“There is a special Providence…at this moment, and turning everything to the great end of the emancipation of mankind, from the yoke of religious and political superstition under which they have so long groaned.”
– Theobald Wolfe Tone, March 1798
The campaign to end non-medical interference in women’s reproductive health is a progressive one, victories in which mark a further step along the long road of building a secular, socialist and democratic Republic in Ireland.
However, progressive activists must not get carried away. The neo-liberal agenda has easily grafted some progressive concerns onto its fundamental economic position of increased exploitation of the working class.
It must also be remembered that the battle for a secular republic is not about castigating or belittling religious belief, it is rather about wholly removing these concepts from public life and placing them in the private sphere. Prior to the advance of rational thought, religion was key to the organising of society, for both good and ill – such a role for it is now wholly detrimental.
In Ireland our great rationalist revolution of 1798 was defeated, both militarily, and in the decades which followed, intellectually. The British Empire’s pact with the Catholic Church was key to its wider push to re-entrench sectarianism in opposition to the pluralistic nation envisioned by the United Irishmen. There is nothing intrinsic to our society of a Church led from abroad and, until the counter revolution of the 1920s, one which made common cause with Empire.
This Church since the famine has however been intrinsic to the hegemony of the middle class in our society. The Catholic Church’s stand against progressive thought largely succeeding in turning the Irish revolutionary movement into a staid nationalistic endeavour.
After the creation of the southern Irish state it continued to hold society back, among its lesser focused upon crimes, underpinning the existence of a black economy of forced labour from the Magdalene Laundries to industrial school children rented out to farms. These economic benefits helped weld the Irish middle class to the Catholic Church beyond the period when such an embrace had deteriorated in other states. Its feudal ideology still has its uses, underpinning concepts of ‘private’ property which help side-line rational public housing provision.
In Northern Ireland the Catholic Church sought to control its community and curtailed, as far as it could, along with many of its Protestant counterparts, the development of independent working class political organisation.
However, the necessary reformation of Irish identity and society should look beyond just the further breaking of the grip of an institution in decline, the focus must remain on the fundamental rebalancing of class relations on this island.