A swing to the left in Ireland’s Feb. 25 general election, largely due to public anger over a crippling economic crisis, will see a raft of controversial changes in the country’s traditionally conservative social policy and is likely to see new church-state controversies emerge. 

The March 6 agreement on a new program for government between the center-right Fine Gael Party and the newly dominant leftist Labor Party reveals, among other things, moves on same-sex marriage and reducing the influence of the Church in education. However, a Labor plan to legislate to introduce abortion appears to have failed. 

The election campaign was dominated by the economy with little debate on issues of family and life. With unemployment stubbornly resting at 13.4 percent, many voters concentrated solely on the parties’ economic proposals. Even the country’s Catholic bishops chose only to mention the defense of traditional marriage on Page 19 of a 24-page pre-election pastoral, while abortion and the right to life was relegated to Page 21.

Liberal social reforms 

The document shows that Fine Gael dominated on economic policy, with Labor forced to accept many traditionally conservative proposals on the economy, including a freeze on tax rates and cuts in public spending. Labor’s reward? Most of their divisive liberal social reforms get the green light. 

Efforts to legalize abortion are off the table, at least for now. Fine Gael got their way with the matter being referred to an “expert group” for report rather than Labor’s desire for immediate legislation. Pro-life activists are cautious, however. A spokesman for the Pro-Life Campaign told Our Sunday Visitor: “It’s obviously welcome that there is no plan to legalize abortion in the program. But we don’t know what will come from this so-called expert group, or even who will be represented on it. 

“What happens if that group recommends abortion legislation? Will the government accept that advice? We need more clarity on this,” he said. 

There’s also precious little clarity on bioethical issues. The document promises to “clarify the law surrounding assisted human reproduction” and “regulate” stem-cell research. 

David Quinn, director of the pro-family think tank The Iona Institute, said: “Labor have said they want to introduce embryonic stem-cell research. We can only read from the word ‘regulate’ that they want some sort of regulatory environment around it.” 

“That is hardly progressive at a time when it’s clear that all the advances in stem-cell research is coming from using nondestructive adult stem cells,” he said. 

On the issue of same-sex marriage, the agenda is clear. A constitutional convention will be called to bring forward plans on the issue. John Murray, a lecturer at the Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin, said the move will “considerably undermine traditional marriage.” 

“It means the government will be orchestrating a situation where there is no longer any social institution aimed at encouraging men and women to raise their children,” he said. “Currently, opinion polls indicate substantial support for same-sex marriage, but this support is likely to be soft, and much of it would evaporate when the issue is properly debated.” 

Church-state tensions 

Catholic bishops have yet to comment on the government program. However, before the election, Primate of All Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady warned that any move to undermine the family based on marriage between a man and a women would be likely to face a Supreme Court challenge. 

Education may prove to be the key battleground between the government and the Church. Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan’s educational platform is to “negotiate” the takeover of schools owned by the 18 religious congregations named in the Ryan Report into institutional abuse. 

A spokesman for the congregations insisted they retained all their constitutional rights to private property. 

Several congregations are involved in a High Court challenge to government plans to rezone their lands, dramatically reducing the value of the land and the Church’s assets. 

The document also reveals plans to change current exemption in equality legislation that allows the Church and other faith-based organizations to refuse to employ people who they fear may undermine the ethos of the religious group or institution. Catholic bishops, along with their Anglican counterparts, successfully fought plans to remove the exemptions in 2008 and would be likely to form an alliance again. 

In a statement congratulating new legislators, the Irish bishops’ conference appeared to harden their commitment to traditional issues. 

“Notwithstanding society’s understandable preoccupation with economic recovery, our obligation to defend the dignity of every human person and protect the common good must not be forgotten at the present time,” the hierarchy noted. “Public policy should always support and protect the common good. Strengthening the family, based on marriage between a man and a woman, as well as promoting and protecting human life at all its stages is fundamental in this regard.” 

Social-justice issues 

On welfare, prominent social-justice campaigner Father Sean Healy welcomed commitments to stop cutting social welfare rates further and reverse the cut in the minimum wage introduced by the outgoing government. The plan also commits the new government to reach the target of spending 0.7 percent of gross national product on aid to the developing world by 2015. 

Issues of social welfare aside, the next five years are set to be a difficult time for church-state relations in Ireland and prove challenging for people of faith. Much of the heavy lifting will fall to lay groups and organizations, because the Catholic hierarchy has suffered considerable loss of moral authority after almost 17 years of revelations of clerical sexual abuse. 

“Ordinary Catholic citizens have to step up to the plate and see the importance of fighting for these issues. They can’t leave it to others. They need to constantly remind their public representatives that they are watching and will not support them in future elections if Catholic values are undermined,” Quinn told OSV. 

Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.

Power Shift (sidebar)

Ireland’s political system is unique among European democracies. The left has traditionally been weak and struggled to make gains. Elections have been dominated by two center-right parties who were, in fact, united before a divisive civil war following independence from Britain in 1922 and agree on virtually everything. 

Ironically, it was the losing side in that civil war, the Fianna Fáil (“Soldiers of Destiny”) party, led by Eamon de Valera, that has governed Ireland for three out of every four years. In contrast, Fine Gael (“Gaelic Nation”), the party led by Michael Collins that emerged victorious in the civil war, has struggled in second place, sometimes forming a coalition with a weak Labor Party. 

That is until this election, which has seen a huge swing to the left. Fianna Fáil won just 20 seats, while Fine Gael increased their representation by 25 seats to 76 (just seven short of a majority). Labor jumped from 17 to 37 and joins Fine Gael as the junior coalition partner.