Returning to base camp

Returning to base camp
The View


Martin Mansergh


While some Christmas carols emphasise the coldness of the season ‘in the bleak mid-winter’, others emphasise the mildness of the infant Jesus. It is difficult to remember 12 days of Christmas that have been so mild and in most parts mainly dry. The first snowdrops were out even before year’s end.

The tourist season for 2019 seemed to be off to a good start, with a queue half way round the square in Trinity College waiting to see The Book of Kells on January 2. The early Christian heritage of Ireland, reflected in current stamp issues, will always attract interest and admiration.

The turn of the year is a return to base camp. It is always a time for reflection, to see where we have come from and where we might be going, conscious of hazards ahead, but also with new resolve to repair and improve. None of us knows for certain where providence and human will may or may not take us and those that we care for, individually or collectively.


The repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and especially the scale of the vote for it, was a shock to many who had counted on it to remain a bed-rock of the Christian-inspired social character of this State. Unquestionably, many people are happily alive in Ireland today, non-Catholics included, who most likely would not be but for the prevalence of pro-life values. Northern Ireland is the last outpost, where bans on abortion and same-sex marriage remain, albeit under pressure.

Constitutional and legislative bans to be effective need to be enforceable and to have wide public support. The ban on abortion was being circumvented by technology (the unsupervised availability of the abortion pill), and the 1992 compromise following the ‘X’ case which allowed free travel to Britain or elsewhere for abortion and the right to information about it, with which many people eventually became impatient.

Finally, it was circumvented by the citizens’ assembly, whose members may have been representative but who were not accountable, and who were exposed to the weight of expert opinion not public opinion. The final factor was the question of why unmarried women should have to bear the whole burden of responsibility for, and in the past the shame of, unwanted pregnancy. Outside of convicted abusers, where were the ‘fallen’ men?

The matter is not closed, but public opinion should not be alienated, as it will have to be won over to any proposed modifications, such as reconsidering allowing doctors a full and genuine right of conscience, or even to check further loosening of the law.

In the meantime, Christianity surely is not to be defined by one issue.

One effect of turmoil over Brexit has been to make people in the Republic more appreciative of the independence and democracy we enjoy, foundations for which were laid 100 years ago and more. The peace in Northern Ireland won much more recently during the 1990s is sufficiently precious not just to ourselves but to our partners in Europe to justify taking a stand on it. Conscious of our vulnerability, there is a need to stay responsible in our politics.

One of the virtues of our political culture is the relative accessibility of our politicians. The electoral system gives the people more choice, though some might say still not enough.

A dilemma faced by the Church across Europe is whether to try and work through its members in all parties not actively hostile, or to back an avowedly Christian Democratic or equivalent party. Till now, it was natural for the Catholic Church in Ireland to go for the first option, but in changed circumstances there is a temptation to try the second, the difficulty being for a new party to establish credible momentum with an electorate that has multiple preoccupations.

Anyone with knowledge of Irish history will be aware of the role played by the Church as a source, often the main and most important source, of community leadership, social and cultural cohesion, and of national identity. This was particularly true during the centuries of conquest and penal laws, but also in reshaping Ireland and nationalist politics under the Union during the 19th Century, and in underpinning an independent Ireland during the fragile decades as it was being established.

The Catholic Church was more effective than any political or other force in keeping alive a sense of identity, of pride, and ultimately of hope in the nationalist community of Northern Ireland during the 50 years of Stormont majority rule.

The importance of other churches also tends to be overlooked in history books. Prior to 1914, with some notable exceptions, the Protestant Churches were vociferous in total opposition to Home Rule, but later in Ulster among the sponsors of Northern Ireland.

Elsewhere in Ireland, southern unionist opposition to partition from 1917 alongside constitutional nationalists in the Irish Convention came too late to save 32-county Home Rule. Following establishment of the Irish Free State – later the Republic – the Church of Ireland, despite its unionist antecedents and pro-British leanings, preached loyalty to the State.

During troubled periods, the mainstream churches nearly always sought to mitigate or avert conflict, while providing comfort to the bereaved. Latterly, they vitally helped bridge the gulf between democratic politics and armed force, leading to peace.

The two parts of Ireland were for some time relatively closed societies for different reasons. Today, identity is more diffuse, and draws strength from achievement in many fields over the past century, in the Republic and in Ireland as a whole. Excitement over imminent Irish unity amongst some northern nationalists does not yet have the solid evidential basis, which holding a border poll would require. If the people of Ireland are ever peacefully to reunite, some of the dismissive even vitriolic attitudes towards unionist traditions need to be re-thought, and something positive found to say about Northern Ireland approaching its centenary.

Facing 2019, as the Lord said to Joshua, let us “be strong and of a good courage”.