Clamouring demand grows to…Separate Church & State

By Cillian Gillespie

The eighth amendment, passed in September 1983, symbolised everything that is insidious and rotten in the historic tie that has bound the Catholic Church and the Southern Irish State together since its foundation in 1922. It’s passing ensured that right wing, misogynistic Catholic doctrine would be written into law, equating as it did, the life of a foetus with that of a woman. This regressive nature of this relationship manifested itself in other events at the time.

On 7 September 1982, almost one year prior to the introduction of the eighth amendment, a 31-year old LGBT man, Declan Flynn, was murdered in Fairview Park in Dublin in a homophobic killing. His killers were charged with manslaughter and when found guilty, their sentences were suspended, a disgraceful, but nonetheless unsurprising decision, given that “homosexual acts” were deemed to be a crime by the State and the Church. Like the eighth amendment, this event proved how pernicious the ties connecting the two were.

Change from below 

With Ireland becoming a more urbanised society and changing social attitudes, the iron grip of the Church and its teachings came to be challenged, particularly in the period of the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s. The main parties of Irish capitalism, who are the architects of the close connection between Church and State as means of maintaining social control, felt this pressure. They were also keen in this context to present themselves as representing a modern, urban and progressive capitalist system- one supposedly mirroring that of its European and US counterparts and consequently promoted a more secular image.

However, this was thoroughly superficial and their response to the aspiration amongst working class and young people for social change was characterised by conservatism, hypocrisy and cowardice. The introduction of reform was piecemeal and slow. In 1979, when contraception was partially legalised, it could only be procured with a prescription from a doctor and was largely unattainable for those that were not married. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993, a decade after Declan Flynn’s murder and after much campaigning by the LGBTQ community. When divorce was legalised in 1995, it could only be obtained after a married couple were separated for four years.

Their reaction to the tragic death Savita Hallapanavar was to introduce the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013, resulting in a potential 14-year prison sentence being given to those who illegally procured abortions. Since 1983, they were willing to turn a blind eye as 170,000 women and pregnant people were forced to leave the state to get abortions elsewhere. It was only the mass movement for repeal that forced them to shift their position. Similarly, it was only a such a movement in the Spanish State, where its ruling elite has been, and remains, historically tied to the Church, that resulted in the winning and defending of abortion rights.

Control of social services  

While its influence has decisively declined, the power of the Church in terms of its control over health and education is still prevalent- something successive governments have done nothing to challenge. Hospitals that are controlled by the Church deny women the contraceptive pill given that it contradicts the ethos of these Catholic-run institutions.

It has recently come to light that the company that own St.Vincent’s Hospital Campus, where the new National Maternity Hospital will be based, have been told that they must uphold the values, of the soon to be beatified, Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity. If this is implemented it will mean the denial of access to abortion rights and contraception.

Build a socialist left

There is now a clamouring demand for the separation of Church and State, which has been given a massive impetus after May’s historic referendum. However, history has shown, that at best we can only hope for is incremental change from the capitalist establishment and decisive change will only come when they are faced with an explosive pressure from below.

They have proven themselves incapable and unwilling to break the ties between their state and the Church. Today, they will be extremely hesitant about opening up a debate on what kind of health service we need in the context of ending the Church’s dominating ethos and control of hospitals. Invariably the creation of a new secular health service will result in a debate opening up within society on ending the two tier health service we have, and establishing a national health service that is free at the point of use. They will also not want to engage in a legal battle over the Church’s ownership of land that schools and hospitals are established on. In doing so that would be  challenging its “right” to private property, given that it is the largest landowner in the State.

This is why building a powerful socialist left that is willing to break with this backward capialist system is critical to achieving the real change that we need.

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