‘Not inspired’ the crisis in Ireland’s hierarchy

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Overwhelming support for same sex marriage in Ireland

Every once in a while a small thing happens which reveals a deeper truth. There must have been quite a few priests in Ireland trying to work out what to say on Pentecost Sunday in the wake of the referendum vote on same-sex marriage.

On the face of it, the second reading – St Paul raging about “orgies and similar things” – offered an open goal. But overnight the spirit of Yeats had descended on the country. “All changed, changed utterly”.

The priest – I will spare his blushes and save him from the wrath of the Irish hierarchy – took a deep breath. “Today is Pentecost,” he intoned. “The day the disciples were inspired to preach the Gospel to the world.” It was not the most imaginative introduction to a homily on such a day, but it was a beginning.

“It’s the Church’s birthday. On birthdays you get a present, and you are going to get one today,” he told the congregation.

“I’ve not been inspired,” the priest said, apologetically fumbling his way into the profession of faith.

If ever there were a metaphor for the Irish Church’s response to the cataclysm in the Irish Republic, this was it. “Not inspired,” sums up the Church in Ireland. And it’s not inspiring anybody either; as Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin ruefully reflected, the vast majority of those who had voted Yes had been educated for 12 years in Catholic schools.

There is an alternative view of the vote; not that it was a rejection of Christian values but an endorsement of Jesus’s teaching that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour as yourself.

The scale of the vote – only one constituency had a majority against – showed this was not just an issue that excited the Dublin intelligentsia. Rural Ireland was gay friendly too. Archbishop Martin told Irish television: “We have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities.”

Those realities are that the majority of people, in what was once one of the most conservative countries on the planet, don’t care what people do in bed. It’s what happens in people’s hearts that matters.

If the Church focused its attention on love rather than genitalia, it might find a way of dealing with human sexuality in a way that respects the right of people to fully express their humanity, while reaffirming its commitment to the love as the defining principle of the Gospel message.

Rather than taking time for reflection, the Vatican jumped in with an ill-judged post-referendum intervention when the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Paralan described the outcome as “a defeat for humanity”. So much for reality checks.

Much was made during the referendum of the ‘law of unintended consequences’ and there will undoubtedly be some. The no campaign put significant emphasis on the possible impact on family life. That cut little ice in a country that has seen at first had the effects of dysfunctional families headed by fathers and mothers.

The unintended consequences are as likely to be positive as negative. I am prepared to bet that Ireland will be a better place as a result of the vote. If the Church in Ireland finds a way of responding positively too, it might well end up in a better place too.

As a member of a ‘universal Church’, that might not be easy. The Church in Africa is in a very different place with regard to human sexuality. The Vatican is all over the place, with its clumsy handling of the French ambassadorial appointment somewhat at variance with the Pope’s public pronouncements on homosexuality.

During the referendum Archbishop Martin said he would be voting no, but he was not going to dictate how anyone else should vote. His predecessor John Charles McQuaid, who wrote most of the constitution the voters have now amended, would have been less circumspect.

The big question now is whether or not the archbishop, and his brother archbishop in Armagh, Eamon Martin – nominally leaders of the Church in Ireland – have the vision and leadership qualities needed to respond to a vote which presents an enormous Yes for equal rights and a rejection – by believers and non-believers alike – of the traditional teaching of the Church in Ireland.

Pro-Europeans must embrace reform

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David Cameron: EU referendum on his agenda

You can hear the excitement in his words. “After the Berlin Wall came down, I visited the city and I will never forget it: the abandoned checkpoints, the sense of excitement about the future, the knowledge that a great continent was coming together. Healing those wounds of our history is the central story of the European Union.”

Twice in the twentieth century, Europe tore itself apart in conflicts that grew to engulf the world. The EU emerged from the ruins, built on a vision that this must never happen again.

From small beginnings – there were six founding members of the European Economic Community – the EU has grown to embrace 28 sovereign states. It is undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts, a remarkable achievement given historic enmities.

In 1943 Jean Monnet, the French statesman and father of the EU, said: “The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples.”

