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'Hearing a prayer at the start of the new Dáil grated against my nerves'

In the Dáil, the charade of religious worship equals the charade of politics in its need for reform, writes Oliver Moran.

Oliver Moran

I EXPECTED TO be numb to it by now, but hearing a prayer at the start of the new Dáil still grated against my nerves.

It especially rubbed against with my experience of Ireland today and my hopes that this Dáil would reflect that Ireland honestly.

Earlier David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute, had tweeted that just 17 TDs attended the official service to mark the opening of the new Dáil term at St Andrew’s Church, in Westland Row. There were more diplomats present than TDs, he said, providing evidence of why the prayer had jarred so much with me.

While negotiations continue to find a Taoiseach, the Dáil has agreed to set up a committee on Dáil reform. Secularising the Dáil, or at least recognising that Ireland no longer has a homogeneous Christian outlook, may not be high up on the agenda. But any effort of reform needs to begin with an honest look at oneself.

10/3/2016 General Election. Taoiseach and Fine Gae Source: Sam Boal

We are a nation where children are baptised for the sake of school admissions. Where, in the last census, 84% of us described ourselves as Roman Catholic despite less than half of us describing ourselves as religious.

Is that any wonder when our political institutions carry on as if religious practice hasn’t changed since the foundation of the state? In the Dáil, the charade of religious worship equals the charade of politics in its need for reform.

Standing orders

The requirement for prayer is laid out in Dáil standing orders. These can be amended by a simple vote of the Dáil, if the reform committee recommends it.

In Northern Ireland, the Assembly begins with prayers too. But private prayers, described in the standing orders of the Northern Ireland Assembly as follows:

“Before the commencement of business the Speaker shall announce the commencement of a period of two minutes silent prayer or contemplation. This period shall be known as Prayers; it shall take place in private and shall be the first item on the Order Paper for the day.”

Contrast with the same section from the Dáil standing orders:

“Upon taking the Chair each day, and before any business is entered upon, the Ceann Comhairle shall read the following prayer:— Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended; through Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

Ironically, this pressured religious homogeneity takes place under the glare of the tricolour, a symbol of religious diversity.

Changing practice to something like Northern Ireland would a simple but significant gesture. It should not be seen as an chance to knock religion or the religious. It is instead an opportunity to make good on the promise of the Proclamation that “the Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”.

20/9/2013. Culture Festivals Nights Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

A secular constitution

That promise can be made good in other areas too.

The last government agreed to hold a referendum to replace the offence of blasphemy in the constitution with the offence of the incitement to hatred. That was a recommendation of the Constitutional Convention but no date was set for a referendum. It will now fall to this Dáil to follow through.

The Humanist Association of Ireland and Atheist Ireland, along with other groups, are calling for other changes too to secularise the constitution.

The President, for example, as well as members of the Council of State and judges, are currently required under the constitution to make a declaration “in the presence of Almighty God” asking “may God direct and sustain me.” Alternative wordings are not an option.

The requirement did not prevent Michael D Higgins from making the declaration. But common sense changes, such as allowing substitutions for religious references, as we do with other declarations, would hardly offend anyone, especially if we are already holding a referendum.

Other religious references include Article 44.1, where: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.”

Like the special position of the Catholic Church, which was removed in 1973, this reverence by the state to one god today appears to mock the pluralist tone that immediately follows in Article 44.2: “Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.”

And there is the Preamble to the Constitution: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ…”

There have been many calls to rewrite this in particular and it was a recommendation of the Constitution Review Group in 1996. Centenary 1916 would be a fitting time to do so. The Preamble has negligible, if any, legal significance except to set forth the common rousing standpoint of the people of Ireland.

With greatest of respect to the people who wrote it, the verbalising of our common position, the context of religious worship in Ireland has changed.

Like the Dáil prayer, it rubs uneasily against our experience and hopes for Ireland.

We should acknowledge that and reflect the change honestly as part of a wider political reform agenda that sets forward a renewed vision for Ireland.

Oliver Moran was the Green Party candidate in the general election for Cork North Central. He is a founding member of Second Republic, a citizen-led campaign for political reform since 2010. He is a member of the Humanist Association of Ireland. He is writing here in a personal capacity. 

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Oliver Moran

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