Sunday 6 November 2011

Ireland shuts down three embassies

One of the things studying history has taught me is never to believe anything until it happens and never to put faith in predictions. I don't necessarily disbelieve them, but if anyone thinks that short-term surprises can't alter long-term trends, then, frankly, they're fools. No-one watching the tercentenary celebrations in 1913 could possibly have imagined that four years later a dissolute preacher, a misguided empress, the most horrific war in human history and one really bad winter would bring three hundred years of Romanov monarchy crashing down in a matter of weeks. History really is proof that the unexpected happens every day. I always remember that when people start predicting the demise of the West and confidently assert that in fifty years China/South Korea/India/Singapore will have overtaken the United States as the world's leading economic/industrial/military power and that the future of Europe/America is one of slow downturn and inevitable failure. Maybe that will happen. Maybe in 2061, Europe will be in terminal decline and South Korea will be the maker and breaker of the world's economies. But maybe all these predictions are just like those of the English aristocrat Lord Bryce who, when he visited Argentina in 1911, pronounced with absolute certainty that in fifty years time, Argentina would have become "the United States of the southern hemisphere". It seemed so obvious to Lord Bryce that Argentina's economy would continue to go from strength to strength until, eventually, it eclipsed that of America, France and Germany. By 1961, Argentina was in the middle of a generation of political unrest and economic ruin. 

Faith in predictions, no matter which historian or economist has made then, can often be as misleading as  confidence in the status quo. Things change, the unexpected happens and the news coming out of Dublin this week proves that. In 1937, Article 44.1.2 of the Irish Constitution proclaimed, "The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens." The article did eventually lead to the fifth amendment of the Irish Constitution in 1973, under pressure from groups which claimed it had institutionalised discrimination against Protestants and Jews. However, since the 1920s, it was held as axiomatic by Northern Irish unionists that the government of the Republic of Ireland in the south would always guard and promote "the special position" of Catholicism in national life, to the expense and detriment of all other religions. It was that confidence which allowed the unionist administrations at Stormont to justify their own shamefully brazen rival promotion of Protestantism. (In the north, the notorious Fethard-on-Sea boycott of 1957 was the endlessly-cited example of a too-powerful church and a too-obedient Irish government.)

The extent of Ireland's devotion to the Catholic faith and its obedience to the Catholic Church was famous and it became as integral to the common collective image of Ireland as heavy drinking, hospitality and lively music. However, over the last decade, chill winds of doubt have blown through the once intertwined relationship of church and state in southern Ireland. Mass attendance has decreased across the island and whilst it is still very high in comparison to the average in the rest of western Europe, the influence of the pulpit on Irish life has diminished. Secularisation isn't quite as rampant as it is elsewhere; piety still exists, but it's changing. Obedience is now selective, rather than total. Ireland, both north and south, is still statistically much more likely to be pro-life than pro-choice, but particularly in the under-thirty demographic, the majority are also in favour of same-sex marriage. The church's teachings on contraception, whilst dutifully re-iterated in Ireland's many excellent faith schools, are all-but ignored. Co-habitation is up; the number of priestly vocations is way down. Divorce and single motherhood no longer produce the recoils of revulsion which they did forty years ago. The numbers going on pilgrimage to Lourdes, Knock and Croagh Patrick are still very high.

But perhaps the biggest news of all, although it hasn't been too widely reported, is the announcement from Dublin yesterday that it's planning to close down its embassy to the Vatican. Officially, the embassy to the Holy See is being closed due to cut-backs. Along with Ireland's embassies to East Timor and Iran, the Vatican embassy apparently "yields no economic return" and the Irish government therefore believes it's best to close it and re-deploy the staff elsewhere. Yet, the closing of the embassies in Rome, Dili and Tehran will save little more €1 million and despite the government's official insistence that its decision is financially-motivated, commentators can't help but see this as yet another "stark illustration that relations between Dublin and the Catholic Church are at a historically glacial low." 

For the last decade, the cause of the estrangement between church and state in Eire hasn't just been because of growing secularisation, which, as I've said, should be used solely in relative terms when it comes to Ireland. Rather, it's been caused by a serious disagreement between the two institutions over the thorniest issue in Ireland today - clerical child abuse. Ireland's prime minister, Enda Kenny, leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party, has repeatedly and openly accused the Papacy of trying to sabotage official inquiries into the extent of the Catholic clergy's abuse of children - sexual, psychological and physical - over the course of the twentieth century. In the aftermath of the frankly horrific Ryan Report (investigating clerical child abuse in Ireland from 1936 onwards, published 2009) and the Cloyne Report (sexual abuse of children in the diocese of Cloyne since 1996, published 2011), Taoiseach Kenny accused the Catholic Church and the Vatican of "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism". The Vatican rebutted his claims, both in general and in the specifics, and, understandably, relations between the two bodies have been (at best) frosty ever since. 

Whether it's financial or political, or maybe both, a good thing, a bad thing or a pointless thing, the closing down of the embassy of the Republic of Ireland to the Holy See and the fact that from 2005 to 2011 the British ambassador to the Vatican was a Roman Catholic from Northern Ireland (Francis Martin-Xavier Campbell) are examples of how, in history, the improbable is always possible.

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