His instinct was right. Half a billion live within its borders. Now they are among the wealthiest in the world – collectively EU countries account for almost a quarter of global gross domestic product (GDP) – and as an entity, Europe is the largest global economy.

Successive treaties have removed more and more economic and political barriers, and seen greater pooling of sovereignty. EU institutions have grown in power, and it has begun to develop many trappings of a state: an EU President, parliament, central bank, and cabinet. It has a foreign minister, missions around the world, and is represented in the United Nations, G8 and the G20.

Northern Ireland has benefited enormously from membership of the EU. Billions have poured in, and much of the infrastructure necessary to sustain the economy was supported by EU funding.

The European project was important for another reason too. By reframing the relationship between Britain and Ireland within a European context – and focusing on the importance of pooling sovereignty for the greater good – John Hume created the conditions for the peace process.

So far, so good. But the UK’s relationship with Europe has never been smooth. Its entry was bumpy, and politicians on the right and left have sniped at it over the decades. Thatcher fell over Europe, and the Major government was destroyed by internal conflict over the Maastricht Treaty.

The Tory right and UKIP have forced an in-out referendum – announced in Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech – and British PM David Cameron embarked this week on renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe. The political realities are that ‘Little Englanders’ could propel the Scots, Welsh and Irish out of Europe against their will.

For all those who support the European project, the knee-jerk reaction is to be critical of Cameron and oppose the referendum. But a black-and-white approach to the European question would undermine the long-term stability of Europe.

Even the most fervent supporter of the EU recognises it is in need of reform. There is a democratic deficit, the all-powerful European Commission needs to be more accountable; the parliament, which at least has the benefit of a democratic mandate, needs to speak more powerfully for those it represents; and the European bureaucracy needs to be trimmed. There is too much waste.

Cameron is not alone in looking for reform. There are concerns in other European states about the centralising instincts of Brussels. Pro-Europeans need to accept the need for change and get involved in the debate.

The discussion about meaningful reform provides an opportunity to create a Europe fit for the twenty-first century, to make it better connected with its citizens, and to promote the importance of European values.

As for the young man who walked in the ruins of the Berlin Wall and witnessed “a great continent coming together”. That was none other than David Cameron.

***

I imagine some people are fed up with liberal commentators like me extolling the virtues of last week’s vote on same sex marriage, so just one reflection. At Mass with my mother last Sunday, I wondered how the priest would deal with the referendum result. Pentecost, he told us, was the day the Holy Spirit inspired the disciples to spread the Good News. He said it was the birthday of the Church and on birthdays you get a present. “Your present today is no homily. I haven’t been inspired.” One man okay, but his lack of inspiration is a metaphor for the state of the Irish church today. Where is the Holy Spirit when you need him?

  • A version of this column appeared in The Irish News on May 29 2015

Freedom under threat as despots tighten their grip

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Vladimir Putin: Russia’s annexation of Crimea a threat to freedom


When Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he is reported to have said he thought it would be a good idea. Almost seventy years on from his death at the hands of an assassin we are nowhere close to achieving that ideal.

We live in a world where the rich are accumulating more and more wealth, and where the poor are getting poorer. This can be seen not just in the divergence between old world and developing countries, but in our own country too.

The Thatcher theory of economics was that everyone would benefit by rewarding the better off. But more than 30 years on, trickle-down economics has failed. The only real growth has been in food banks, welfare payments for the working poor, and in the number of jobs paying less than the living wage.

You might also remember talk of a “new world order”, the doctrine of the ineffectual George Bush who believed the end of the cold war would transform the world for the better. Yet his failure in the first Iraq war sowed the seeds for further destabilisation in the Middle East, the growth of Islamic extremism and the pernicious and illegal second Iraq war.

Closer to home, Nato’s overtures to former Soviet satellite states created a climate of uncertainty in Russia that propelled Vladimir Putin to power, and has kept him there. Repression is his trade.

Britain’s legacy in the Middle East has been continuing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians; and in the Indian sub-continent Britain has left India and Pakistan at one-another’s throats.

