Father fairness


IT is not that long ago since a government fell over John Bruton's misguided tax on children's shoes. The current "culture of contentment" certainly has its sinister side. And it does not require any level of mathematical genius to grasp that the Budget, at least in its first, pre-U-turn manifestation, was geared towards the middle classes and the financially better off.

Father Sean Healy, SMA, Society of African Missionaries, joint director of the Justice Commission of the Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI), goes further. "Underpinning the Budget is a vision that uses public policy as a tool to radically increase the disparities between rich and poor and increases rather than reduces divisions in society." Healy is not particularly emotive; his approach is more akin to Gradgrind's famous gospel of fact, fact, fact.

Arriving for the interview armed with two documents and a hefty economics textbook co-authored by CORI colleague Sister Brigid Reynolds and himself, he reiterates his initial reaction: "This budget was anti-poor", and says: "Government was faced with a wide range of choices and it chose the rich. Benefits were skewed towards the better off giving them substantial gains, and against the poor who were left, once again, collecting crumbs from the Celtic Tiger. The Budget was anti-woman because it discriminated against women who wish to stay at home. It was anti-family because it favoured single people and gave very little benefit to children and to families who decide to have one parent stay with their children in the home rather than take up employment. This was a deeply divisive Budget."

Despite the factual strength of his comments, he seems quite impassive. But Healy makes no secret of his belief that the entire "gimme, gimme" ethos of the so-called Celtic Tiger economy is unethical, never mind un-Christian.

A small stocky man in a suit, he has an unmistakably Irish face and looks more like a politician or businessman than a cleric. Why is he not wearing his Roman collar? It turns out he has long since stopped wearing it. "You're not watching your television," he chides. When I tell him I don't have one, he relaxes the tempo somewhat. Newly aware that I therefore must have missed out on most of his TV career to date, Healy says: "I saw my collar as more of a barrier than a badge." But, "of course I say Mass. Every day for the small community I live with." His economic delivery of answers tends to read more tersely on the page than when spoken.

His personal philosophy is simple. "I believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ and I want to see the reign of the kingdom of God." He also adheres to one of fair play for all: "I want the introduction of complete social, economic and cultural rights for all." How does this ongoing blather about Celtic Tigers equate with the number of poor, not all of whom are foreigners, begging in the streets? He grimaces in agreement. "Did you know," he asks, "that 1.3 billion of the world's population live, exist, on less than a dollar a day?"

There is nothing about social injustice that Healy has not already logged. Issues such as child care, social welfare, social inclusion, early school leavers, adult literacy as well as taxation, and one which the Irish public are most reluctant to accept - racism - have all been raised by CORI during the past year. Gone is prayer, it seems, as a way of helping one to face crippling hardship. Healy is taking a practical if Christian attitude, and the key to his approach must be those years spent as a missionary in Africa. If anything can be done to redress people's lack of confidence in the Catholic Church, it must be the practical work of CORI.

Asked about the scandals, Healy replies almost neutrally, admitting to being shocked and disappointed, but adding without a trace of defensiveness: "A touch of humility never hurt anyone. It will be all the better for the church to have to be more humble." Asked about the rich holdings of land previously enjoyed by the Catholic Church and now sold off, he says: "Exactly. That's the way it used to be."

Previously subjected to attacks in this paper in which he was personally accused of not paying tax, it seems correct to inquire, does he? Healy's reply is direct. "I do. Of course I pay tax. Why wouldn't I? Most workers pay tax." He is also candid about his salary which is just under that of an average industrial worker.

"In a recent Irish Times/MRBI poll, it was quite clear that the people want a more egalitarian society. The poll showed that far more people favour social spending over the reduction of tax rates. It was obvious from this poll that here was a clear mandate for budgetary resources to be more fairly distributed and for a balance to be maintained between equity and productivity. But the Minister for Finance ignored all of this."

He refers to his recent appearance on RTE's Questions & Answers and mentions that John Bowman "had to literally protect Mary Harney from the audience". He ponders the memory and then returns to the present: "Ah but you don't have a television; you wouldn't have seen it."

By nature a fast talker, as he says himself: "I've always spoken too fast, too much; the story of my life." In the past as a media performer, he may have been too impulsive, too forceful, but the Healy of today, with his aura of controlled bluster, is far more disciplined and he has learnt from close on 20 years experience with CORI, as well as from an earlier career in Africa working for the Bishop's Conference.

CORI's Justice Commission was established 18 years ago, while Healy and Sister Reynolds, both former missionaries, have been producing their detailed, overnight Budget analyses for the past seven years. Long after newspapers had filed initial Budget reaction stories, the CORI pair continued studying the document. Their Budget Response 2000, a detailed report, described by its authors as "a critique and analysis", was completed shortly after 5.30 a.m. the next day and then driven, by its authors, to a printer. By lunchtime many Budget pundits were reconsidering their judgments.

