The child abuse scandal has finally opened Irish eyes, says Newton Emerson
I'm not comfortable writing this article and I'm not proud of the reason why. The subject matter itself is no longer as shocking as it should be. Industrial-scale abuse of children in Ireland's church institutions has been common knowledge for years. The publication of the Ryan Report merely makes that grim history official. The problem is that I am an Ulster Protestant and the rapists were Irish Catholics. So comment could be mistaken for sectarian point-scoring, which would clearly be appalling.
My squeamishness is shared by no less a person than Ian Paisley. Asked about the report on a Dublin radio station, he would only say: "I have been careful not to come into this fray because there's many people in the fray and I think that the general public themselves have come to their judgement."
Nor could this awkward equivocation be blamed on Mr Paisley's sentimental mellowing. Moments earlier, he had been railing against the Pope for making "claims that are ridiculous".
Writing in Dublin's Sunday Independent, veteran journalist and Irish senator Eoghan Harris wondered if the absence of Catholic abuse scandals in Northern Ireland came down to better monitoring of all children's homes by a state less in thrall to the Catholic Church. However, it has since emerged that the Police Service of Northern Ireland relied entirely on the Catholic hierarchy to supply all evidence for its own "investigation". So the northern state was, in its own way, even circumspect towards the Church.
Protestant tiptoeing around the abuse scandal can be read as either a welcome example of inter-communal respect or an unwelcome example of tribal compartmentalism. But either way, it testifies to the Gordian knot of religion, politics and identity still binding both states on the island of Ireland. This has also been demonstrated by attempts to "sectarianise" the scandal, thereby banging the drum of tribal solidarity.
Consider the following gem from Professor Tom Inglis of University College Dublin's School of Sociology, published in the opinion pages of the Irish Times: "The British had left a legacy of treating the Irish as uncivilised savages. They instituted regimes of discipline and control that were taken over and developed by agencies of the Catholic Church." In other words, it was all the Brits' fault.
Similar views were voiced by prominent commentators and politicians, while the gallery they were playing to made regular appearances in the letters pages.
A typical example, published in the Sunday Tribune under the headline "Anti-Catholic bias", warned that "many of us citizens are Papists (and proud of it). We've also had the usual condescending sneering from elements of the British media, at the church-dominated Paddys..."
What is remarkable about all these classic diversionary tactics is that they had absolutely no effect. The public resolutely refused to be distracted from the core issues of church malfeasance and state complicity.
Since its economic boom, it has been widely assumed both inside and outside the Republic of Ireland that its days as a Catholic near-theocracy are over. But the political establishment did not keep up with the growing secular mood.
Fianna Fail, the party which has ruled Ireland almost without interruption since independence, remains a firm a believer in the "holy trinity" of church, state and itself. In its view, an attack on one is an attack on all and every true Irishman has a patriotic duty to defend the whole.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is among the senior Fianna Fail figures who have felt the need throughout the abuse scandal to emphasise their own wonderful experience with the Catholic orders, as if "they never touched me" was a legitimate response.
Fianna Fail is also prone to paranoid nationalism when cornered. It has spent the past year blaming "the British media" for losing the Lisbon Treaty referendum, with EU commissioner Charlie McGreevy and other ministers uncannily echoing the angry letter-writer above.
There were initial signs that Fianna Fail planned to bluff its way through the abuse scandal, on its own and the church's behalf. However, much to its own surprise, it could not even manage to defend itself.
The Ryan Report made damaging allegations of civil service bias and infiltration by Catholic secret societies. Education minister Batt O'Keefe tried to dismiss the atrocities as ancient history but was forced to make an apology to parliament, his hands visibly shaking as he spoke. There was outrage at the cosy compensation deal arranged with the Catholic Church by former minister Michael Woods. He tried to defend it and was laughed off the air by mocking questions about membership of Opus Dei.
The deference is gone and the knot is cut. Ireland may remain a Catholic country. But there is no institution left that can conflate the country with the church.