Inclusive Ireland should consign Dáil prayers to history

Prayer in parliament can give impression of State endorsement of Christianity

Last week, the Dáil deferred until after Easter a vote on changing the House rules to allow for 30 seconds of “silent reflection” after the traditional prayer is said at the opening of daily business.

The period of reflection is intended as a compromise to those who wanted to abolish the prayer.

This debate highlights important issues about the form of religion-state relations in Ireland and in Europe more generally.

Ireland is a long way from being a theocracy. Even in the pious 1930s, politicians resisted demands that the Catholic faith become the official State religion although the State did use the law to enforce religious teachings on matters such as contraception, homosexuality and divorce.


With the secularisation of Irish society since the 1960s, the enforcement of religious morality has gradually been abandoned by the State.

Indeed, in recent times political leaders from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have stated repeatedly that, as politicians in a republic, they recognise that they must leave their religious convictions out of lawmaking.

Religious arguments are not a major part of political debate and, although 78 per cent of the population remains Catholic, the church’s teaching does not dominate voting behaviour, as the referendum on marriage equality showed.

And yet, the State is clearly not strictly religiously neutral. In addition to official prayer in the Oireachtas, our national holiday is that of a Christian saint, the Garda badge is cruciform in nature, and Christmas and Easter are public holidays.

Cultural traditions

This is inconsistent with strict religious neutrality to some degree but also reflects the reality that Ireland is not a society that is at year zero but sees itself as a continuation of a mix of particular cultural traditions that go back centuries.

Sustainable societies require some kind of links to an imagined shared past, and in the Irish case that shared past was shaped for many centuries by Christianity.

Symbols and festivals that have historical resonance will inevitably reflect the fact that Christianity has been a huge part of Irish culture for 1,500 years.

Many national symbols, such as Celtic monastic art, have a national cultural significance independent of their religious nature.

Such Christian-influenced national symbols are not strictly neutral and it is certainly possible that the Christian churches get some kind of benefit from the celebration of St Patrick’s Day as a national holiday.

But imposing a strict standard of neutrality in these matters would involve a major degree of loss.

A religiously neutral alternative to St Patrick’s Day, for instance, is unlikely to have the cultural resonance needed for a meaningful shared national festival.

Ireland is far from unique in this regard. Most European states have a heavy majority of one faith and that faith has moulded national culture to a great degree.

Indeed, strict institutional separation of religion and state is relatively rare in Europe.

The problem with the European arrangements is that they rely to a large degree on insider knowledge

A 2003 survey by academics John Madeley and Zsolt Enyedi showed that not a single European state met the standard of institutional separation of religion and state required by the US supreme court.

At the same time, in political terms European societies are notably secular. Religion is not central to political life the way it is in many countries in Africa and Asia.

The weakness of religious influence over law and politics is shown by the degree to which religiously controversial ideas such as gender equality, the right to ridicule religion and gay rights have achieved much wider acceptance in EU member states than in Africa and the Middle East where religion is a huge part of political life.

Insider knowledge

The problem with the European arrangements is that they rely to a large degree on insider knowledge that allows people to distinguish between the situation on paper and the actual situation.

Denmark may have a state church and Dáil sittings may begin with prayers but people are at the same time expected to know that, in both countries, politics and religion are to be kept somewhat apart.

If one comes from a society where politics and religion are deeply intertwined, prayers in parliament may appear to be much more than a cultural symbol.

This divide between symbolic religiosity and substantive secular politics leaves European societies open to allegations of hypocrisy when they ask migrants from areas of the world with more muscular religion to accept that religion and politics are separate and that religiously controversial ideas such as free speech on religion and gay rights must be accepted.

Given the enormous cultural influence of religion over the centuries, an entirely religiously neutral society is unattainable.

Symbols and festivals that have historical resonance will inevitably reflect the fact that Christianity has been a huge part of Irish culture for 1,500 years.

However, we should also have an open mind as to which arrangements or symbols go beyond recognition of Christianity’s historic role in Ireland and shade into an appearance of State endorsement of a particular religion.

Christian prayers in the Dáil seem to fall on the endorsement side.

It is hard to see a prayer that involves a wish that “Christ Our Lord” will guide parliamentarians’ work as a mere cultural symbol.

If we wish migrants to this country to feel at home and to accept a division between religion and politics that may be challenging for them, it is important that the majority appear to honour those commitments too.

Ronan McCrea lectures on the relationship between law and religion in Europe at University College London