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Divided Ireland 'One side dedicated to making Ireland secular; another preserving Church's influence'

There is a profound, far-reaching division in Irish society, writes Larry Donnelly.

ONE CONSEQUENCE OF the upheaval on various fronts currently affecting western societies is that “divided” may now be the most used adjective in journalistic parlance.

The day after Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, Reuters news service published an online piece, which was provocatively entitled “‘Go to hell!’ A divided America struggles to heal after ugly election.”


Writing in The Guardian just before the United Kingdom voted to depart the European Union, columnist John Harris opined that even a triumph by the remain side would not “say anything much about the essential condition of the country, aside from underlining how divided we are.”

And as the Financial Times reported ahead of the final round of the French presidential election earlier this month:

Opinion polls suggest he will win but the fight for office has exposed a divided country: One part happy, the other unhappy; one urban, the other rural and suburban; one embracing internationalism, the other seeking to erect barriers. They are the same fault lines shaking other western democracies, splitting those who feel they have gained from the far-reaching post war liberal shift towards an interconnected world, and those who fear they have lost, or will lose out.

Indeed, commentators have spent a considerable amount of time and energy exploring the myriad factors that have contributed to the divisions shaping the contours of ongoing debates in most western countries. Broadly speaking, they are right to do so.

Moreover, it is imperative that all mainstream, establishment political parties get to grips with the harshest reality of globalisation – one that they have collectively ignored for many years, now to their detriment.

Specifically, in 2017, the economic winners are much fewer in number and they are winning by a lot more, while the economic losers are significantly greater in number and they are losing very badly.

In Ireland, the “d word” is typically treated, consciously or subconsciously, as something generally applicable to our neighbours and allies, and something that we are relatively impervious to. But division isn’t necessarily driven solely by how equitably resources are distributed within a society.

And notwithstanding the serious problem of income inequality in this country, the division here is arguably most pronounced elsewhere.

Ireland: secularism versus cultural liberalism

The present Irish fault line seems to be between the secularism and cultural liberalism that is in the ascendancy and the predominantly Roman Catholic religiosity and cultural conservatism that, although in decline, remains a force.

The 2016 census revealed that 78% (3.7 million) of people in Ireland still describe themselves as Catholic. On the other hand, nearly 470,000 census respondents, or 10% of the population, say they have no religion.

The former figure represents a 6% drop from 2011 and the latter is a 73% increase. Additionally, and as is borne out by attendances at weekly Mass around the country, there are nowhere near 3.7 million actively practising Catholics here.

Yet a cursory examination of opinion pieces from the past month or so is indicative of the chasm that divides those who remember fondly the days when the church and her teachings permeated Irish life and those who desperately want to leave an era they recall disdainfully in the rear view mirror.

On one side, the headlines are “Time to defy mob mentality over religious orders,” “Fifteen centuries after St Patrick, Christianity is worth hanging on to” and “Church and State in Ireland are already separate.”

On the other, they read “It’s Holy Communion week so I am taking my eight year old son out of school,” “Time to end outmoded relationship between Church and State” and “A maternity hospital? Being given to the nuns? Come on.”

Animated debates between sides

The passionate disagreement between the two sides was to the fore in animated debates over the marriage referendum, loomed in the background during the public dispute over ownership of the National Maternity Hospital and will be front and centre in the campaigns to repeal or retain the 8th Amendment on abortion.

What makes division in this context in Ireland rather different, however, is that the two warring sides are joined by a third: that substantial segment of the population who don’t accept that the truth in this contentious arena lies at the poles. This group needs to be convinced on the merits of each individual matter and is, at times, repelled equally by the other two. The third side ultimately dictates how discord should be resolved.

In the marriage referendum, owing greatly to the shrewd tactics adopted by strategists working for a Yes vote – engaging sceptics in conversations without preaching and utilising personal stories to sway hearts and minds – the majority of the third side opted to make marriage a civil right for all and to look beyond Catholic doctrine on the subject. That said, roughly 40% of Irish people voted No.

When a row erupted over the proposed new National Maternity Hospital being “given” to the Sisters of Charity order of nuns, the most strident arguments against the move were proffered by those virulently opposed to any entanglement whatsoever of church and state.

Prominent Catholics, meanwhile, were keen to remind everyone of the crucial role played by their church historically in the provision of vital services. It seems to have been the robust assertions from Dr Rhona Mahony, the hospital’s master, that medical care would not be compromised by any religious ethos, regardless of ownership, that assuaged the third side – at least temporarily.

We are just as bitterly divided as America

And in what will inevitably be a heated fight about the 8th Amendment, the third side will again determine the outcome. Already, the unexpectedly liberal verdict of the Citizens’ Assembly is characterised by pro-choice advocates as the only natural conclusion upon careful study of the issue; pro-lifers view it as an abhorrent result flowing from a deeply flawed process.

Perhaps tellingly, though, politicians of all stripes, who, for all of their flaws, know the electorate pretty well, think that the assembly is not representative of the centre and contend that “Middle Ireland” will not be so accepting of a liberalised abortion regime. We shall see what the third side feels.

In the end, there is one faction dedicated to making Ireland a completely secular state and another that is committed to resisting change and preserving spheres of Church influence. There is a profound, far-reaching division. And it is erroneous to claim otherwise.

On what Americans label the “culture wars,” the divide in this country is often bitter. It’s just that Ireland has a politically powerful, albeit muted, third side.

While being “divided” has taken on quite a negative connotation, it is all but unavoidable in a democracy. Nonetheless, one would suspect that our neighbours on either side of the Atlantic would prefer tripartite division to the binary, virtually 50-50 splits in the US and UK that engendered the Trump presidency and Brexit.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with and 

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