratic Church which dominated every pillar of society, especially the family, but not everyone accepted that.

In the late 1970s, a family at the bottom of my street kept their pregnant schoolgirl daughter, and her baby. None of them was treated as a pariah; on the contrary, the community admired that family's solidarity. So, who is society? It's all of us.

Finally, amid the recrimination, we must remember there were decent and committed members of religious congregations - Father Peter McVerry's work for the homeless is inspirational, for example. And by the way, the Loreto nuns visited that schoolgirl with a gift of baby clothes.

Irish Independent

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