A struggle between Church and State


Politics is a tough business. Tooth-and-claw competition decides who emerges as a candidate at local level. After that, it gets harder. Constituency selection conventions have to be surmounted and finally, a sufficiently large section of the electorate has to decide that a candidate should represent their views in Dáil Éireann. Few, if any, wilting flowers make it through that process.

Discipline and compromise are at the heart of party politics and a functioning democracy. Without discipline, parties and coalition arrangements cannot operate effectively. But decisions are normally moderated to secure the broadest possible consensus. That is where compromise comes in. For politicians – and for the leaders of most representative organisations – compromise is an ever-present fact of life. Without it, national agreements would be impossible and necessary economic and social decisions would not be taken. So, why has such a fuss been made about the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill? The short answer is: a campaign organised by the Catholic hierarchy.

In many respects, this episode has represented a struggle between the State and a previously dominant Church. Even before an expert committee reported to the Government on its responsibilities in relation to the “X” case and other European Court of Justice decisions, Cardinal Seán Brady launched a public lobbying campaign designed to stop any legislation in its tracks. Ministers and Fine Gael TDs were specifically targeted in their constituency offices and in churches, to the extent of threatened excommunication in many instances. On the other side of the coin, Fine Gael TDs who failed to support the Bill were threatened with automatic loss of parliamentary party membership and a nomination for the next general election. One of the party’s brightest stars and most adroit media performers, Lucinda Creighton, has lost her job as European Affairs Minister and faces an uncertain political future.

This extended controversy, deliberately staged to maximise personal publicity for the dissidents, maintain pressure on the Government and produce a tightly-knit band of disaffected legislators, may represent part one of an extended strategy. When Cardinal Brady launched his lobbying campaign last summer, the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin also announced the Catholic Church would oppose the introduction of same-sex marriage, regardless of the progress of legislation on the issue. The Constitutional Convention was requested to advise on same-sex marriage and it favours such a development. A referendum may be held next year. Because of the need for legislation to clarify the various referendum issues, an all-party committee should be asked to explore these matters in detail. Such a process would not only provide valuable insights for legislators but for the general public.