Nuclear proliferation is no longer just about America and Russia; it colours the relationship between Israel and Iran; India and Pakistan; and North Korea and countries within reach of its warheads.

But at least we have our freedom.

Or do we? In the 18th century the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Times have changed surely.

But the latest report from Freedom House, a not for profit organisation monitoring freedom around the globe, suggests that we are singularly failing to promote and protect this most basic of human rights.

In its 2015 report, the organisation could not be clearer: “In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighbouring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world.”

The report warns that acceptance of democracy as the world’s main system of government “is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years”. The United Kingdom and Ireland are identified as “free”, but the reality is that our freedom is in peril here too.

Confirmed in her post, Home Secretary Theresa May no longer has to worry about the Liberal Democrats blocking legislation that will increase levels of surveillance and limit civil liberties. The courts are now happy to convict people for ‘thought crimes’, the years ahead will see more and more convictions of this nature if May has her way.

In Northern Ireland, legislators remain determined to restrict the freedoms of people on the basis of their sexual orientation. An unholy alliance between the Catholic Church and the DUP over the so-called ‘conscience clause’ threatens to stem the tide of social change.

One of the most worrying things highlighted in the Freedom House report is the creeping totalitarianism in “large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries”. Among them are Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, Azerbaijan and Hungary.

It should not be forgotten that Hungary is a member of the European Union, yet its rating for political freedom was reduced because of the way the government there is interfering in the electoral process. Again echoes of Northern Ireland.

People in Northern Ireland will not be surprised to read that repressive regimes use the ‘terrorist threat’ to clamp down on civil and religious liberties. Britain has form here – and not just in the Irish context. Other countries look and learn. As sure as night follows day, any move to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights will be a green light for authoritarian regimes around the world to ignore their responsibilities to their citizens.

Freedom is hard won and easily lost. We should not take it for granted.

You can read the full report at www.freedomhouse.org. This article appeared in The Irish News on May 22 2015

Situations Vacant: an opposition for Scotland

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Down and out: Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour leader

On the morning of May 8 2015, Labour died, suddenly. May it rest in peace.

When I was a young journalist, I remember being given a kicking one night by the revise sub – a senior journalist whose responsibility it was to save the readers from my mistakes. He had taken exception to the phrase “died suddenly”. I had used it in an obituary.

“Everyone dies suddenly,” he told me. “One second you are alive, and the next you’re dead.” Having witnessed a few lingering deaths since, I’m not sure he was right, but theoretically there must be a point at which extinction happens.

For proof of his theory, one need only look at the fate of the Labour Party in Scotland. The dinosaurs took longer to die than Labour, swept aside on election night by the irresistible force that is the Scottish National Party.

First past the post is a cruel political system, but there’s no comfort for Labour in looking to the electoral system for an excuse. It was comprehensively beaten, rejected by an electorate that had lost faith in the party and its ability to articulate the concerns of Scots.

In the aftermath of the vote, it’s been said that Labour’s problem was that it was not right wing enough in England and not left wing enough in Scotland. While there may be some truth in that, it does not tell the whole story. Many of those who voted SNP were not ‘dyed in the wool’ old time Socialists.

Labour’s problem is that for too long it has taken Scots and the Scottish electorate for granted. Its grandees have been more focused on London and the national stage – Gordon Brown, Douglas Alexander, and Jim Murphy, among others; while the party in Scotland has been inward-looking, hubristic and deaf to its electorate.

The writing has been on the wall for some time now, but nobody in Scottish Labour has been bothered to read it. The panda joke it used to make so gleefully about the Tories (more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs) now applies to Labour too. There’s been no coming back for the Tories – once a force to be reckoned with in Scotland; it’s doubtful whether Labour is capable of coming back either.

There’s a vacancy in Scotland for a credible opposition; but nobody is capable of providing it. That’s not good for politics and, while they might not admit it in public, it’s not good for the SNP either. Strong oppositions make for good governments.

