Pope in Ireland: faithful must put faith in god not the church

Out on his own: Pope Francis is too far into papacy to deliver the reform the Catholic Church needs

Even if we don’t know who said it, we all know the quote: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The words belong to the Victorian historian Lord Acton who went on to say: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”

And there is evidence enough to support his generalisation – and it is a generalisation. History is full of despots who have abused their power for personal gain regardless of the human cost.

What has been lost to us is the context of Acton’s remarks.

Acton, who was refused entry to Cambridge because he was a Catholic, was a leading Liberal, for a time the Member of Parliament for Carlow, and a close friend of Gladstone who secured his elevation to the peerage.

Acton succeeded John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, as editor of the Catholic monthly The Rambler in 1859. It later became The Home and Foreign Review and was critical of the Church, but it folded after the pope issued an edict saying Catholic writers were subject to the authority of Rome.

This was a period when the papacy was flexing its muscles. Acton travelled to Rome to campaign unsuccessfully against the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility which was promulgated at the First Vatican Council in 1870.

And this pernicious act of papal aggrandizement was the prompt for Acton’s most famous statement, made in a letter to an Anglican bishop and intellectual.

He wrote: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

It is worth reflecting on those words as the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland enters its afterlife, and the memories fade into history.

From what I can see, Francis is an honourable man and a man of deep humanity.

But he is also the holder of an office which transcends him, an office that bases its authority on divine right, but an office that has been debased by many of those who have held it.

The Church Francis leads has failed its people on so many fronts. In the pursuit of power it has lost its moral authority, and it has negated the very real and transformative work of many individual priests, religious and members of the laity.

Bishops, cardinals and popes have confused their own self-interest with the interest of the Church. And they have shown themselves ill-equipped for the job at hand.

One of the things said to be attractive about Catholicism is the way it has held the line about moral truths in the face of contemporary decadence, but many of these so-called truths are man-made not God given. They are declarations designed to exercise command and control. Acton saw that all too clearly almost 150 years ago.

These edicts have resulted in the suppression of women, the oppression of people who love members of their own sex, the abuse of children and exploitation of adults.

When Luther ushered in the Reformation he had right on his side. Francis had the opportunity to usher in another Reformation, but he is too far into his papacy now I fear to deliver.

He is a prisoner of his own upbringing and conditioning, and that affects his room for manoeuvre. But worse he is a prisoner of the curia. The Vatican bureaucracy has got him where it wants him.

That he lives in comparative humility in a hostel rather than a palace, and drives round in a Skoda, may be refreshing. But it is not enough. The men (dispiritingly they are all men) in a position to effect change are the ones responsible for the current crisis. They are hunkered down and hoping the storm will pass.

Francis’s visit to Ireland might prove a turning point. He got some things right, including his meeting with those let down brutally by their church. But if the past is any predictor of the future, the Church will continue to fail, and – more than ever –  the faithful will need to put their faith in god rather than prelates.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on August 29 2018


The republican rosenkavalier hangs up his boots

Gerry Adams: rebel to peacemaker on an unfinished journey

Gerry Adams is a charmer. He once gave my wife a flower, a red rose I think it was, as a gift. He’d plucked it from a floral arrangement in Belfast City Hall. The occasion was the formal dinner to mark Alban Maginnis’s election as Belfast’s Lord Mayor – 21 years ago.

I was the Irish News editor at the time, and had been seated beside Gerry and his quiet, warm and down-to-earth wife Collette.

It’s fair to say that Gerry and I didn’t normally see eye-to-eye on how best to create an Ireland at peace with itself. The table plan, I assume, had been signed off by someone in the SDLP with a sense of humour.

It was a historic evening.

The first Catholic Lord Mayor was some achievement. This was an orange-coloured glass ceiling, well and truly shattered by one of the gentlemen of Irish politics.

There’s nothing the Irish like more than being present at a moment of history. The craic, as they say, was good – and Gerry was entering into the spirit of it. I’d like to think that I reciprocated with a rose for Collette. But I have no memory of that.

I’ve known a few politicians over the years; and one of the common threads I have noticed is the difference between their public persona and their private one.

In a television studio once, Ian Paisley went as close as he dared to saying I’d wanted him shot. (An editorial that week had suggested if he didn’t have anything useful to say, a period of silence was called for. This he translated as “you said you wanted me silenced!”) When the lights went down, he turned into avuncular companion and joked away with me.

