Mary McAleese: Brexit has produced an ‘enraged, not engaged society’

Former president says any border poll would require less emotional, more cerebral debate

Before any future border poll takes place in Ireland "we need to do what Brexit has abjectly failed to do and that is to delve deeply, objectively and in a considered way into the complex of issues it raises," former president Professor Mary McAleese has said.

“The goal has to be to construct a new political configuration capable of comfortably accommodating all identities including those historically uncomfortable with one another,” she said.

Brexit was “an object lesson in how not to go about radical constitutional change,” she said. In the UK it had produced “an enraged, rather than an engaged, civic society”, she said.

She was speaking at an event at Trinity College, Dublin at which she also claimed that canon law implications of infant baptism in the Catholic Church were in breach of the rights of the child, as outlined in the Irish Constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Prof McAleese was delivering the Edmund Burke Lecture 2019 on ‘”The future of Ireland. Human rights and children’s rights” on Tuesday evening.

Addressing the political question that has convulsed Anglo-Irish relations, she said: “We need to insist that, post-Brexit, the possibility of a future border poll must lead to a much more cerebral and less emotional debate about the future relationship between both parts of this island.”

An issue which had important implications for Ireland’s future concerned how children’s human rights were experienced in Ireland.

This had implications for the Catholic Church in Ireland, as the “major service provider of education services to children” but also “for other denominations, faith systems and services providers generally in our educational systems”.

The 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was “the most ratified treaty in the history of the United Nations” with the Holy See (Vatican) “one of the very first State Parties to sign up.”

Rights of the Child

However, in 2014 the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors implementation of that 1989 Convention, asked the Holy See to review its canon law provisions to ensure they complied with the Convention.

The Holy See refused, arguing that canon law was outside the Committee’s remit. The Committee disagreed and there is currently a stand-off between the two.

Under canon law “Catholic parents are obliged to baptise their children as soon as possible after birth, consequently the vast majority of children are baptised as infants,” she said. Promises were made by adults on the child’s behalf “and in circumstances where the child could not have been aware of the promises or their import”.

Canon Law insisted that “that the child by Baptism has embraced the Catholic faith” and is “obliged to profess it by honouring the promises it made to do so. “ It tells the child what to “accept and believe and practice.”

The Holy See, she said, “has never considered the ethical, legal and moral implications of imposing lifelong membership of the Church and a body of obligations on a baby who is not in a position to weigh the implications.”

Rights “acknowledged in the secular world to freedom of religion, conscience and thought, as well as freedom to change religion or give it up entirely, are not recognised in canon law. All such freedoms are subordinated to the demands of compulsory obedience to the Church’s teaching (magisterium), the obligation to maintain communion with the Church and the Church’s insistence that – once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” she said.

What was needed was “a clear acknowledgment from the Catholic Church that the canon laws which constrict children’s rights have now been overtaken by the (UN) Convention and our Constitution,” she said.

In Ireland, “any covenant between Church and State must be about the future of children.”

Any covenant “between Church and State should start with children’s rights. So should any talk of Ireland’s future,” she concluded.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times