The Labour leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, is determined to hang on to his position, even though he has no credible personal or party mandate to continue. Replacing him would be like putting a new captain in charge of the Titanic. Best to let him go down with the ship.

The Labour movement needs to recognise that it can no longer fight for power in the United Kingdom as a single party. Scotland needs a new opposition party to challenge the SNP on its own terms and in its own territory. It will no longer yield to a party that has its headquarters in London, and its primary focus on the political cockpit in Westminster.

Scottish Labour is dead. There should be no attempt at resuscitation; just a simple cremation, with the ashes buried at the feet of Donald Dewar in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street.

 

 

 

NHS funding: there’s not enough money to cure all our ills

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David Cameron: over-promising on health

David Cameron knows that the Tory treatment of the NHS is one of the issues that is toxic for his party. It was no surprise then that during the General Election campaign he went out of his way to neutralise it.

Cameron is not afraid to use his personal life story to cement his political credentials, and he makes much of the support the NHS gave him and his family during the fatal illness of their young son. No doubt he is sincere when he talks of the help they were given.

Whether he was wise to promise more significant investment in the NHS during the forthcoming parliament is another matter all together. No matter what resource is poured into the NHS, it will not be sufficient to meet its needs. Its hunger knows no end.

With his party returned with a majority, Cameron will have no choice but to implement his promises in England and Wales, and what happens there will have a knock-one effect in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Responsibility for health is devolved to the regional parliaments and assemblies, but what happens at Westminster feeds through. It certainly sets the tone for the debate about the health service, how we fund it, and how it meets our expectations.

Much of the focus is on things the NHS doesn’t do that well – managing accident and emergency, coping with ‘new’ pressures such as diabetes and dementia, and the refusal of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to allow the use of expensive new drugs and treatments that may prolong life.

In our national life, the NHS is sacrosanct.

Such is the reverence for the NHS, that we have the spectacle of a Tory prime minister outdoing Labour in stating his passion for the service. Gone are the days when the Tories worshipped BUPA and private health care. Only the Royals now feel safe being seen to go private.

We all want an NHS that is bigger, better and cures all ills. Such is the orthodoxy of this message, that it is taboo to suggest otherwise.

Like the little boy who pointed out the nakedness of his emperor, I’d like to suggest that we think again about our expectations of the health service.

Why should it be protected when other areas of public spending are being cut? Why should it be given what amounts to a blank cheque – £8 billion from Cameron during the campaign – when some of the poorest in our community are being forced to endure the indignity of food banks? Why should we spend billions buying back months of our lives, rather than focusing on how we can die with dignity?

I have no difficulty with us investing in research for cures to life-limiting ailments; but that energy would be best directed at finding cures for diseases which afflict the poorest in the world (HIV-Aids, Malaria, and TB among many others) rather than those caused by affluence. In 2013 6.3 million children under five died – the vast majority of them of treatable diseases in developing countries. Almost one in 10 died as a result of diarrhoea. Where’s the morality in that?

Our attitude to health care is another example of the self-centred bubble we have created for ourselves. I know it sounds harsh, I wince as I write this, but there comes a point when we must say enough is enough. At an individual level, that’s cruel. I know I cannot lose sight of the fact that the people I am talking about here are dearly loved: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children.

But we have a moral obligation to take a wider view.

The sanctity of human life sits rightly at the heart of the moral and ethical principles that underpin our society – but even those most opposed to abortion and euthanasia recognise that death is an intrinsic part of what makes us human.

As the good book says: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.”

But in our post-Christian world we have made life a commodity, and forgotten the value of death.

We have done some marvellous things in the cause of science – vaccines, antibiotics, retroviral drugs – but in our insatiable demand for progress we are in danger of creating a zombie generation. People whose lives are measured by the phrase “never mind the quality feel the width”. (I declare an interest here, I am old enough to be heading there sometime soon.)

Frankenstein would have been proud of what we have created. Yes, by all means let’s have a debate about how the NHS can better meet our needs. But let us start talking about the morality of how we deal with health – on a global, not just a national or local scale; and let us face up to our mortality and embrace it.

* A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on May 8 2015