Behind the scenes in City Hall, DUP and Sinn Fein members were working together quietly on a ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ basis years before they dared be seen together in public. It might have been “a putrid little statelet”, but in truth both of them saw it as their own putrid little statelet.

This weekend saw another of those moments of history. Mary Lou McDonald’s assumption of the presidency of Sinn Fein brings the curtain down on Mr Adam’s remarkable career. It is a career that has taken him from armalite to ballot box in the space of a generation.

Those of us who never bought the legitimacy of the armed struggle find it hard to give the Sinn Fein leader much credit for the peace process. John Hume, a visionary prepared to put country before party (a rare quality in a politician), was the one true author of the Good Friday Agreement. But Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness did a lot of the heavy lifting – and deserve credit for that at least.

It is just a pity the agreement came so late – when so many voices were raised in the seventies and eighties pointing out the futility of trying to coerce a million unionists into a political union with the Republic.

Those attending Sinn Fein’s special ard fheis in Dublin’s RDS felt the hand of history upon their shoulders – as we did at Alban’s installation dinner – accompanied by fine words and grand statements; a tear or two perhaps at the passing of the Easter Lily to a new generation

At the time, Alban Maginnis’s elevation seemed momentous. But the world did not change much for the unionists who felt the loss of the lord mayoralty. And, in truth, it did not change much for the many nationalists who struggle still with poverty, unemployment and a nagging feeling that they do not fully belong in their own city.

The world without Gerry Adams at the helm of Sinn Fein will not be that much different – even if Mary Lou is bringing her own shoes.

If we always do what we’ve always done; we will always get what we’ve always got.

Adams remains an enigma. Charming yet ruthless. Loved and loathed. Public and private. There are many – and not just unionists – who will never be able to reconcile Gerry the Peacemaker with the leader of a movement that for so long put ideology before human life.

In a much-celebrated observation, Enoch Powell noted: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.”

Having, in 1984, narrowly avoided being “cut off in midstream”, the jury is still out on whether Gerry Adams’ political career can be judged a success or failure. Final judgment depends on his successor’s ability to break the current deadlock.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News

Madrid plays its king to thwart Catalans’ bid for freedom

The reign in Spain: King Felipe addresses the nation, attacking the Catalan government

The Iberian peninsula has always done politics differently. It is just over 40 years since the generals relinquished control of Spain on the death of Francisco Franco.

But even then the transition to a constitutional monarchy was not entirely smooth. In 1981 Antonio Tejero, a lieutenant colonel in the Guardia Civil, led a coup against the fledgling democracy – stopped only by the intervention of King Juan Carlos.

It was the mid-seventies too before the Portuguese saw a transition to democracy from a military junta.

Both countries are now key players in the European Union. And more than a generation on, one might have expected their democracies to have reached a degree of maturity. For the moment Portugal seems fine, though it is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Spain on the other hand appears to be a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, is grappling with a crisis in Catalonia that threatens the very future of the state.

From the Spanish government’s perspective the issues are clear. Catalonia is an integral part of the nation, and the regional government has overstepped its authority by calling a vote on the future of the region. Sunday’s poll was illegal and had to be thwarted.

But things are rarely that simple.

There is something deeply disturbing about a government using strong-arm tactics to stop people expressing their views – however unpalatable they may be to the state – at the ballot box.

Rajoy has addressed Catalan leaders in patronising terms, dismissing their mandate to speak on behalf of their electorate. He has sent the Guardia Civil into regional government offices, arrested officials, seized documents and taken control of computers and the means of communications. The authorities have confiscated millions of ballot papers.

There is disturbing evidence too of Spanish disregard for freedom of expression and freedom of the Press. The government has closed down more than 140 websites supporting the independence movement. And, as my colleague Mariola Terrega at the University of Stirling reported in The Conversation last week, there has been a concerted campaign of intimidation against news organisations and journalists in Catalonia.

She wrote: “The Network of Local Television (La Xarxa de Comunicació Local) told its journalists not to ask politicians questions about the referendum until the day after it had taken place. Acting on similar fears, Spanish public mail company Correos stopped distributing the news magazine Omnium Cultural to its subscribers because it contained pro-referendum advertising.”

Unsurprisingly the force of the Spanish authorities has been met with the immovable force of protestors defending their right to free speech and the right to protest – a basic and fundamental human right Spain is sworn to uphold.

The scenes witnessed on Sunday – the deployment of riot police, the firing of rubber bullets, the injuries to protestors – are disturbingly redolent of Northern Ireland at the outset of the troubles.

