Historic speech in Dail signals break from past
There are thousands of words spoken in the Dail every day and most of them go unnoticed. But it is safe to say that historians of church-State relations will be checking the transcripts of what happened yesterday for years to come.
They will find a brave speech by Taoiseach Enda Kenny – one from a man who is clearly wrestling with the difficulties of trying to bring in the first legislation to regulate abortion here since 1861.
The main target of his intervention was the Catholic bishops, who had accused the Government of misleading the people about the abortion bill and saying that it would permit "the deliberate and intentional killing of an unborn child".
Mr Kenny responded with the memorable phrase that he was a "Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach".
He made it clear that he was going to proceed with the abortion bill for "all our people" regardless of the sector of society that they come from.
That has even more resonance given the fact that the legislation has been propelled forward by the tragic case of the late Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar.
She was told by a well-meaning midwife that she could not get a termination of the 17-week foetus she was miscarrying because "Ireland is a Catholic country".
Mr Kenny's statement is another sign that this is now a secular country. Nobody wants to silence the Catholic Church, which still plays a hugely positive role in communities across the country despite the many scandals that have emerged over the past two decades. And nobody wants to undermine the work of the dwindling number of Catholic priests, who are saying masses in several different parishes every weekend despite being in their 70s and 80s.
But Mr Kenny's intervention is designed to say that while the Catholic bishops have a legitimate right to express their views, they do not have the final say on Government policy.
That was not always the case. More than 60 years ago, Fine Gael Taoiseach John A Costello backed the Catholic Church and the doctors in opposition to the free Mother and Child Scheme being proposed by Noel Browne.
Mr Costello pledged the Government's "complete obedience and allegiance" to the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of people were of the "one faith" and the Catholic Church's special position in the Constitution.
Mr Kenny has given the bishops another reminder – if they needed it – that those days are long gone.
And it is the same among the public at large. Around 84pc of people in the country still define themselves as Catholic – but most are no longer willing to obey the bishops on questions of "faith and morals".
But Mr Kenny was not just talking to the bishops. He also had a message for Fine Gael TDs and senators about sticking together to get the abortion bill into law by the summer.
There are still those who think that Mr Kenny is being dragged along by Labour. The smaller coalition partner has long been in favour of legislating for the 1992 Supreme Court X case, which allowed for abortion in the case of a suicidal teenage rape victim.
Independent TD Mattie McGrath also suggested to Mr Kenny that he was trying to convince himself of the need for the legislation.
But Mr Kenny demonstrated to his own backbenchers and his country that he is personally committed to the bill – and that there will be no free vote, no more compromising and no turning back. His job, he said, was to lead the Government in governing for the people of our country.
Mr Kenny spoke about getting plastic foetuses in the post, along with letters written in blood, and being accused of having the death of 20 million babies on his soul. He added: "And it's not confined to me."
Mr Kenny ended up getting a round of applause from his own backbenchers – a valuable public show of support at a time when the party is under extreme pressure.
And he provided an example of what the public are looking for from our much maligned politicians – leadership.