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Kenny speech a step forward

Kenny speech a step forward

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Nothing illustrates so graphically how Ireland has changed than the welcome given to Queen Elizabeth on her state visit in May and the criticism of the Vatican expressed by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in his speech to the Dáil last Wednesday.
For most of the 89 year history of the Irish State the uneasy relationship between it and its neighbour meant that no such visit by a British monarch could be undertaken.
There was, however, throughout these years, a cosy relationship between our state and the Vatican. Most political leaders greeted visits of Papal Legates to the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the Patrician Year of 1961 and the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 with welcomes that bordered on obsequious adulation. Now the fractured relationship between Ireland and the Vatican and the tensions within the Irish Catholic community indicate that a Papal visit is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
It no longer requires courage for an Irish political leader to criticise the Vatican or the Irish Catholic Church. Once a belt of a crozier could destroy a political career. The career of Noel Browne, in terms of ministerial office, partly foundered on Episcopal opposition to his “Mother and Child” scheme. Now a belt of a crozier is about as potent as a wand of a fairy godmother in a children’s pantomime.
Yet Enda Kenny’s speech last Wednesday was significant. It was arguably the most important one of his lengthy parliamentary career. It was unaccompanied by the spin doctor fanfare that usually precedes major political addresses today. That added to its power.
He spoke quietly but with controlled passion. His words were like an exocet delivered in the dying days of a parliamentary session which he has just ended.
He delivered his criticism of the Vatican as a practicing Catholic. In this he expressed the anger of the majority of Catholics who worship regularly in Church pews and contribute to its upkeep and who have been profoundly disturbed for well over a decade by the stream of child sex abuse cases and cover ups. He echoed the view of Archbishop Martin, who has ploughed a lonely prophetic furrow on this issue, that there are “cabals” in the Vatican and the Irish Catholic Church who are hindering the implementation of appropriate child protection policies.
By commending the excellent work of one church body, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, he gave praise where it is due. Behind his words I sensed the experience of one who is husband and father. Garret Fitzgerald often made the point that child sex abuse cases would have been dealt with more effectively if the bishops were married and had children.
The most important part of his speech was his acknowledgement of the pain and emotional turmoil endured by abuse victims. Other Taoisigh have spoken well on this matter but none with the empathy and emotional intelligence shown by Enda Kenny. He recognised that no words of his or anybody else can salve the horror of what they suffered but he did seem to feel their pain.
He was right to put clear blue water between the Irish State and the Vatican. He implicitly condemned the churlish and arrogant attitude of the Curia to the Murphy Commission. He highlighted the primacy of our democratic laws. He sternly reminded the Vatican that we are ‘a republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order’.
His words reminded me of a speech given by John Dillon, an Irish nationalist leader in 1888. The then British government was having some success in getting the Vatican to condemn Irish land agitation. Dillon, like Kenny, a parliamentary representative for Mayo, responded as follows:
“We owe it to the ancient traditions of our country, we owe it to our Protestant fellow countrymen who expect they are about to share with us a free Ireland that it will not be an Ireland that will conduct its affairs at the bidding of any body of Cardinals.”
Enda Kenny was honest in accepting, in his speech, that our state had also failed children. He committed himself to serious reform in this area. An index of that commitment is his appointment of Frances Fitzgerald to a senior ministry.
In five years time we celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising. The 1916 Proclamation has a line about cherishing the children of the nation equally. How better to mark the centenary than to ensure that this ideal becomes a reality. There is much more to be done. For last Wednesday Enda Kenny, I believe, deserves our congratulations and support. On that day the man from Islandeady spoke not just for Fine Gael, but for Ireland.