Kenny’s stance on Bill brings closer the realisation of O’Connell’s aspirations

Hierarchy’s strong position is provoking hostility rather than agreement

Daniel O’Connell by Sir David Wilkie:  favoured the separation of church and state

Daniel O’Connell by Sir David Wilkie: favoured the separation of church and state


Last Monday Enda Kenny visited Bobbio in northern Italy to see one of the great shrines of Irish Christianity, the tomb of St Columbanus, who brought the message of the Gospel back to continental Europe during the Dark Ages, 1,400 years ago.

Kenny was in Italy to meet the country’s prime minister, Enrico Letta, as part of his duties during the Irish EU presidency , but he went out of his way to visit Bobbio with an old school friend, Fr Tommy Murphy, a Columban missionary who was head of the order for the past five years.

Just two days later Kenny spoke passionately in the Dáil about how he reconciled his duties as a political leader with his religious beliefs. “I am proud to stand here as a public representative. As a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach.”

Kenny was speaking in the context of the fierce criticism being levelled against him and his Government by leading members of the Catholic hierarchy over the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which provides for abortion in cases where a woman’s life is in danger.

The fact that he is a practising Catholic in an increasingly secular society is what gave Kenny’s statement such force. It stood out in stark contrast to the speech to the Dáil on April 12th, 1951, of his Fine Gael predecessor as taoiseach John A Costello, who famously said: “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong.”

Ireland was a very different country when Costello made his response to the hierarchy’s objections to the mother and child scheme of Noel Browne, which was abandoned by the government.

Ire of the hierarchy
Costello’s was the most open political capitulation to the hierarchy but it was by no means the only one. Successive governments were terrified of provoking the ire of the hierarchy.

Eamon de Valera’s Constitution of 1937 was drawn up in consultation with senior Catholic Church figures. That was reflected not only in the article conferring a special position on the church but also in a range of other provisions.

Things are very different now, and the political clout of the hierarchy has been in decline for decades. Still, during the 1980s it threw its weight into the scales against Garret FitzGerald’s liberal crusade and helped to ensure that the pro-life amendment was incorporated into the Constitution in 1983 and divorce rejected in 1986.

In 1992 the hierarchy helped to scupper Albert Reynolds’s attempt to remove the suicide issue from the abortion debate by encouraging people to vote No to a constitutional amendment of the Pro-Life clause. While it took a different view in 2001 when Bertie Ahern’s government made a second attempt at it, a number of conservative Catholic groups helped in the campaign to defeat the measure.

The irony is that had either of those two referendums been passed the question of a threat of suicide as a ground for abortion would not have arisen. However, the decision of the people not to remove it left successive governments with the quandary of finding a way to deal with the 1992 Supreme Court decision in the X case.

The vehemence of the reaction to the Coalition’s solution from certain members of the hierarchy has come as a surprise to the political world. The Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh and the next Catholic Primate, Eamon Martin, delivered an uncompromising message to politicians during the week, asking them how they could “legislate for something which will interfere with the inviolable right to life of every human person”.

The decision of the hierarchy to depict the legislation as akin to abortion on demand, rather than the highly restrictive piece of legislation it actually is, has not had the desired effect. Far from intimidating TDs it is actually provoking the opposite reaction from many of those who consider themselves good Catholics.

The bishops have also completely misread Kenny’s character if they believe they can pressurise him on the issue.

One of Kenny’s outstanding characteristics is stubbornness; that is why he is in the Taoiseach’s office today after enduring years of being belittled by political opponents and the media.

In any case it is not as if there is public pressure on him to change his mind on abortion. The Irish Times poll during the week confirmed that there is overwhelming public support for the legislation to allow abortion where a mother’s life is in danger. The poll did disclose a degree of uneasiness about the suicide issue but it also showed there would be support for far more liberal legislation than that outlined in the Government’s legislation.

One way or another, the Bill will be passed by a massive majority even if the Government loses some backbenchers along the way. Kenny will have the distinction of having openly faced down the Catholic bishops on a major issue of controversy, something none of his predecessors managed to achieve.

Humiliating the church
The irony is that Kenny, as his visit to Bobbio showed, is no ultra-liberal with an agenda aimed at humiliating the church. He comes from the Catholic heartland of Fine Gael and has been pushed by circumstances into taking his stand on the abortion legislation. Crucially though, his long political experience has taught him to differentiate between his political responsibilities and the injunctions of the Catholic hierarchy.

Kenny is in good company. Back in 1837 Daniel O’Connell, the pioneer of Irish democracy, told the Commons that the time was coming when “the unholy union of church and state will be permanently severed in all countries professing the Catholic religion – to the securing I am confident, of the purity of the one and the consolidating safety of the other”.

It seems O’Connell’s aspirations have finally been achieved in his own country.

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