Practical Christianity seems likely to win a wider audience than generations of sermons about sin and retribution. There is less rhetoric than might be expected. Healy is not trying to win converts; he wants to improve lives, he offers no platitudes and is logic personified. He makes his points, all valid, well-argued and backed by fact. There are no easy sideswipes at the Government. When asked to assess the Government's performance to date, he says: "I'm making no judgments, I'm concerned with the Budget."

He is so obviously a Cork man it seems a redundancy to even print it, although he does favour the occasional twist of US slang. The eldest of eight, he was born in 1946 and grew up in Blackrock, a suburb of Cork city. Rooted firmly in the present, he is not a person given to fond strolls down memory lane, and is at present coming to terms with his father's death. "He will be dead a month on Sunday. He was 91."

Healy's mother, a Clare woman, still lives in Cork. As for the background to his vocation, he says he was attracted to the missionary life, entering it at 17. His schooldays with the Christian Brothers had left him, thanks to two inspirational teachers, with "an abiding love of mathematics". He trained at Dromantine in Co Armagh.

"It's gone now, our seminary is at Maynooth." On being ordained in late 1969, he set off the following year for Africa. By training he is a sociologist "with a strong economics base". In 1976 he completed a masters degree in Fordham, New York and eight years later returned and completed a doctorate. Both of these post-graduate qualifications were achieved without ever having been an undergraduate. Healy smiles and points out that the six years in the seminary counted; as well as that he had to undergo aptitude tests to confirm his academic ability.

"There's something you should know about me," he announces and before the slight sense of shock has time to dissipate, he adds: "I run marathons." Healy does not bear the ravaged features of the typical marathon runner. What sort of time? Instead of the expected four-and-a-half-hour jaunt, the reply is a disconcerting "2.15". I thought I had misheard, 2.50? Sub three hours, still not bad at all.

"No, 2.15," he says spelling out, two, one, five slowly. Which averages as just over five-minute miling pace. Or, as he says himself, "5.10" When? "In 1970, but I've run a marathon a year since then. I'm going to run in London in April."

What weight is he? He smiles sagely. What weight was he when he ran that 2.15? "Oh 11 stone." What weight is he now? "More than 11 stone." He knows he had better get into training. Race preparations have been delayed partly by his father's death.

Healy wants to return to the subject of the Budget but never having met such an unlikely marathoner, and having already asked him his weight, why not compound the discourtesy, what height is he? "Five foot nine" - he looks smaller - "that's what it says on my passport." He may be businesslike but he is also good-natured and recalls a marathon he won in New York.

"It was the Earth Day one in 1975, on March 16th, and the next day the New York paper reported it with the headline, `Irishman wins his own parade'." Was it a good race. "No, it was only 2.27."

Getting back to that 2.15, where did he run it? "In Africa." What were the conditions like? "Perfect. Absolutely perfect for marathon running. Very low humidity. It was an African All Comers' record; Africans had run faster, but elsewhere." Which is his favourite course? "London. It's very sociable. The people really get out and support the runners. There's all kinds of street parties. It has great atmosphere. The best."

As a Cork man he also loves hurling, but as a spectator. His favourite Irish sports-person is Catherina McKiernan. "I think she's the real thing. She just goes out and does it, there's no hype, no endless discussing herself or her training. I have huge regard for her." As for his own chances in London, his aims are modest." His current weight could be a problem but Healy is resourceful; if any overweight 53-year-old is capable of getting himself into shape in just over four months, he is probably the man.

Considering the seriousness of his social agenda, it seems a bit trite to be asking him what he thinks about Christmas. Healy is far more aware than most that while crazed shoppers throng shopping malls, invisible members of society, the homeless, will be waiting for those stores to close, in order to secure a doorway to sleep in. Did Christmas ever mean much to him?

"No. I come from a big family; I have four brothers and three sisters. No, sorry, Christmas was never anything special." He will be spending the holiday back home in Cork. There will be a few more U-turns yet for this Budget, he believes, but Healy, for all his directness, is not self-righteous.

Does he enjoy his work as a media performer? "I don't like all that media stuff." It's a blunt answer but possibly he enjoys it more than he admits.

He has a vision which is idealistic but totally based in practicality. "It can be done, just look at what we have written here," he says, pointing to Budget Response 2000. "It's all here and it makes good sense."

He would be a lot happier if society were more fair. But the only hint of seasonal nostalgia comes when he adds by way of a casual remark: "The 30th anniversary of my ordination is on Friday, the day after this thing comes out."