FitzGerald's strained relationship with church recalled


THE MOST unsatisfactory relationship former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had “in all his time in office was that involving the Catholic Church”, former secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs Seán Donlon has said.

Mr Donlon recalled how at a meeting with Dr FitzGerald in May 1985 then cardinal archbishop of New York John O’Connor “suggested that a good Catholic could see that the Provisional IRA campaign could well be said to constitute a just war”.

Mr Donlon was speaking in the Dr Garret FitzGerald Memorial Lecture at UCC. He recalled how as minister for foreign affairs in the 1970s Dr FitzGerald “raised issues such as the legal ban on contraception and the constitutional ban on divorce in this jurisdiction”, with the Vatican.

He also raised integrated education and the application of the Ne Temere mixed marriages decree which obliged non-Catholic spouses to raise all the children as Catholics. Germany was exempt from the decree and “seemed a relevant precedent”, Mr Donlon said.

On March 26th, 1977, “Garret was received in a formal audience by the pope [Paul VI] who, reading from a script, told him that Ireland was a Catholic country, perhaps the only one left and that it should stay that way. Laws should not be changed in a way that would make it less Catholic. There was little opportunity for discussion. . .”.

Mr Donlon said “part of the difficult background of dealing with the Holy See was the personality and outlook of the papal nuncio in Ireland, archbishop Alibrandi . . . He appears to have been close to Pope Paul VI”.

Through the 70s and 80s the nuncio “maintained contact with senior Provisional IRA figures and lobbied on their behalf for better prison conditions, something which, to put it mildly, did not endear him to successive governments at a time when the institutions of the State were threatened”.

Mr Donlon said “no doubt prompted by Alibrandi, the Vatican got involved and cardinal Benelli summoned the then Irish ambassador in April 1977 and handed him a formal note criticising the government’s handling of recent Provisional IRA hunger strikes”. Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave personally dictated “a tough and uncompromising” reply.