With Fianna Fail’s support plummeting to record lows, only 11% in recent polls, Micheal Martin sought today to ease the damage done to the party’s traditionally Catholic and rural base by denying claims that his party are anti Catholic and by teasing a return to public Mass in the next month.
Sean Canney asked Martin about the Cromwell like statutory instrument brought in by Social Democrats founder Stephen Donnelly. He also pointed out that churches are safer than other places that have remained opened.
I raise one very important issue for many people in Ireland which is public worship. The statutory instrument introduced by the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, in a very clandestine way and without any notice of consultation, has greatly upset the leaders of all the churches, especially following on from the fact that the Taoiseach had only met them two days before that.
Archbishop Eamon Martin has issued a statement saying that it is highly disappointing that despite the reassurance of the Taoiseach to church leaders that he understands the importance of faith and worship, the Government then introduced a statutory instrument. They consider that a breach of trust.
Many people in my constituency, and I am sure in every other Member’s constituency, went to mass as part of the daily routine, especially retired people. They probably went to 10 o’clock mass in the morning to a cathedral or church where there may have been 20 to 30 people there. It was part of their socialisation and they probably then went for a cup of coffee afterwards on some days. It was a place to meet and have a chat. They took on board the fact that regulations and restrictions were introduced and complied fully with all of them in the interests of saving this country from the pandemic. When the churches reopened, they were controlled and conducted in a way that was exemplary. A church is a hell of a lot safer place to go to mass where there is social distancing than to go to a supermarket or all of these other areas. The churches took on board that they were closed again after Christmas. People are longing to get back to public worship, to receive the sacraments, and to do it in a way that complies with restrictions and with social distancing.
I am asking the Taoiseach for two things. First, will he look at that statutory instrument, which is really and truly a sword thrown into people who just have religion? It is a wrong way for this country to go. He needs to look at it and repeal it, which is very easy to do.
Second, I ask the Taoiseach to let me know how soon will we see public worship coming back into people’s lives? It is important for their mental health and for their ongoing engagement with their religion, no matter what religion they subscribe to. I think about the people who used to go to 10 a.m. mass every day who cannot do that and are complying totally with what the Government has asked them to do, and rightly so.
The Taoiseach responded:
I regard religious worship as a very fundamental right in any democratic society. We should acknowledge that the application of very stringent public health emergency legislation imposes many restrictions on personal and civil liberties. We rarely in ordinary times would apply such restrictions more generally on people. A global pandemic is such a context. It is the common good which must prevail in such a pandemic. I have had a number of meetings. I met in October with representatives of the Catholic Church and met with the wider faith groups on 17 November and again with the Catholic archbishops on 19 February. I met with church leaders, particularly those from of Northern Ireland in the context of Northen Ireland and not of Covid-19 restrictions, on 15 April. That meeting was about recent developments in the North and about emerging from Covid-19 in an inclusive way in terms of the left behind and marginalised communities and to ensure that, economically, we would be more inclusive. There were brief references to Covid-19 at the end of that meeting.
It was unanimous that religious ceremonies would not take place under level 5 restrictions. There was no argument about that. In fact, the request made in October by church leaders was that they were annoyed that religious services and ceremonies were excluded at level 3 and they wanted the Government to consider facilitating Mass and religious services generally under level 3, which we facilitated for Christmas. We facilitated that for Christmas. At the meeting in February, two requests were made, namely, to consider allowing religious worship and Mass for the Easter ceremonies and also to look at increasing the number allowed at funerals, which we are doing next Monday. We have decided to increase that to 25, which is still very difficult for families and people who have suffered bereavement. I think that is one of the worst aspects of Covid-19.
However, I think it needs to be said loud and clear that the only motivation of the Government is to protect life and to protect people from severe illness. There is no other motivation. The Government is not anti-religious. It is not out to suppress religious worship. Any suggestion to the contrary is deeply offensive, wrong and unfair. We are motivated by public health and the guidance and advice we receive from NPHET and public health. The regulation to which the Deputy is referring is a general regulation that covers all indoor gatherings. Internationally, indoor gatherings have proven to be responsible for a lot of spread of Covid. We will be looking at this situation next week. I stated in my address at the end of March that we would look at religious services in the context of the month of May.
This is a very disingenuous response, as churches have not been proven to be responsible ‘for a lot of spread of Covid’. Not a SINGLE case has been linked to a Catholic Church in Ireland. Yet countless cases were linked to schools which remained opened.
Nobody is accusing him or the Government of being anti-religious. We fully understand the reasons for these restrictions being put in place but I believe that categorising religion with the opening of museums is a bit off. There is something wrong with that. Religious ceremonies play a vital role in society and so many people in this country have religious beliefs, whatever religious belief that may be. I understand there is a predicament here but it may come back to the handling or communication of how the statutory instrument was introduced and how it has affected people’s attitude. I am concerned that people across the country are very exercised about the fact that they are playing their part for this country in every way they can and have proven to be a success in that regard, as evidenced by the way the numbers are going at the moment. I compliment everybody for doing that. However, I ask the Taoiseach to think about that statutory instrument and maybe to clarify it for the religious orders.
For the record, we here at Catholic Arena would like to officially accuse the government of being anti religious. The behaviours of politicians on social media recently, on the streets and even from those sending letters demanding that the church pays the government hundreds of millions (in ransom money?) to fund the houses that the government refuses to build, all point towards a viciously anti clerical government, on a par with the worst seen on this island and in other places like Spain, Portugal, France and Mexico. All that we are missing is the violence. Though the behaviour of Drew Harris’s incarnation of the Gardai has certainly flirted with totalitarianism.
The Taoiseach then finished:
I appreciate that the Deputy did not make that assertion but other people have made it and I wish to make it clear that is not the agenda of the Government. The purpose of all of these restrictions, and they have been very challenging for people, is to get to a stage where we can open up, where we can get the level of cases down so low that we can return to religious worship safely, for everybody’s sake. Next week, we will be making an announcement in terms of what we can do. That will depend on the public health advice that we will receive but also decision-making in terms of what we believe to be the correct thing to do. We have said we will look at religious services in our announcement next week for the month of May. We will be doing that. We understand fully that there are many people across the country for whom attending religious service is key. It is key to their spirituality, well-being and faith. We understand that fully and we understand that people dearly want to return to that and to have those opportunities. As I stated, the purpose of the restrictions is to enable that to happen. We have learned many lessons throughout the pandemic. We have made good progress. The people have responded very well and the numbers have come down.
We will likely enter lockdown again and Mass will likely be banned again.
Many Catholics will be organising Rosary Rallies once again this coming Sunday, it would do you much spiritual good to join them, even if in only groups of 3 or 4. You will need to spiritual strength for when the Fianna Fail party who banned Mass, the Fine Gael party who closed the Vatican Embassy and the Green Party who bankrupted the nation and want the church to give them the money to fix it close our churches again before the year is out.
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