State should not be placing non-believers in a position whether they either feel excluded from the presidency or forced into moral gymnastics to reconcile themselves with it
Will the church service in Armagh celebrate partition, or merely commemorate it? That may be a moot point; but there is one thing the service will unambiguously celebrate: Jesus Christ.
The event will be a “service of Christian worship”, according to the invite to President Michael D Higgins; it is being run by the leaders of the four main Christian churches on the island; the other dignitary invited, Queen Elizabeth, is also head of a church. The language used to describe the politics of the event may be carefully hedged (though not carefully enough, clearly), but there is no such reserve about the religious aspect: “worship” implies an uncritical celebration of Christianity.
President Higgins has long been circumspect about his faith. He has previously described himself simply as “spiritual”. Countering some perceptions of him, he told the Irish News earlier this year he had never described himself as an atheist. “I am not saying what I am,” he said, “but I have never done that.”
Other than what he wishes to put on the record, President Higgins’s faith is none of my business. But I find it interesting that, as a society, we take it for granted that attending a service of Christian worship — when politics doesn’t intrude, that is — might be simply part of the business of the presidency.
Partly, that’s cultural. And partly, it’s the law. In Bunreacht na hÉireann, the President is clearly envisaged as a Christian. Under Article 12, the President must take an oath of office — described as a “declaration” — “in the presence of Almighty God”. That oath commits the President to maintain a Constitution enacted (according to the Preamble) “in the Name of the Most Holy Trinity” and which acknowledges “all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ”.
This wasn’t necessary when Éamon de Valera wrote it in 1937; as an invocation of faith, it went further than any of the preceding foundational documents of the Irish State. In recent decades, it has grown increasingly anomalous. Today, it is a glaring anachronism.
Since the 1990s, a series of expert bodies (the Constitution Review Group; Oireachtas committees; the Constitutional Convention; the United Nations Human Rights Committee) has recommended that the oath either be removed or that the option of a secular affirmation be provided. Interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster in May, President Higgins said he thought the religious oath should be replaced with an affirmation.
Not merely have successive governments ignored this but, in a case currently before the European Court of Human Rights, the Government is forcefully defending the oath.
An ad-hoc grouping comprising Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall, Sinn Féin TD John Brady, Senator David Norris, former Labour adviser Fergus Finlay and Trinity emeritus professor David McConnell has argued before the Strasbourg court that, as they would be unable to take the oath in good conscience, it has the effect of excluding them from running for the presidency and from appointment to the Council of State (which also requires an oath).
The Government has argued that these declarations “are not, in substance or form, religious”: the oaths are framed in religious language but the duties imposed are those of upholding the Constitution rather than any one religion.
A further argument is somewhat counter-intuitive. As religious diversity is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, and as there are diverse forms of religious expression in national constitutions in Europe, and as religious references in the Irish Constitution reflect “the political and cultural heritage and traditions of the State”, those references should be allowed to stand as authentic expressions of cultural diversity.
What the Government’s argument appears to boil down to is this: the religious framing of the oath and of the Constitution itself is devoid of substance; it should be seen, not as an imposition on those who don’t subscribe to that faith, but as an authentic and unobjectionable expression of Irish cultural heritage.
This argument has uncanny parallels with the arguments that would convulse this country a century ago, in the wake of the Treaty.
During the Treaty negotiations in London, Arthur Griffith and, in particular, Michael Collins, fought to finesse the proposed British oath in order to make it less unpalatable to republicans. An oath of allegiance to the king became an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the Free State and (merely) of faithfulness to the king. The objective was to make it an oath that was devoid of substance; a reflection merely of the political and cultural heritage and traditions of Britain.
Their success was considerable. The resulting oath was unprecedented in British jurisprudence, and paved the way for the Imperial Conference of 1926, which made the Dominions no longer subordinate to Britain. But, in Ireland, it remained unpalatable to too many.
Though the Treaty split suggests a binary division on the oath, opinion in fact ranged along a spectrum, as each TD wrestled with their individual conscience.
Arthur Griffith agreed with his opponents that there was room for honest criticism of the oath, but ultimately believed it was “an oath that any Irishman could take with honour”. Eoin MacNeill believed it was more important to be “true to Ireland” than “true to his oath”; he was happy to take the oath, confident that it could be set aside if his “truth to Ireland” required it.
Éamon de Valera vacillated between statements of moderation and republican purism; ultimately, in 1927, he would lead Fianna Fáil into the Dáil, declaring the oath “merely an empty political formula”.
When he signed it, he hid the words of the oath with a sheet of paper, and told the Clerk of the Dáil he was not taking an oath, but was merely signing his name in a book in order to gain entrance to the Dáil. An article in an influential American Catholic journal approved of these circumlocutions and concluded that de Valera was absolved “from all charge of perjury or any irreverence or impiety”. (The journal was a Jesuit one.)
A shrinking cohort of doctrinaire republicans continued to believe their oath to the Republic made any other oath, or even any co-operation with the Free State government, unconscionable.
Ultimately, they would take their fealty to the second Dáil to ridiculous extreme, treating a democratic mandate as something that could be passed on in apostolic succession, despite repeated democratic rejection.
A decision in the presidential oath case is due in the coming months, as we mark the centenary of a tragic rift that started over an oath. It should perhaps not be surprising that a government led by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would argue that an oath is merely a cultural expression and doesn’t mean very much anyway.
That argument had merit when the alternative to taking an oath to the British Crown was war: it is a curious kind of morality that places the value of a formula of words over that of human life.
But there will always be those who will treat such formulae more literally and more strictly, and that impulse is an honourable one.
The State should not be placing non-believers in a position whether they either feel excluded from the presidency or forced into de Valera-like moral gymnastics to reconcile themselves with it.
No matter which way the Strasbourg court rules, it is long past time to provide a secular alternative.