When ministers and the State bowed to the Church

Early governments acted as if Irish independence amounted to Rome Rule. It took the revelation of the clerical sex abuse scandal to end such deference, writes Ryle Dwyer

The political influence demonstrated by the Catholic hierarchy a century ago during the Conscription Crisis of 1918 had reverberations for decades afterwards. Few Irish politicians dared to stand up to the bishops, even on political matters.

Instead, politicians were careful to demonstrate a subservient devotion to the Catholic Church. For decades, the fears of Protestants were essentially ignored, especially Northern Protestants who were convinced they would be discriminated against in a united Ireland.

“With our connivance, every bigot and killjoy, ecclesiastical and lay, is doing his damnedest here to keep them out,” finance minister Seán MacEntee wrote to taoiseach Éamon de Valera in February 1938.

MacEntee, who offered his ministerial resignation, went on to complain that members of their government were “subordinating reason to prejudice”.

In fairness, de Valera did make one major gesture toward Protestants — by nominating a Protestant, Douglas Hyde, as the first president of Ireland in June 1938, under the new Constitution.

Of course, this was in recognition of Hyde’s role as founder of the Gaelic League. Otherwise, the Long Fellow seemed so differential to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin that he was often described as being in the archbishop’s pocket. De Valera was never as obsequious as his successor.

Taoiseach Éamon de Valera so differential to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin that he was often described as being in the archbishop’s pocket.

When the national coalition came to power in February 1948, taoiseach John A Costello sent a telegram to Pope Pius XII expressing the wish “to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and our devotion to your August Person, as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ, and to strive for the attainment of social order in Ireland based on Christian principles”.

“No civil power should declare that it reposed at the feet of the Pope,” argued cabinet secretary Maurice Moynihan.

Seán MacBride, the new external affairs minister, took particular umbrage and retaliated by having future cabinet meetings confined exclusively to cabinet members. Thus, the cabinet secretary was excluded from all further cabinet meetings, and one of the ministers had to take the cabinet minutes.

After one term as president, Hyde stepped down in 1945, and died four years later on July 12, 1949. He was

accorded a State funeral, which caused problems for Catholic ministers. The Catholic hierarchy had been banning Catholics from attending Protestant services.

As Hyde was a Protestant, none of the cabinet ministers dared enter St Patrick’s Cathedral for the Protestant funeral service, with the sole exception of health minister Noel Browne. De Valera, then leader of the opposition, also remained outside with his frontbench colleagues.

The national coalition behaved as if independence amounted to Rome Rule.

“It is almost impossible to exaggerate the near-feudal deference of Costello and his Ministers to the Hierarchy in general and to the Archbishop of Dublin in particular,” wrote the late Ronan Fanning.

For instance, Seán MacEoin, the justice minister, abandoned an adoption bill under orders from Archbishop McQuaid.

“He won’t allow it,” MacEoin told the cabinet. And that was that.

William Norton, tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party, ran into ecclesiastical opposition when his social welfare bill got mixed up with the controversy over the Mother and Child Scheme. In both cases, the Church objected to State “encroachment” on the private lives of Irish people.

When Mr Browne asked his cabinet colleagues for their views on the Church’s opposition to the mother and child bill, “Seán MacEoin was outraged that I had even dared to question him”, noted Mr Browne.

“How dare you invite me to disobey my Church?” Mr MacEoin snapped angrily. “I don’t want to get a belt of a crozier.”

As the bishops were being accorded a virtual veto on legislation, Mr Browne balked. He had already defied the Archbishop’s ban on Catholics attending Trinity College, and had further defied the bishops by attending the Protestant service at Mr Hyde’s funeral.

Faced with the opposition of the bishops during the Mother and Child Scheme controversy, the government demanded Mr Browne’s resignation. The government itself collapsed soon afterwards. When Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1951, Maurice Moynihan was again invited to take notes at cabinet meetings.

In 1954, when Mr Costello became taoiseach for a second time, he not only retained Mr Moynihan as secretary of his department but also had him functioning fully as cabinet secretary. It was a victory for common sense. But it was still some time before politicians were prepared to defy the bishops even on political matters.

Few politicians dared stand up to the hierarchy even into the 1980s, when the bishops undermined pluralist policies advocated by Garret FitzGerald. The bishops essentially overrode his opposition to the Eighth Amendment, and his attempt in 1986 to remove the constitutional ban on divorce.

The exposure of episcopal cover-ups of vile criminal behaviour of individual paedophile priests did enormous damage to the hierarchy’s influence in the early 1990s.

This became evident when a referendum to abolish the constitutional proscription of divorce, which had been decisively defeated in June 1986, was passed in November 1995.

On standing for president as a Fianna Fáil candidate in 1997, many referred to Mary McAleese as “the bishops’ woman” because the hierarchy had selected her as its spokeswoman at the New Ireland Forum.

As president, she quickly demonstrated that she was her own woman, by attending a Protestant service at Christ Church Cathedral, where she received communion.

When Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin denounced her actions, she defiantly announced she would do so again, if invited. A public opinion poll in the Sunday Independent subsequently found that 78% approved of her actions.

The Archbishop of Dublin had clearly overstepped on that occasion, and he got his answer from both the president and the Irish people. Times had changed.


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