Dáil split on prayer proposal to add 30 seconds of reflection

Ireland and UK only European parliaments to start business with prayer - Joan Collins

TD and ministers pray in the Dáil chamber.  File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

TD and ministers pray in the Dáil chamber. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times


During a Dáil debate on new arrangements for the Dáil prayer tonight, Minister of State Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy said people’s religious beliefs had become more diverse and there had been a rapid growth in the number of people who did not hold any religious belief.

She told the Dáil the Committee on Procedure, reflective of the membership of the House, had discussed the matter and recommended amending Standing Order 27 to provide for a prayer and a 30-second period of silent reflection at the start of business each day.

Different perspectives

“I appreciate members across the House have different perspectives on this matter,’’ she added, during debate on the proposal to add the silent reflection.

Fianna Fáil TD Mary Butler said her party had faith on what the committee decided, as it was representative of all the parties and none.

She said the retention of the prayer, with a reflection, was encompassing a modern Ireland, while still respecting the traditions of the past.

Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh said he had argued the prayer should be replaced with a moment’s reflection.

Not insulting of faith

He said he was not insulting those of a Christian faith or those who believed in a god.

Ireland, he said, was supposed to be a republic.

A moment’s silence, he added, would allow members to reflect on whatever a religion or none they stood for individually.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said the prayer was not unusual, adding a number of legislative bodies elsewhere had either a period of prayer or silent reflection before starting business.

He said respect for cultural or religious views should not debar TDs from acknowledging the specific heritage of their own country and giving it an expression which the vast majority of people did not find offensive.

Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger described the proposal as “baffling”.

Now there is going to be a requirement for all TDs present to stand, she noted. “It takes away any voluntary nature of it and potential disciplinary action if a TD doesn’t comply.”

She said that at a time when the rest of society is demanding an absolute separation of Church and State, the Dáil decides to embed an archaic practice by proposing this.

Religion is a private matter, she added. If TDs wished to reflect, “I’m all in favour of a room being set up where people can go.”

The Dáil was a civic, secular space. She said the move was of dubious legality in terms of freedom of conscience, and since the Ceann Comhairle recited the prayer, “can we ever have a Ceann Comhairle who is not a Christian?”

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said: “I’m not standing, no matter what I’m told to do, because my religion is my business and is not up for public scrutiny.”

She said the debate would be silly were it not for “the Tuam babies, the National Maternity Hospital and the Sisters of Charity, the Repeal the Eighth and the Citizens’ Assembly, the legacy of Magdalene and Christian Brothers and the people who were persecuted in this country”.

Church and state

Ms Smith said the first US president Thomas Jefferson first mooted the separation of church and state in 1802, when he argued that every person was entitled to their own religion, and that should include the right to have a place of prayer - but it should not include the state identifying with any one particular religion.

Independents4Change TD Joan Collins said religious beliefs were a personal matter and it was not the business of the State or parliament to endorse any particular religion.

She said she was not elected to the Dáil to have her words directed by Jesus Christ.

Ms Collins said the UK and Ireland are the only European parliaments that start their business with a prayer. It also happened in Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States, but nowhere in Europe.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy believed it was inconsistent for TDs to commence each day with a prayer. “I question if in fact it reflects the non-denominational nature of our Constitution.

‘Personal thing’

“Religious faith I believe is a personal thing. It is hugely important to perhaps the majority of people in this country. Other people like myself are not believers but it does not mean there is an absence of morality,” Ms Murphy said.

“For that reason I cannot support the retention of the prayer.”

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the Scottish assembly experimented with how they used the time and varied it to include all faiths and none. He found a minute’s silence was a good way to start a meeting, and he believed that in cases of confrontation, instead of a TD being thrown out, “throwing in a minute’s silence” might defuse the confrontation.

Neither Labour nor Fine Gael backbenchers contributed to the debate.

The issue will be voted on in the Dáil on Thursday.