Seanad should respect Ireland’s diversity

A moment of Seanad silence could manifest one way of living in an inclusive society, writes Senator Katherine Zappone

LAST Thursday, the Seanad debated a change to the start of its daily business. Before the beginning of each sitting of the House, a Christian prayer is recited by the clerk of the Seanad.

The Seanad committee on procedure and privileges proposed that the house observe 30 seconds of reflective silence in addition to the prayer being read.

In an editorial in this paper dated Saturday Feb 25, I feel my views on this matter were misrepresented, and I would argue the debate around the issue was misinterpreted under the headline “Learning to live in a divided society”.

The practice of saying a Christian prayer reflects a time in our history when there was not a clear separation of Church and state; when people were not as conscious of the importance of separating religion from the business of politics in a republic. The prayer is a manifestation of the interweaving of Roman Catholicism with the politics of a new republic.

In my view, this was an exclusionist adherence to one world religion and no longer reflects our history, nor does it reflect the contemporary thinking of theologians and theorists of religion and the ways in which religion and meaning-making are studied and practised today.

Within Ireland today, there exists a growing pluralism of membership in the five great world religions and an increasing number of people who lead ethical and spiritual lives, outside the context of any world religion.

The last census demonstrates that 186,000 people ticked the “no religion” box, up 34% from 2002, and several thousand others opted not to answer the religion question. There also exists a significant number of people, including myself, who hold an attentiveness to the “beyond in our midst” as the great thinker Paul Tillich put it, as well as those who attempt to lead ethical lives through reflection on the meaning of the best ways to be human and to practise the good, both the personal good and the good of the common.

Consequently, it makes good sense to reform the practice by moving away from the practice of what is a bygone era to choosing one that respects the pluralism of belief of members of the Seanad and between and among the people we represent. I am in favour, therefore, of a moment of silence at the beginning of the Seanad’s daily work where members can each draw on the inspiration, meaning and ethical values of their own individual beliefs.

I see no good reason to maintain a prayer from one world religion, even if it is combined with a moment of silence. Such a combination would form a practice that does not adequately represent the diversity of Irish people because it still emphasises an element of the predominance of one religion’s value at the expense of other ways of making meaning.

In the recent Seanad debate many senators described the new procedure as a compromise — I appreciate their views but respectfully disagree. I view it as maintaining an exclusionary practice. Any argument that the belief of the majority dictates practice in the Seanad will not build a society of inclusivity and equality.

Dublin City Council, the Stormont Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, and the Scottish Parliament all observe a moment of silence at the opening of their sessions and I hope the Dáil and Seanad will move to this practice in the future. In this way, public representatives could manifest one way of living in an inclusive society rather than a divided one.


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