Whether or not there is a majority in Catalonia for independence – and there is doubt over the level of support for the secessionists – history demonstrates the risks involved in suppressing freedom of speech.

In the way the British government in Northern Ireland became a recruiting sergeant for Irish republicanism; the Spanish government seems hell bent on creating conditions that will rupture the state, feed anti-Madrid sentiment, and open up the appalling vista that, thwarted politically, some in Catalonia may resort to violence to achieve their ends.

Europe cannot, and must not, turn away from its responsibilities to protect the freedoms of all the people of Spain to hold and express their political opinions, to partake in peaceful protest, and to exercise their right as citizens to hold their government to account.

For the King of Spain, Felipe VI, this is an existential crisis. In 1981 his father stood up for the constitution and became a unifying force for the nation. Felipe has little room for manoeuver. As a constitutional monarch he can act only on the advice of the government – albeit Rajoy’s is a minority one.

He was crowned King of Spain, with an imperative to preserve its integrity. But that integrity is threatened by his government as much as by the Catalans. Sadly he did not address the international concern over the heavy handed policing on Sunday when he addressed the nation.

When he spoke to the nation, he spoke for Rajoy not for all Spaniards.

His constitutional duty is to preserve Spain, but the government’s current course of action will have the opposite effect. If he does not use his moral authority to persuade his prime minister to take a different course, the Catalan crisis will only ignite a fuse that will be difficult if not impossible to put out.

In his classic book Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the battle against fascism. “There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all,” he says. Rajoy and his puppet king would do well to ponder that observation.

  • This is an updated version of an article which appeared in The Irish News on October 2 2017

Dangerous president must be stopped in his tracks


Donald Trump: threat to world peace

Can I bring myself to write once more about Donald Trump? Can you bear to read any more about this malign man?

In chemistry a catalyst increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself being altered. Last November the American electorate introduced a catalyst into the delicate chemical mix that is international politics.

And sadly the effects are all too clear to see.

As this chemical reaction intensifies, it is clear that we are living now in a world at greater risk of explosion than any time since the Cuban crisis marred the beginning of JF Kennedy’s presidency.

Trump promised America would no longer be the policeman of the world. It would turn in on itself: no more foreign policy initiatives, no more intervention in wars in far off places. He offered instead an isolationist United States, focused on making itself ‘great again’ through a domestic political agenda that put American first.

Yet in the miserable months since his inauguration – with its bitter and twisted address when he talked about “American carnage” – he has been unable to resist undermining the delicate balance that has sustained what peace we have had since the end of the world’s second global conflict.

At home he has been slowly undermining his predecessor’s health care reform – depriving millions of a basic human right to health and well-being. Abroad he has been dismantling foreign policy initiatives designed to make the world a safer place.

Obama neutralised Cuba with a rapprochement with the Castros; he was not able to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his accord with Iran, ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons, made the middle east a much safer place. Kim Jong-Un in North Korea remained a threat, but was being increasingly isolated.

One by one, Trump has undone those achievements.

Just months after it opened, the United States’ embassy in Havana is under threat of closure.

His wilful denunciation of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations was met this past weekend with the launch of a Iranian missile which demonstrates they can, if they wish, attack their bitter enemies in both Israel and Saudi Arabia. By demonising Iran in front of an astonished UN General Assembly, Trump undermined moderates who had been winning the battle against the mullahs.

North Korea was belittled. “Rocket Man” was abused before the world, gratuitously insulted in a manner designed to provoke a reaction. And a reaction is what he got. North Korea’s foreign minister told the UN it was now evitable that North Korean rockets would “visit” the US mainland.

Let us not forget that the only country to use atomic weapons in anger thus far was the United States.

There has been much commentary on the irrationality of Jong–Un; he has been painted as a comical figure by the west. To be fair, Jong-Un does what he can to prove those prejudices correct.

But put yourself in his shoes for a moment. His embattled country has been vilified, and his opponents have done all they can to bring it to its knees. He has been humiliated repeatedly and taunted on Twitter, on television and now on the floor of the United Nations – an organisation that is built on the principle of mutual respect.

Given the belligerence of the United States, the Russian arsenal, French and British independent deterrents, and the emergence of nuclear nations such as India, Pakistan and Israel – why shouldn’t North Korea, or for that matter, Iran wish to arm themselves with nuclear weapons too.

