This is my talk last night at the debate in Queens University Belfast, supporting the motion that Religion has Poisoned Politics on the Island of Ireland. It also includes some points that I made not in the speech but in the questions and answers.
Thank you for inviting me. On the way in, I saw a poster for this debate, and after the words ‘Religion has Poisoned Politics on the Island’, somebody had handwritten ‘Especially Taigs’. So I thought, that’s the debate won already, and I’ve brought in the poster as exhibit one in favour of the motion.
I think it is clear that religion has poisoned politics, and indeed that politics has also poisoned religion, not only on the island of Ireland but also everywhere that the two exist together.
This is because politics should be about governing the world that we live in, and there is enough to deal with in governing this world. People have the right to believe whatever they want about the supernatural, and to manifest those beliefs without infringing on the rights of others. And in order to protect equally everybody’s right to believe all of these different things about the supernatural, the State must remain strictly neutral on these questions, and leave it up to individuals and churches and other groups to deal with them.
In effect, the partition of Ireland gave us a sectarian Protestant State in Northern Ireland and a sectarian Catholic State in the south. The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland was large enough to ensure that they were not completely oppressed, but the Protestant minority in the Republic was too small and most of them either emigrated or kept their heads down.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Catholic Church started poisoning politics from the time the State was founded, through both its Hierarchy in Ireland and its pretend State in the Vatican. Our first film censor said his philosophy for his job was “I know nothing about films, but I do know the Ten Commandments.”
The 1937 Irish Constitution includes a preamble that says all authority comes from the Holy Trinity, and an article in which the State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. This article is not even protecting the right of the citizens to worship this god, it is protecting the right of this god to be worshiped by the citizens. The idea that a being that created a universe of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains a hundred billion stars like our sun, would need to have its rights protected by Eamon de Valera and the Irish Catholic Hierarchy is a bit bizarre.
During the 1940s to the 1960s, we had the Noel Browne and John McGahern cases. Browne had to resign as Health Minister when the Catholic Hierarchy objected to a welfare scheme that he introduced called the Mother and Child Scheme, and McGahern was dismissed as a teacher in a Catholic-run school because he had a novel banned and married an English Protestant woman in a registry office. These cases demonstrated the two obsessions of the Catholic Church in Ireland: sexual morality and control of the education system.
In the 1970s, the IRA used condoms in the internal mechanisms of bombs, and some IRA members objected to using condoms on moral grounds. And Charles Haughey introduced a Health Bill that allowed people to buy condoms, but only if they were married and had a doctor’s prescription saying that they needed the condoms for bona fide family planning purposes.
In the 1980s, a vote to remove the ban on divorce from the Constitution was defeated. This was around the time that Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland were campaigning against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The day after the result, Martin Turner had a great cartoon in the Irish Times titled ‘United Ireland At Last’. It had a cartoon Protestant Orange Man wearing a large rosette saying ‘Ulster Says No’, linking arms with a cartoon Catholic Paddy Irishman wearing a large rosette saying ‘So does Munster, Leinster and Connacht.’
In the 1990s we had the X Case, in which the Irish State took out an injunction to prevent a raped teenage girl from traveling to England for an abortion. And we had a great example of how silly sectarian bigotry can be, when Ireland played Denmark in Lansdowne Road at football. Irish fans of Glasgow Celtic were booing Peter Lovenkrands of Denmark because he played for Glasgow Rangers. Or at least, they thought they were. Actually, they were mistakenly booing Peter Madsen of Brondby, who must have wondered what he had done to deserve such a reaction.
In the 2000s, we had the most serious manifestation of how religion has poisoned politics in Ireland. It was finally exposed that, for decades, while all of the above was going on, Catholic priests were raping and abusing children, and the Catholic Church was covering this up by moving the priests around, with the passive acquiescence of the Irish Government who did not properly investigate any claims made against the Church.
It is in this context of all of this that Atheist Ireland was founded as an advocacy group a few years ago. We promote not only atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, but also a secular State where religions do not have undue influence on political decisions. A secular State is different from either a religious State or an atheist State. And moving towards a secular State is how we will move towards a situation where religion no longer poisons politics on the island of Ireland.