Friday 23 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'The Catholic Church does not deserve an apology from Leo'

Conservatives have turned into over-sensitive 'snowflakes' when mocked or insulted by critics, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Opposition: The only person who had any right to be offended was Micheal Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Opposition: The only person who had any right to be offended was Micheal Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

The Taoiseach has now apologised for comparing Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin to a sinning priest during a row in the Dail.

Why he said sorry is less clear. Leo Varadkar said it was because comparing his opposite number to a priest "who preaches from the altar, telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself" had "offended a lot of people who I never intended to offend", including members of the clergy. It's certainly true that, tactically speaking, doing so before a meeting with church leaders in Dublin Castle wasn't the wisest move he's ever made.

It was also quite an odd remark. As Micheal Martin pointed out afterwards, the debate in which Varadkar made the controversial statement wasn't particularly bitter or personal, despite the Taoiseach claiming as much. It was just a question about the cost of a particular road project in Co Cork, and the tone of the smirking Taoiseach's remark suggests that, far from being in rancorous mood, he considered his riposte to be rather clever and witty.

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As such, it was quite revealing that this was Varadkar's first port of call as an insult. Having said all that, so what?

It would be astonishing if, after the recent history of the Catholic Church in this country, it was now unacceptable to make disparaging remarks about priests. Is he not supposed to make comments about IRA terrorists any more, in case innocent Irish republicans get a fit of the vapours?

It's too soon for either of these organisations to demand that they be exempt from being reminded about their past transgressions, however many decent priests there are up and down the country, "working hard" and "loved by their parishioners", as the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore told Liveline.

Next, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan will be demanding that Jesus issues an apology for upsetting the Pharisees by comparing them to "whited sepulchres which appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness". Steady on there, Jesus, you might upset some of the many decent, hard-working Pharisees out there.

The bishop's outrage seemed to stem from the fact the Catholic Church was being "singled out", but Ireland is a Catholic country, and the Church is woven deep into the fabric of life. That's what made the Church's crimes so damaging. To suggest Leo should have widened the net to Buddhists or Methodists or Jews as well, to soften the impact of the metaphor, makes no sense whatsoever. As far as anyone's aware, Buddhists did not abuse Irish children on an industrial scale, then engage in a systematic cover-up of this behaviour in order to protect the reputation of the abusers. Until there's evidence to the contrary, manning up and taking the odd slight on the chin would be the best response.

To be fair, politicians have also received their fair share of abuse in recent years. The caricature of the dodgy politician pocketing brown envelopes stuffed with cash has become a staple of satire. Were honest politicians to suddenly demand a collective apology as a result, they would rightly be laughed out of the Oireachtas. Certain cheap shots stick because they contain an uncomfortable grain of truth.

No one needed to ask the Taoiseach what he meant by his remarks. They knew it only too well. That's what should worry the Church, not their own injured feelings.

It was probably unrealistic to expect the Taoiseach to stand firm against this professed wave of outrage over his remarks. He's not a man who appears willing to die in a ditch for a principle. He was always more minded to see it as a PR problem which could be fixed with a hasty apology.

Someone, though, desperately needs to stand up against this contemporary trend of being constantly offended by everything under the sun.

For some time, it has become customary to condemn young people as politically correct, liberal snowflakes who spend their lives in a perpetual state of offence, but the right are far too easily triggered too. That only legitimises the tactic of using phoney outrage as a weapon. Those who give offence must be prepared to take it in return.

That means defending President Michael D Higgins's right to state on his visit to Germany that the Brits are "having a tantrum" over Brexit, but being equally relaxed if they have a go back. Whether something is an acceptable barb cannot be dependent on whether or not one agrees with the sentiment expressed.

Right now, it seems to be impossible to get through the day without another of these absurd rows erupting. It's exhausting. If this is the world in which people wish to live then they're welcome to it, but it will be a far duller one, in which fearful politicians never say anything remotely controversial. One reason people voted for Peter Casey in such huge numbers in the presidential election was because he said what he was thinking, and that alone is enough these days to make a candidate look different.

The Taoiseach now says he will "correct the record" in the Dail when it sits this Tuesday, but whether the Fianna Fail leader will receive a personal apology, who knows? The real irony here is that the only person who had any right to be offended by the remark last week was Micheal Martin, who was compared to priests who had behaved as reprehensibly as any human being could ever behave, just for asking a simple question.

Instead the only people to so far get an apology from Leo have been, in the words of Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, "priests, those who are in religious orders, and those who worship and pray in our churches", the first two groups of which should have endured it with due humility rather than playing the victim, and the third of which weren't even implicated in the original insult. The world really has gone stark, staring mad.

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