I am not for one moment advocating the proliferation of nuclear arms; merely highlighting the imperialism of the nuclear haves who are holding the world to ransom.

The death last week of Stanislav Petrov, a nuclear worker who quite possibly saved the world from conflagration, is a timely reminder that we are all at risk while these weapons exist. Petrov was on duty when Russian’s early warning system indicated an incoming American strike. He decided it was a false alarm and did not report the warning to his superiors.

Back to our catalyst now. The attention-seeking president of the United States is a real and present danger to the world. He is being treated with kid gloves because of the client status of many western powers. The United States is ‘too big to fail’.

But the price of their silence may well be the destruction of the very political, social and economic systems they are struggling to maintain.

Jong-Un is a dangerous man. But Donald Trump is the greater threat to world peace and it is time those governments who give him tacit support recognised that.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on 26 September 2017




Ireland deploys poetry in diplomatic offensive

Writer, Seamus Heaney, Poet, Author, Creative

Seamus Heaney: an inspiration

The Twitter-sphere is a pretty ugly place at times. It seems to bring out the worst in people.

Online some seem to think there is a freedom to say things they wouldn’t voice in person; and even those of us who are used to bar-room language can find it offensive.

I have been known to use the occasional expletive – generally when someone behaves ungraciously on the roads. But I don’t particularly want to be subjected to an unwanted stream of four letter words when I am trying to check out the latest on Brexit, the news from North Korea or the latest update from my daughter’s school.

But I can be pretty sure that a few scrolls of my Twitter feed in, someone will display the lack of imagination needed to use anything other than the f-word.

I can choose not to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys. But other than leaving Twitter, I cannot switch these idiots off. They are invariably retweets and from people I do not follow.

But there is one oasis of calm amid the invective, and it comes from an unsuspecting source. The Irish ambassador to the United States, known online as @DanMulhall, sends a daily snatch of verse into the microblogosphere.

He did it religiously during his time as ambassador to the Court of St James, and new Twitter followers in the United States are now getting used to the tide of verse coming from the Irish Embassy in Washington.

As I type this column I am looking at four lines from Theo Dorgan tweeted by him:

Each word steps firmly out

And stands in time’s mirror.

I set these things down in silence,

Fire for the ice of our old age.

Yesterday we were treated to six lines from Thomas Moore’s The Last Rose of Summer. The ambassador is clearly going through a slightly melancholic phase, as well he might.

Once seen as the plumb job in Irish diplomacy, being sent to Trump’s America might well be the equivalent of being dispatched to Outer Siberia (no offence meant to the Siberians who are, by all accounts, a hardy and well-meaning crowd).

Might it be that the Irish Government is hoping Mr Mulhall’s approach to Twitter might rub off on President Trump – though only God knows what verse the president might resort to. America has many great poets, though I doubt Trump is acquainted with any of them – well perhaps the anonymous author of the bawdy ballad Eskimo Nell.

Trump, who offended his British allies last week with an ill-judged Tweet on the London tube bombing, could do with civilising. And Dan Mulhall is the man to do it.

I met him only once when he was a dashing press aide to Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring. A man with no airs and graces, he makes friends easily, and everyone he has met leaves his presence feeling better for having been in it – even if only for a short journey in a cramped taxi talking about the peace process.

London lamented his passing, as did Scotland where he was Consul General. America is a more difficult place to make an impression on, but the relationship is critical for Ireland – more so now ironically.

Britain’s retreat from Europe leaves a vacancy for a mediator between America and the European Union. Once again Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. And in the way jobs are leaching away from the City of London to Dublin, Britain’s place in the world is diminishing too. Europe needs a country that can talk to the USA, and Ireland is now clearly it.

The Irish have long known the importance of soft power. And poetry is a potent weapon.

Can poetry change the world? I asked myself when I sat down to write this piece. After the Peterloo Massacre, Shelley spoke for the British working class: “Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ Ye are many – they are few.”

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 spoke for the disaffected Beat generation; Pablo Neruda was a poet diplomat who stood against Pinochet and may well have been murdered on his orders; another poet diplomat Czeslaw Milsoz was admired by Seamus Heaney – a man whose own verse spoke eloquently for his country and community.

Ireland, as Mulhall knows only so well, is the creation of poets, and the better for it. If more diplomats and politicians spent time with their poetry books rather than their apparatchiks, the world would be a better and a safer place.

Keep Tweeting Mr Mulhall.

The article appeared in The Irish News on September 19 2017