Taoiseach's speech is a watershed in ties with Vatican


THE REACTION to every speech is always in the ear of the hearer. Some will inevitably dismiss Enda Kenny’s remarks during Wednesday’s Dáil debate on the Cloyne report as a populist attack upon an increasingly unpopular institution or as being motivated by political rather than policy considerations. The speech has already been dismissed by some as a polemic rather than as a contribution to debate.

To do so is to miss the point. The purpose of Kenny’s speech was not to persuade or to debate, neither was it a comprehensive treatment of Government policy on church- State affairs, or on relations between Ireland and the Vatican.

What it was, above all else, was a clear statement of attitude. The new Government of Ireland has given notice that it is adopting a new and less deferential attitude to the Catholic Church and to the Vatican. That is a very healthy development.

Of course the Taoiseach’s speech was political – he is the country’s top politician after all – but it was not cynically so.

The Taoiseach and his advisers will have been conscious that his remarks would be portrayed as populist grandstanding by those who don’t want to accept the point he was making. By playing it straight in media management terms they did much to undermine that suggestion.

Instinctively, political handlers might have preferred to ensure that the press gallery and the Dáil benches were packed for the speech. They could have ensured this by ringing around in advance. They did not do so. They also resisted the temptation to trail the speech and its significance by leaking snippets to one of that morning’s newspapers. Instead they let the speech takes its place in the chronology of a news day that everybody expected to be dominated by the euro crisis and other stories. The absence of hype or advance billing gave the speech greater impact.

Others have criticised Kenny’s text on the basis that it was unfair to the current papacy or that the tone was wrong. Again, however, they miss the point. The current Vatican regime carries responsibility for the errors of its predecessors. Kenny’s tone if anything was too soft in the circumstances.

If, as is clear, this Government has made a strategic decision to adopt a more confrontational posture towards the Catholic Church leadership in general and the Vatican in particular, then the publication of the Cloyne report was the proper occasion for that change in approach to be marked.

The venue was appropriate. Kenny was right to do it in the chamber of parliament itself rather in a media statement or some kind of formal diplomatic demarche.

The fact that it was done at the level of the Taoiseach rather than by the Minister for Foreign Affairs or Minister for Justice was also appropriate. The revelations in the Cloyne report and previous such reports require that the church and the Vatican be confronted at head of government level.

Coming from Kenny it had the added dimension of coming from a senior politician who is also a practising Catholic. Since he was advancing the official Government position it should not matter whether the speaker has any faith, Catholic or otherwise, but in reality it does and it was Kenny himself who chose to emphasise that dimension. It would have been easier for those who wished to dismiss the speech to do so if it had come from a more secular politician or a non-Catholic.

While Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen condemned child abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops in equally trenchant terms, they were more cautious in their critique of the church senior management here and in Rome. The tone and language used by Kenny is in stark contrast to that used by Brian Cowen in December 2009 when the Murphy commission report into the Dublin diocese was published.

As I noted here at that time, Cowen’s most high-profile intervention as taoiseach in the intense public debate following the publication of that Murphy report had the effect of defending the Vatican’s actions rather than adequately communicating this country’s outrage at the church’s connivance in the covering up of crime.

It did not require much courage to say what Enda Kenny said this week. The institution against which he directed his remarks is no longer a political force. His views chimed with the overwhelming majority of Irish public opinion. However, unlike his predecessors, Kenny had both the inclination and the confidence to set aside the diplomatic niceties and state baldly the contempt that the people of Ireland have for the manner in which the Catholic Church has responded to these revelations.

In years to come, passages from this speech will be cited as marking a watershed in the relationship between Ireland and the Vatican. Historians will also be interested, however, in exploring how this speech came to be made. It will be fascinating to see if the Taoiseach and those involved with him in the preparation of his text chose to consult in advance with Irish diplomats at the Holy See or with other officials. One suspects that if they got such an opportunity the Irish permanent government advised a more cautious approach. If that was the case then Kenny was right to ignore it.

In his collection of 50 Great Irish Speeches the historian Richard Aldous makes the point that such speeches can be divided into two types: those of the head and those of the heart. Many, he says, display remarkable powers of analysis, “setting out rigorous arguments to influence opinion by sheer force of intellect”. Others, he says, gain their authority from the passion and context of their delivery and because they capture a public mood.

Enda Kenny’s speech this week clearly fits into the later category. It seems destined to make the cut for Aldous’s future editions.

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