Thursday, October 24, 2013

Emer O'Kelly: Oath has no place in true Republic of Ireland

http://cdn4.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/article29674362.ece/ALTERNATES/h342/NWS_20131020_OPI_032_29323762_I1.JPGIT WAS a potential problem that seemed to go away very fast; the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore sought legal advice before he attended his first meeting of the Council of State when it was convened by President Higgins last July to consider the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

Council members are constitutionally required to swear an oath before sitting, which includes the words "In the presence of Almighty God. . . I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare. . .". 

The Tanaiste, who told Pat Kenny during an interview in 2011 that "I doubt rather than I believe" concerning the existence of God, sought and received legal advice on the taking of the oath. 

Subsequently, his spokesman confirmed that he would take the oath in order "to comply with his constitutional obligations".

So everything went swimmingly; the Council met with everyone duly sworn in, including the Tanaiste. And another possible constitutional crisis was averted.

But it would seem that concerns remain, and rightly so. 

Six of the President's own nominees to the Council have now made a submission to the Convention on the Constitution. They want the Convention to consider if it is appropriate for public office-holders to have to take religious oaths.

Only one presidential nominee to the Council of State, historian Gearoid O Tuathaigh, did not join in the submission which the six (who include former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness, to whom the State already owes much for her wisdom and dedication to essential justice) made in their individual capacities. 

They told the Convention that the respect due to religion and those who profess it is "sacrosanct". 

But they suggested that to "require a citizen to publicly profess a faith, any faith, as a pre-condition to enter and hold public office serves neither religion nor the ideal of a public space open to all who are willing to contribute to the common good in a Republic".

There's that word again: republic. 

A word which, in Ireland, has been equated with nationalism since before independence, when it is, in fact, the antithesis of it. 

Nationalism is narrow and inward-looking, and in Ireland has been synonymous with Roman Catholicism; republicanism is inclusive, internationalist, and not even pluralist, but secular.

So of course, if we are a Republic, all our public offices should also be secular. That does not, and will not, mean that Ireland is not a Catholic country: the majority of its people profess to belong to the Church of Rome.

The same is true of France. But its official title is the "French Republic" and it is unambiguous in its republican legal structure; religion, any religion, is not permitted to enter into its law-making, its public services, its education system, and its health system.

The country's rigorous republicanism has not resulted in French Catholics "losing their faith", as the phrase used to be.

It was that fear which so rigidly controlled Irish life for so many generations, and indeed still controls our health system, although Ruairi Quinn as Minister for Education is attempting to make progress towards a republican ethos in our education system (albeit at glacial speed).
The submission to the Convention declares that the requirements of Article 31.4 "could exclude or cause embarrassment to atheists, agnostics and humanists. It could also be unacceptable to Quakers and other Christians who do not approve of religious oaths, and to members of other non-Christian faiths". And that's one heck of a slew of the citizenry.

What's more, the mild language belies the fact: the Article does exclude and cause embarrassment to such categories of people. Or it should.
If you decide to take the easy way out, and regard an oath merely as an empty formula (for which we have a political precedent in Eamon de Valera concerning the Oath of Allegiance), you are effectively committing blasphemy. Let's remember the First Commandment of the Christian Churches: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
Leaving aside the grave sinfulness of such behaviour for a believer, it is also against the law of the land. It may be ludicrous that blasphemy is against the law, since its definition can be subjective. ("Jaysus" uttered in irritation can be termed blasphemy in some minds.)

But Dermot Ahern as Minister for Justice brought in laws against blasphemy only a few years ago, saying they were required under the Constitution.
Leaving that aside, there may be many other reasons not to take an oath in which you don't believe.

You may have too much respect for the religious beliefs of others to insult them so grossly by silently degrading the solemn oath that is the basis of their faith. You may have too much respect for your own integrity to imply a public lie which spits in the face of a serious public commitment.

You may have enough respect for the institutions of the State of which you are a citizen that you are prepared to tell only the absolute truth in giving your allegiance to its institutions.
Those are the honourable reasons for refusing to take an oath in statutory situations, from the simple procedures of the District Court up to the awesome responsibility of being a member of the Council of State. They should also be the bottom line in all judicial situations which currently require an oath; principle demands a refusal to take the oath.
If you deny the existence of a Prime Being (an atheist); if you are unsure (an agnostic); or if you owe allegiance to a god other than the Christian one (Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and many others), you are honour bound to refuse your country's most eminent duty: membership of the Council of State.

And right down the line, you are faced, in honour, with decisions which, by definition, disenfranchise you as long as the religious oath is a constitutional requirement.
In simple language, if you are not a baptised member of one of the Christian Churches in this country, you are denied the right to serve it or to be honoured by it.

The only contemporary comparison is a remark made by George Bush as president of the United States: "Atheists are not citizens. We are a nation under God."

Even supposed republics can make mistakes.

In the case of America, it once went to the polls and chose an idiot as its president.

But only once.

In our case, we also like to call ourselves a Republic.

As things stand, we're a George Bush Republic.
We can continue to exclude eminent and wise members of our society from serving it, or we can replace religious oaths with a solemn affirmation that is entirely inclusive.

It's a choice which will say a lot about the reality of our supposed abandonment of sectarianism.

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