Free Press Journal

Irish PM keeps religion separate from politics

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There is a lesson for India in the modernising mission that Leo Eric Varadkar, the half-Indian Taoiseach or prime minister of Ireland, has undertaken without severing links with religious orthodoxy. Last weekend Mr Varadkar made a powerful plea for rational enlightenment while hosting Pope Francis on a historic two-day visit. No country has rejected religious majoritarianism more forcefully than Ireland.

Today’s India may not be impressed but Jawaharlal Nehru recorded in The Discovery of India that poor and starving though she was, Ireland was one of two nations (the other being Nationalist China) to send food during the horrendous Great Bengal Famine of 1942-43. Irish patriots like the executed Roger Casement have acknowledged their debt to India’s freedom fighters. Irish poets like W B Yeats helped Rabindranath Tagore become India’s first Nobel laureate. St Theresa of Calcutta belonged to the Irish order of Loreto nuns that provided West Bengal’s Jyoti Basu with his initial schooling. The Irish Brothers ran schools all over India.

The Pope is head of the global community of 1.3 billion Roman Catholics. More than 90 per cent of Ireland’s 4.8 million people belong to that faith. But many of them are becoming impatient with the bigotry and superstition with which the Church is identified. Their dissatisfaction was evident in the much smaller crowds this time than in 1979 when Pope John Paul II paid the first ever papal visit to Ireland. Nearly three million Irish gathered then to hear the Pope and take part in the Mass he celebrated. This time the crowd did not exceed 100,000. Some Catholics bought tickets and stayed away so that the empty seats could register their protest against the things that were done in the name of religion.


“As Irish citizens, we were all entitled to a ticket to the papal mass if we wished. The taxpayer was funding this visit regardless of their faith, and that was the icing on the cake for many,” said a leading member of the “Nope to the Pope” organisation. The campaign was criticised by Mr Varadkar who said denying people who wanted to attend the mass the chance of getting tickets was “petty and mean-spirited”. “Protest is legitimate and OK, but denying other people the opportunity to attend a mass or an event is not legitimate protest in my view and is most unfair. It should be condemned,” he said.

His comments followed reports that some people had booked hundreds of tickets as a form of protest. One person claimed to have secured 1,312 tickets to the events, including several under the name “Jesus Christ”, and by booking coachloads of people under false transport company names.

They mentioned the 9,000 complaints that have been received of sexual abuse of boys by priests. They mentioned the Church’s ban until recently on abortion, contraception, divorce and gay sex. In his welcome address to the Pope in Dublin Castle, Mr Varadkar mentioned the old Catholic practice of taking away babies from unmarried mothers and placing them in adoptive homes. He also spoke of the notorious institutions called Magdalene Laundries where rescued fallen women were supposed to be rehabilitated but where, in practice, they were often sexually, physically, financially and mentally exploited.

Pope Francis heard it all. He listened carefully, spent more than an hour in private conversation with eight victims of abuse, and publicly expressed his regret for what had happened and promised redress. The Pope isn’t personally blamed for this sorry saga which happened before his time. The more critical among the Irish believe he — any pope for that matter — is a prisoner of a powerful Vatican clique that is engaged in a massive cover up operation worldwide. They want guilty priests, no matter how high their rank, to be subject to civil law (entailing jail or substantial fines) instead of the much milder ecclesiastical disciplinary process involving nothing more punishing than prayer, meditation and fasts.

As a result of the weekend’s meetings, a new relationship between Church and State may be emerging in Ireland. The global Roman Catholic community may also be encouraged to look on its traditional leadership with new tolerance. Both achievements must be credited to a politician who would be an appropriate guest of honour for our Republic Day celebrations if he hasn’t been invited already. Even if Mr Varadkar had not set a pioneering trail, there are enough personal and national reasons to justify such an invitation.

Representing all this, Mr Varadkar, who was sworn in as the country’s youngest prime minister in June last year, is the son of Dr Ashok Varadkar, a Mumbai-trained doctor who migrated to Ireland. The Taoiseach himself, who has visited his ancestral country several times, completed his medical internship at Mumbai’s KEM Hospital where his father had also trained. His dextrous hosting of the Pope on a historic two-day visit demonstrated how Ireland is modernizing. Not even India after the reforms introduced by P V Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh could have changed as much as Ireland has. Instead of Europe’s most staunchly Roman Catholic nation, Ireland takes pride now in all the indices of modernity.

It legalised divorce only by a razor-thin majority in 1995 before becoming the first in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by popular vote three years ago. During a radio interview on 18 January 2015 (his 36th birthday), Mr Varadkar spoke publicly for the first time about being gay: “it’s not something that defines me. I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am, it doesn’t define me, it is part of my character I suppose”.

Ostensibly, the Pope went to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families festival. It was set up on the orders of Pope John Paul II in 1994, and the incumbent pontiff usually celebrates a Mass at the event. While it is not an official State visit, many in the Catholic Church hoped it would help to heal some of the wounds caused by the countless clerical sex abuse scandals of recent years. Several families starting with one from Mumbai told their stories at the open air festival to the Pope and thousands of listeners. The Indian family’s plea was not to let technology overwhelm family values. The Pope listened and gave each of the four members a rosary and a papal medal.

Irish politicians sometimes say that if only India had become independent earlier, they would have followed Nehru’s precedent and found a formula to remain in the Commonwealth. What India can learn from today’s emerging Ireland is to keep religion separate from politics. It’s a lesson India must learn if it doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by ghar wapsi, gau rakshak lynchings and other repugnant forms of bigotry that no modern state can afford.

Sunanda K Datta Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.