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File photo. Eamonn Farrell/
across the chamber

Leo Varadkar apologises for Dáil comments about priests sinning behind the altar

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was the target of Varadkar’s comments and he’s now responded to the apology.

LAST UPDATE | 4 Jul 2019

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has today apologised for comments he made to Micheál Martin in the Dáil yesterday likening him to a priest sinning “behind the altar”.

The Bishop of Waterford hit out at the comments today, calling them “hurtful” and “unfortunate”.

Speaking in the Dáil yesterday, Martin questioned Varadkar on about the potential for overspending on the Dunkettle Interchange and other similar projects.

He said he has been met with “obfuscation after obfuscation” when looking for clarity on the project and he asked Varadkar to provide it.

In response, the Taoiseach made the comparison with a priest engaging in sin “behind the altar”.

“I am always amused and bemused that Deputy Martin likes to accuse me of being partisan and personal yet, as evidenced by his name-calling today, he is very capable of being partisan and personal himself,” the Taoiseach said.

The deputy reminds me of one of those parish priests who preaches from the altar telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself.

Speaking to reporters today, Varadkar said he made the comments yesterday in the “heat of the debate” in the Dáil, adding that it was a rather “bitter” and “personal” debate on both sides. 


“In doing so I offended a lot of people who I never intended to offend. I am sorry for that. I do apologise and I am going to withdraw the remarks,” he said. 

When asked about what the remarks meant, the Taoiseach said he was “talking about the sin of hypocrisy, but I am not here to explain, I am here to apologise and withdraw it,” he added. 

I am making it here now to anyone I offended, like I say this was something that was said in the head of a political debate, one that got quite bitter and quite personal on both sides and as a consequence I offended people who I never intended to offend, and I want to apologise for that and withdraw it.
I have immense respect for priests and the sacrifice that the live really in the lives that they lead really and I have immense respect for people of faith. It didn’t come out the way I intended it.

The Taoiseach said he “absolutely” has respect for the Catholic Church, adding that today’s meeting, where he is meeting with the church leaders of many religions in Dublin Castle, is an example of that. 

He said he has reconvened the Church-State dialogue because he believes religious orders have a role to play in our society. 

“I don’t believe we should have a fully secularised society, in the sense that churches and religious should be banished from society, I think they have a role to play, not the role that was played in the past but a role that should still be very relevant in Irish life,” said the Taoiseach. 

In response to Varadkar’s apology, the Fianna Fáil leader said there was nothing “bitter or personal” about the debate and that he was simply seeking answers from the Taoiseach.

“I see the Taoiseach has apologised through the media to those who may have been offended by his attack yesterday. One correction to what has been said. Tone of debate wasn’t bitter or personal. I was asking him about an over run on costs of Dunkettle Interchange Project,” Martin tweeted.

Bishop’s response

Earlier today, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke that the comments had “deeply offended” a lot of people.  

“I think they’re very hurtful, unfortunate comments,” Bishop Cullinan said this morning in response. 

He said it was “ironic” that a church state dialogue was being held today in Dublin Castle with representatives from different religions from across the country. 

“And now we hear one particular religion being singled out for crass treatment,” he said. 

“I would like to stand up for the 99% of priests across the country who are working hard and they’re loved by their parishioners and if any of them are listening in I would like to say to them – well done.

Cullinan said that the “vast majority” of priests work very hard “giving people hope and giving people meaning in life”.

He said that a large Mass was held yesterday in Waterford City and that at it “many ordinary people expressed how deeply offended they were by the comments of our head of parliament”.

“It’s unfortunate and it’s unfair and I just hope in the new Ireland… there will be true freedom of religious practice which includes freedom from such unjust comments,” he said.

When questioned on whether he thought Varadkar should clarify or retract his comments in the Dáil next week, the bishop said “that’s up to himself” and re-stated that he and others were upset with the remarks.

Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe told reporters today that the Taoiseach knew there was a need to apologise for the comments, adding that it would never have been his intention to cause hurt. 

Earlier today, Leas Ceann Comhairle Pat the Cope Gallagher suggested that the Taoiseach might come into the Dáil next week and address his comments directed at Micheál Martin.

It is yet to be clarified if Varadkar will correct the Dáil record next week, however Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen said this afternoon that the apology should be given in the forum in which he made the comments. 

With reporting from Rónán Duffy and Christina Finn 

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