Monday 14 October 2019

Kenny was no reformer, but he did bring about social change

Enda and Fionnuala Kenny meet Pope Francis during a private audience in the Vatican last November. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/Reuters
Enda and Fionnuala Kenny meet Pope Francis during a private audience in the Vatican last November. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/Reuters
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

A tidal wave of dismay and anger about the economic collapse swept Enda Kenny into office. No surprise there. But what proved unexpected during his tenure were his dealings with the Catholic hierarchy.

Far from behaving like an old school Catholic premier - allowing Church leaders to influence policymakers - he drew a line in the sand. Perhaps he gulped as he did so, but his religious upbringing, west of Ireland constituency and innate caution didn't deter him from consulting his conscience as opposed to the bishops.

When he told the Dáil he was "a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach" he sent a signal that religion would not be allowed to sway his decisions - making a conscious effort to establish distance between Church and State. It caused reverberations in a State where the Catholic hierarchy had been accustomed to issuing instructions to lawmakers.

It would be wrong to presume he had no difficulties, internal or external, in adopting such a position. While he started out as a traditionalist, the evolution of his views required a step-change, narrowing the gap between Kenny and progressives in favour of a pluralist society. He is not a reformer at heart, yet he managed social change - and in the process, was stung by criticism from those opposed to it.

In 2013, he was branded a "murderer" and warned he'd have the deaths of babies on his conscience after introducing a modest amendment to Ireland's highly restrictive abortion legislation. His readiness to accept a woman's right to a termination in specific circumstances, where the mother's life is under threat, was a timid concession in the eyes of campaigners against the controversial Eighth Amendment in the Constitution - but a step too far for pro-lifers. In the Dáil, he spoke of plastic foetuses, scapulars and holy medals being sent to him.

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It cannot have been an easy path for a man of his background to tread but he stood his ground, insisting it was the right thing to do. He has said his faith is undamaged by introducing abortion legislation and he remains a regular massgoer.

However, it was a case of so far and no further, with the question of revisiting Ireland's abortion laws ring-fenced inside the Citizens' Assembly. This ploy bought time for his government - but it will be a bone of contention for his successor to deal with.

After assuming office, Kenny showed an understanding that Ireland had experienced seismic social change. Clerical diktats would no longer be received in obedience by the population, who insisted on their right to freedom of conscience. At times, he must surely have struggled with the habit of deference to the clerical collar. Yet he rose to the challenge, introducing some limited abortion legislation, lending his support to the same-sex marriage referendum, and articulating citizens' sense of betrayal at the Vatican for prioritising its reputation above the safety of children.  

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When Kenny struck the right note, he really earned his keep as Taoiseach. Two stand-out examples occurred at the start and end of his tenure, when he demonstrated backbone. The first was in the Dáil in 2011, following the Cloyne Report which exposed a cover-up in reporting child sex abuse complaints to the gardaí. The second was his Washington speech on behalf of undocumented immigrants in March, which generated international attention - no other leader had spoken as he did to President Trump's face.

The Cloyne Report criticised then Bishop John Magee of Cloyne for falsely claiming that all complaints of child sex abuse were reported to the civil authorities. In fact, just one-third were passed on between 1996 and 2008. It found the bishop misled another inquiry and his advisers by creating two sets of accounts of a meeting with a priest suspected of abusing a child: one for Rome and the other for diocesan files.

In an unparalleled attack by a Taoiseach on the Vatican, Kenny said Irish people were beyond being shocked after the Ryan and the Murphy reports into child sex abuse, but the Cloyne Report broke new ground. "For the first time in this country, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic," he said, adding that it "excavates the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican today. The rape and the torture of children were downplayed or managed to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, its standing and its reputation."

Some believe it was his finest hour. Even so, Kenny's instinct is to build bridges rather than destroy links, and last year he had a one-on-one meeting with the Pope in Rome, expressing the Government's full support for a visit by Francis to Ireland in August 2018 - the invitation was extended by the Conference of Irish Bishops. 

Read more: Enda: the unlikely Taoiseach who rose without a trace

No doubt he had to face down pressure from those bishops at various junctures during his six years in office. Pressure can work both ways, however. In Philadephia recently, he called on the Catholic Church and its congregations to "measure up" in relation to the compensation they owe to abuse survivors and "get on with it". This followed a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General that 18 religious orders had paid just 13pc of the €1.5bn fund for victims of institutional abuse.

In common with many Irish people, the Taoiseach considers himself a practising Catholic, yet reserves the right to ignore Church teaching. In 2015, he filmed a television appeal urging a yes vote in the same sex marriage referendum: "There is nothing to fear," he said, referring to it as "voting for love and equality." Catholic leaders, by comparison, advocated the opposite and were ignored by the faithful.

Later, when Leo Varadkar told Kenny he was gay in advance of a radio interview, the Taoiseach said it was his own business. As it is. However, Kenny couldn't resist teasing his Cabinet colleague that he'd visited the gay venue Pantibar before him - scoring one up on the minister who hopes to be his replacement.

Whoever is chosen as the next Taoiseach - and his term may prove brief in view of the Government's instability - the cord stretching between the bishops' palaces and Leinster House is looser today than it ever was.

Irish Independent

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