Political Notebook: Time to govern

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The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is right. Governments must govern. The Catholic Church has every right to express its views on the abortion legislation, but it is up to the Government to legislate in the light of what the courts and the Constitution require.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is right. Governments must govern. The Catholic Church has every right to express its views on the abortion legislation, but it is up to the Government to legislate in the light of what the courts and the Constitution require.

There was a time when the prospect of a belt of a crozier would send shock waves through Government Buildings. Ministers would be summoned to the Palace in Drumcondra by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid or to Armagh by the Cardinal of the day.

They would be told what to do. And they would do it.

A considerable number of politicians in Leinster House, right up to the 1970s, subscribed to the principle that they were Catholics first and legislators second.

It was the kind of remark made at a time when politicians were largely subservient to the Church. Rome ruled.

And so we had the astonishing deference, even by the standards of the time, shown by the 1940s inter-party government as it sent a telegram to the then Pope promising unbending loyalty.

John A Costello, even in old age, made it clear that as the head of that government he had a duty to be said by the Catholic Church as a legislator.

Time has moved on. Mr Kenny, hardly the epitome of a raging secularist, has made it clear that he sees a very strong distinction between Church and State. He gave expression to that view in a memorable Dail speech.

Mr Kenny, sometimes dismissed all too easily, is nobody’s fool.

And so, perhaps appropriately, in Knock, Co Mayo, on Sunday, he made it very clear that, while everybody was entitled to their opinion, his book was the Constitution which was determined by the people.

“We live in a Republic and I have a duty and responsibility as head of government to legislate,” he added.

This followed the statement by the Catholic bishops that the planned abortion law was “morally unacceptable”.

Cardinal Sean Brady warned legislators that they had a solemn duty to oppose the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill which, he claimed, would result in direct intentional killing.

A Government spokesman reacted quickly, leaving no ground for ambiguity.

“We are aware of the statement,” he said. “The Government is proceeding to legislate as it is required to do.”

Quite.

A Labour TD, Anne Ferris, went further. She said that while the Hierarchy had a right to express a view, it did not have any moral high ground to stand on.

She remarked that the Hierarchy had to be dragged kicking and screaming to admit what some men of the cloth did to children for many years and forced to apologise for it.

That is a view that would have some resonance with many people.

That said, the Hierarchy is entitled to its point of view. But why, oh why, use the phrase “solemn duty”?

Surely the language used, in a statement that was quite legitimate, could have been more restrained ?

There is something about the words “solemn” and “duty” that are reminiscent of the bad old days when the Church determined the moral focus of Irish society.

As we now know, that morality had a feet of clay. The hideous cover-up of the scandals of Magdalene laundries and orphanages, aided by Church and State, illustrated a dark and repressed Ireland.

Thankfully, those days are over.

So why could their Lordships not find more restrained language in their statement?

Will they ever learn?

And what of the politicians? This Government has done well on the legislation. It has recognised, unlike previous governments, that the Supreme Court decision must be legislated for.

Daft suggestions that the court’s ruling could be ignored indefinitely cast a very unfavourable cloud over politics in this country in the past.

The legislation is a far cry from paving the way for abortion on demand. At its core, it is about protecting the life of a pregnant woman.

Mr Kenny is prepared to face down those in his party who feel they cannot support the legislation. Labour is very much on side, and it seems as if Sinn Fein will support it also.

Fianna Fail has postponed a decision until after the Oireachtas hearings on the issue.