The Shame of Ireland
Enda Kenny's criticism of the Vatican this week marks a significant milestone on Ireland's journey away from being a mono-Catholic state into a 21st European republic
Enda Kenny, who this week launched an unprecedented attack on the Vatican. Photograph: Isopix / Rex Features
There are two parallel revolutions taking place on either side of the Irish Sea that will radically alter the relationship between government and non-state institutions that exercise major temporal power.
In Britain the ongoing revelations of wrongdoing within the Murdoch empire and the public humiliation of a media baron and his son may result in re-alignment in the relationship between politicians and the press, with the former becoming less supplicant to the latter.
One of the most important by-products of the last few incredible weeks has been the end of fear. Specifically, fear of media tycoons who used to boast that some of their newspapers had "won" elections and had left the prime ministerial ambitions of party leaders in ruins. The humbling of Murdoch Senior and Junior this week marked the end of that fear.
Meanwhile, here in Ireland the political classes have also lost their fear, namely of the once almighty Roman Catholic church. The news reports both in the Republic and the UK were not exaggerating on Wednesday.
Enda Kenny's attack on the Vatican over its handling of yet another clerical child sex abuse scandal in Ireland was indeed truly "unprecedented". Even Kenny's Fine Gael, a party with deep roots in rural Catholic Ireland, had lost its fear of the men (they are always men!) who wear red cabs and wield crosiers.
Since the mid 1990s the Catholic church's reputation has been slowly eroding amid a deluge of damaging revelations about its priests, religious orders and the institutions they run.
If you want to find a starting point for this decline the best place to begin is probably in 1992, when under massive pressure from the Catholic right the Republic tried to re-introduce internment on the island of Ireland – this time for a 14-year-old rape victim.
The girl at the heart of this story had been raped in Dublin and sought to terminate her pregnancy in England. However, when the attorney general department learned of this they attempted to force her to remain against her wishes in Ireland.
Thus began a constitutional and legal battle over conflicting rights, with the rape victim's lawyers arguing that under EU law she had a right to travel and indeed a right to life, as an enforced pregnancy brought up by rape might end in her taking her own life.
This became known as the X-Case and it resulted in the Republic being tried in the court of international public opinion and portrayed through the democratic world as an uncaring society more worried about finger-wagging, moralising bishops and cardinals than the child victims of sexual assault.
That accusation has come back to haunt the church and state over and over again in the subsequent years since the X-case.
She won her right to travel to the UK to terminate the pregnancy and the legal battle established a precedent in terms of right to travel and, eventually, the right to abortion information although abortion itself is still illegal in the Republic.
Following the X-case there were a series of horrific stories that broke about members of the Catholic clergy raping, beating and abusing children either in care or under their pastoral guidance.
The most notorious of these abusers was Father Brendan Smyth, a serial sexual predator of children who even after the Catholic hierarchy learned of his crimes in the 1970s kept moving him around not only Ireland but also the United States.
The church's decision to keep the scandal hidden allowed Smyth to continue abusing children for years before the police in Northern Ireland finally caught up with him after receiving allegations from some of his victims.
The Smyth scandal and the disclosure that the authorities were complicit in the cover-up led to the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Labour government, which at the time was basking in the glow of helping to secure the IRA's 1994 ceasefire. Yet it was only the start.
Hundreds of victims started coming forward including one time "inmates" of Dublin's Artane Industrial school which was run by the Christian Brothers. One of the orphanage-cum-prison workshop's most famous "rebels" known as the Steve McQueen of Artane came forward to the Observer back in 1999 and gave a detailed account of the abuse, both sexual and physical, that was rife throughout the school.
Thomas "Anto" Clarke's testimony to the Observer indirectly led to the establishment of one of the most tenacious, campaigning victims groups – the Irish Survivors of Child Abuse.
Since there have been several extremely detailed and devastating independent reports shining light into Catholic dioceses where clerical sex abuse was not only rife but in the main covered up.
The latest of these was the Cloyne Report which showed that not only the local bishop, John Magee, but also the Vatican were still obstructing the civil power, ie the Garda Síochána, in their inquiries into allegations against priests in the County Cork diocese.
The fact that this was going up to only three years ago is part of the reason for the unprecedented outrage within the Irish parliament this week. Because despite protestations from the Irish church and Rome that they had changed, that new guidelines on child protection were being adhered to, the clerical authorities were still behaving as if it was the old days when they dealt with this sort of things behind closed doors, away from the rigours of the laws everyone has to abide by.
What makes the verbal sortie on the Vatican so groundbreaking however is that it is a Fine Gael taoiseach, whose political base lies in the conservative west of Ireland, who has led from the front.
Once upon a time not long ago Fine Gael leaders were even more strident in their defence of the Catholic church's "special position" within Irish life as drawn up in Éamon de Valera's 1937 constitution.
In the great battles of personal liberty and sexual freedom from the 1960s onwards it was leading figures in Fine Gael who manned the barricades for traditional Catholicism as they tried to hold back the tide of liberalism surging in from Britain, Europe and North America.
It was only after the reformist Dr Garret Fitzgerald took control of Fine Gael and tried to make the Republic a more secular place to live in that the nexus between the church and the party finally began to break up.
And, even then, there were still Fine Gael deputies and senators who played a prominent role in resisting the introduction of divorce, in pushing for the foetus to become a full Irish citizen via the 1983 pro-life amendment campaign and in trying to stop the liberalising of laws on homosexuality and access to condoms.
Once upon a time not very long ago politicians feared that denunciations from the pulpit at Sunday mass would end their careers.
Liberal and leftwing TDs had to walk through gauntlets of screaming pickets outside their constituency surgeries and even their homes as rightwing Catholic agitators accused them of being "baby killers" because they were pro-choice on abortion. The latter was still going right up until the early 1990s.
For the generation that grew up in the Celtic Tiger years, in the era of a new national self-confidence, in a Republic more open and tolerant than ever before, such stories of intolerance and repression must seem like ancient history.
It would have been unthinkable even perhaps back in the 1990s for a leader of Fine Gael to go as far as take on the Vatican. But this is exactly what happened this week and it marks a significant, historic milestone on Ireland's journey away from being a mono-Catholic state into a 21st European republic.
Of course Kenny remains a devout Catholic like so many millions of other Irish citizens. However, their faith is for the private sphere by and large. The loss of fear has left the Catholic church, in the main due to their own crimes and their own ham-fisted culture of cover-up, devoid of real political power.
Henry McDonald Writes on Thursday 21 July 2011 11.44 BST
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