Church fatally overplayed hand in 1983 abortion poll
OPINION:What is the politest way to address a Catholic bishop? This was one of the questions taoiseach Charles Haughey and senior civil servants were grappling with in 1982, as shown by State papers released this week.
The file on their deliberations provides a window onto Ireland 30 years ago, with one senior official recommending “My dear Lord Bishop” rather than plain old “Dear Bishop”. Another official felt this “formal approach . . . has been overtaken by more informal usage”.
Haughey himself was undecided on this point but a memo notes that he “agreed generally with the more intimate form of signing his name on a letter to a member of the hierarchy without the word “Taoiseach” typed under it.
It’s a long way from the Pat Rabbitte school of communications.
Today, politicians question whether churchmen have a right to stick their nose into State affairs. This would have been incomprehensible, or simply impractical, 30 years ago, given the sheer breadth of the Catholic Church’s involvement in Irish society.
From today’s vantage point such “interference” is generally perceived as a negative, but the positives are highlighted too in the documents. In a dark period for the North, Catholic priests working in nationalist, no-go areas were key intermediaries, trying to negotiate their constituency away from extreme positions. Even Margaret Thatcher gave them credit. When Rev Ian Paisley started badmouthing the Catholic Church at a meeting in June 1981, in the midst of the hunger strikes, the British prime minister commended the bishops for their bravery.
The church’s multifaceted role in education, community activism and social affairs was already well documented, but what shines through the files is the level of respect the church then received at official level and in the community at large. The department of foreign affairs dossier on the developing world, for example, consisted almost entirely of reports from priests and nuns in the missions.
A file on women’s equality saw feminists mobilised over the dropping of Sr Stanislaus Kennedy from a health board in July 1982. When the same activists proposed a “national women’s talent bank”, one of the first names put forward was a nun from Co Clare.
But the State papers also shine a light on abuses of power – small but insidious ones. Like when archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan used an Easter meeting with Haughey to request (successfully, as it turned out) that a number of bills owing to government departments – including Posts and Telegraphs – be cancelled, and that pressure be put on a couple of State agencies to “reduce their accounts”. (You’d like to see Diarmuid Martin try that one with the Minister for Communications.)
Or when a Catholic-run school in Co Mayo bombarded its local TD Enda Kenny with letters from pupils demanding a “pro-life” referendum – even though the students were too young to vote themselves. The wording on each letter was so similar it had all the hallmarks of a homework exercise.
This was, of course, part of a bigger show of strength by the Irish church. The “pro-life” amendment campaign was largely driven by lay Catholics, but would not have got off the ground without the hierarchy’s approval.