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Catholics will be suspicious over timing of Accord decision

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Bishop Kevin Doran said it “remains to be seen whether this is part of a wider policy of the Government”

Bishop Kevin Doran said it “remains to be seen whether this is part of a wider policy of the Government”

Bishop Kevin Doran said it “remains to be seen whether this is part of a wider policy of the Government”

The timing could hardly have been shoddier for the Government: a revelation that the Catholic agency Accord has had all funding for pre-marriage courses axed.

Bizarrely, the grant withdrawal is back-dated to January. This means the organisation has already spent a considerable amount of money based on the assumption of State funding it has received for the past 20 years - even during the worst of the economic crisis.

Days earlier, Fianna Fáil TD Colm Keaveney had tweeted that the issue of Catholic agencies being starved of funding if they don't support same-sex marriage "has become prominent on the door" during his canvass for a 'Yes' vote.

Tusla - the child and family agency - insist the decision is in no way linked to the referendum. But in politics, as in life, perception is everything. Church leaders had already raised concerns about how a Government push to redefine marriage would affect faith-based organisations. When they pointed to Britain, where Catholic organisations have been forced to close after funding was withdrawn in the wake of same-sex marriage there, it was clear the issue was more than a red herring. Tusla's decision will add further weight to such concerns here.

People might not be convinced by Tusla chief Gordon Jeyes's contention that "we are looking at having to reduce services to stay within budget", given that the agency's funding was increased by €26m in the last budget.

It's also curious the State could afford the pre-marriage funding - €378,000 in all - when public finances were on the brink of collapse but, suddenly, in the midst of impressive economic growth, the money is no longer there.

When Accord's president Bishop Denis Nulty was asked on RTÉ Radio whether or not he thought the agency was being targeted ahead of the referendum, he pointedly said "that is a question for the Government to answer".

The funding dates from the time of the divorce referendum in the mid-1990s. Then the government of the day sought to reassure people that it was serious about the constitutional obligation to "guard with special care the institution of marriage". Ironically, as news of the funding withdrawal was emerging, Tánaiste Joan Burton was addressing a meeting in Dublin where she said that the Government supported a 'Yes' in the referendum as part of an overall commitment to strengthen marriage. It's hard to see how a pledge to cherish marriage can sit alongside the withdrawal of funding for a programme that aims to help couples build the relationship skills that will lead to happy and fulfilling marriages.

In his response to the Accord decision, Bishop Kevin Doran was circumspect. "It remains to be seen whether this is part of a wider policy of the Government," he said. However, he added: "I also think back to two years ago when the then Minister for Health [James Reilly] threatened to remove funding from Catholic hospitals if they didn't conform to the law on abortion. It is now the same minister who is now responsible for Tusla."

Many Catholics will be suspicious - and 'Yes' campaigners are sure to be furious about the timing.

Michael Kelly is editor of the 'Irish Catholic' newspaper

Irish Independent