Rebuke of Vatican more hard-hitting than a belt of the crozier


DÁIL SKETCH:Enda Kenny, with steely eloquence, has ended decades of government obeisance to Rome

THERE WAS never anything subtle about a belt of the crozier.

That would have defeated the purpose.

It was the ecclesiastical equivalent of a kick in the shins, and politicians feared it. The mere thought of a belt from a bishop was enough to make the most powerful legislators bend the knee.

It didn’t do to upset the church, whose princes were all too ready to remind the lawmakers of this.

But yesterday in the Dáil, Enda Kenny, with steely eloquence, ended decades of government obeisance to Rome.

What was most striking about this watershed moment was that nobody batted an eyelid. He said what he said, and it was generally accepted.

Down through the years, when clerical interventions came, they were accompanied by controversy and breast-beating. The Taoiseach’s political intervention was accomplished with quiet determination and a declaration of who has the right to run this country.

It had been a slow afternoon in Leinster House: the Dáil winding down ahead of the summer recess, deputies heading to lunch or busy in their offices, crocodiles of constituents wending their way through the corridors on guided tours.

The House was debating an all-party motion deploring the Vatican’s role in the investigation into child abuse in the diocese of Cloyne. Not so long ago in the Irish parliament, such a motion would have been unheard of.

The Taoiseach was first to speak. His contribution wasn’t flagged.

Just a handful of TDs were in the chamber to hear him. Some daytrippers looked down from the public gallery. Few journalists sat in for the speech.

“This is not Rome. This is the Republic of Ireland 2011, a republic of laws,” said the Taoiseach, in the course of a searing rebuke of the Vatican.

As he read from a prepared script, reporters monitoring the debate in their offices, pricked up their ears. This was no safe speech, throwing out the usual condemnations and hoping for better things to come.

Enda Kenny spoke in a controlled manner, his voice tinged with anger and regret. He didn’t raise his voice. There was no attempt at grandstanding. The words were enough.

Within hours, his speech was making news around the world – the leader of Catholic Ireland denouncing the Vatican in the strongest possible terms.

“Dysfunction”. “Disconnection”. “Elitism”. “Narcissism”. Was this really a Taoiseach saying this on the floor of Dáil Éireann? In a country where taoiseach John A Costello once declared: “I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so in spite of The Irish Times or anything else, in spite of the fact that they may take votes from me and my party.” When Noel Browne, having resigned from Costello’s cabinet in the 1950s after the rejection of his Mother and Child Scheme, publicly said “I, as a Catholic, accept unequivocally and unreservedly the views of the hierarchy on this matter.”

And the late Brendan Corish, former leader of the Labour Party, once famously said: “I am, of course, a Catholic first, an Irishman second.” Bring it forward a few decades to 2001, when Bertie Ahern was taoiseach. He hosted a State reception for Cardinal Connell, who had just returned from Rome with the red hat.

The invitations came from the taoiseach – who was separated from his wife – and his then partner, Celia Larkin. A controversy ensued, and on the big night in Dublin Castle, it was the taoiseach alone who joined the receiving line to be greeted by the cardinal. Celia Larkin remained at the back of the hall.

As clerical scandal built on clerical scandal, there always seemed to be reluctance at government level to stand up to the rule of Rome. By the time the Cloyne report was issued, the Vatican stood accused of subverting the Irish bishops in their desire to bring the abuse cases into the open.

Into this situation stepped Enda Kenny yesterday. If one were ever to predict who might be the person who would, finally, lay down the law, his name would not have been the most likely to emerge.

Taoiseach Kenny – family man, father of the Dáil, cut from the cloth of old Fine Gael. No. One might have expected one of the younger breed to make the call. That it was Enda issuing the challenge made it all the more compelling. His speech was well crafted and took little more than 15 minutes to deliver.

He spoke of the downplaying of “the rape and torture of children” in favour of upholding the primacy of an institution, its power, standing and reputation.

“Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s “ear of the heart” . . . the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.”

It was astonishing stuff. All the more so because the Taoiseach said he was speaking “as a practising Catholic”. Earlier, he had been jousting in the Dáil with Opposition leaders during a lively Leaders’ Questions and Questions to the Taoiseach. He had today’s crucial summit in Brussels to consider.

In the middle of it all, when the House had gone quiet and was almost empty, he rose to make the speech which will be remembered as a highlight of his time in office.

When he concluded, there was silence. Then the Fianna Fáil leader rose to echo his sentiments, followed by a raft of speakers who spoke in favour of the motion.

Enda had done what needed to be done – and no amount of swinging croziers can undo it now.