Rite & Reason: The Republic is now a warm place for Protestants

Senior politicians kowtowing to the Catholic hierarchy today ‘utterly unthinkable’

Villa Spada houses the Irish Embassy to the Vatican which was closed as a cost-cutting measure in 2011 before being reopened in 2014

Villa Spada houses the Irish Embassy to the Vatican which was closed as a cost-cutting measure in 2011 before being reopened in 2014

 

As someone from a Northern Protestant background happily resident in Dublin, I know there is little or no point in trying to persuade my co-religionists that they should agree to do away with the Border and become part of my society.

I may have the nicest Irish house in the world, but the truth is that the great majority of Northern Protestants and unionists want to continue to live in their British houses, however unsympathetic their landlords are.

However, I believe that in 2015 the Republic of Ireland is a good place for Protestants. In the words of former Labour Party leader Ruairí Quinn, Ireland is now a “post-Catholic pluralist republic”. The old Roman Catholic Church that they so feared is a shadow of its former self.

Priestly vocations have collapsed, graphically illustrated by the dramatically shrinking lists on the graduation boards at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

Some might say that one of the final nails in the coffin of old-fashioned, priest-ridden Irish Catholicism was the extraordinary “Yes” vote – against the instructions of any bishop who was brave enough to oppose it – in the marriage equality referendum last May.

Rapid change

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The Church of Ireland and other Protestant churches are growing again, helped both by immigrants and Catholics often disillusioned by a lack of spiritual and moral leadership (most scandalously by child- abusing priests) in the majority church.

I would estimate that around three-quarters of worshippers at my own Unitarian church in central Dublin are from an Irish Catholic background. Senior Church of Ireland figures such as the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral and the head of the Church of Ireland College of Education are ex-Catholics.

Irish Catholicism is itself becoming more “Protestant”, with far more emphasis on liberty of the individual conscience and participation by grassroots members than in the previously authoritarian institutional church.

What used to be dismissed by conservative Catholics in the 1980s as “a la carte” Catholicism is now what many practice: Mass attendance along with the pill; confession along with divorce; gay marriage with the Eucharist.

In politics, the kind of kowtowing to the Catholic hierarchy that went on in the days of Éamon de Valera, John A Costello and Seán MacBride is now utterly unthinkable.

Attack on Vatican

Enda KennyEamon Gilmore

These days there are a significant number of high-profile southern Irish people from a Protestant background, some of them icons of Irish modernity: Bono in rock music, Katie Taylor in sport, Chief Justice Susan Denham in the law, Graham Norton in broadcasting and David Norris in sexual politics. Two women Cabinet Ministers – Jan O’Sullivan and Heather Humphreys – are Protestants.

None of this is any kind of attempt to persuade Northern Protestants and unionists to give up their Britishness. However , they should realise the Republic isn’t such an alien place these days – in many ways it is a more open-minded, tolerant and liberal society than the North; and secondly, it wouldn’t do them any harm to admit they too have a little bit of Irishness in their make-up and it might be interesting to visit the South to explore that.

Andy Pollak is a former Irish Times religious affairs correspondent and Belfast reporter

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