Have the Iona Institute won a battle — and lost the war?
A few years ago a delegation of bishops, hand-picked by Rome, arrived to run the rule over the Irish Church. That things had gone awry wasn’t in doubt. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the world, as a Church we were less than we were and well short of what we might have been. Rome wanted to know what went wrong and why and how it could be put right again.
The hope was that wise and learned men would be able to diagnose the roots of the problem and suggest ways of putting things right. Getting the Irish Church back on track again.
One of the proposed anti-dotes to the ‘Irish troubles’ was to put manners on ‘dissident priests’. It didn’t take long for the finger to be pointed at a new grouping of priests, the Association of Irish Priests (ACP), set up a year or so earlier.
We (the ACP) thought in our innocence that we were going to be part of the solution but we found ourselves being designated as part of the problem. Our worst fears were realised when a member of the Iona Institute agreed with an RTE presenter on a popular morning radio show that ‘dissident priests’ should be pushed out of the Catholic Church.
It didn’t seem to occur to the Iona spokesperson – though we feared that maybe it did – that this could involve for the more likely suspects a loss of earnings, accommodation, job and identity, in effect the devastation of one’s life. All of that didn’t seem to matter much. Iona was indulging in a form of cheer-leading, the equivalent of urging the hounds to kill the fox – not a happy place to be, especially for the fox.
Indeed if the defamation had been personalised, there was a great temptation to pursue Iona for compensation. A temptation certainly but whatever it might glean by way of dosh or satisfaction it would have compromised our position in the developing debate about the platform of reform we were proposing for the Irish Catholic Church. If you insist on being in the kitchen, you can’t really start complaining about the heat.
In the recent controversy about homophobia when Rory O’Neill named the Iona Institute and a number of journalists as ‘homophobic’, Iona’s gadarene rush to the legal eagles for their pound of flesh from RTE was both surprising and unwise. If you claim a role in public discourse then you can’t complain about the unwritten rules. It’s just part of the cut and thrust of debate. There’s no place for wilting violets.
Recently Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times columnist, trenchantly made the point that to achieve respect for your position you can’t afford to be seen running to lawyers or be accused of running after the money. You have to take the rough with the smooth in public discourse.
O’Toole made the point by relating his own experience a few years ago. In an anonymous Sunday Times profile, O’Toole was said to have left a union rally some days earlier and driven home in his 5 Series BMW. He was presented as (in his own words) ‘a hypocritical champagne socialist, stirring up the masses from a position of wealth and privilege‘. The fact was that O’Toole hadn’t got a BMW. He didn’t even have a car as he doesn’t drive. And he had travelled home on the ‘Number 13 bus’!
He could have taken a small fortune from the Sunday Times as the defamation was so obvious but he chose instead to get a public retraction. O’Toole’s position, a commendably moral position, was that if you are involved in open and robust debates defamation is an occupational hazard.
Iona made a mistake and I’ve no doubt they would undo that error of judgement now if they the chance. They should have grabbed one of the alternatives offered by RTE, either a right of reply or a donation to a charity. They could have claimed the higher ground by standing above what presented as a form of precious grandstanding. And worse what looked like a selfish rush to financially milk RTE’s predicament.
What Iona has effectively delivered is a new hero to those in favour of same-sex marriage while at the same time allowing itself to be manoeuvred into the role of demon, a soft target now for media people nervous (as they would see it) of opportunist litigants.
Rory O’Neill’s soliloquy from the stage of the Abbey theatre has defined the parameters of the ground of the upcoming debate which has, as they say, gone viral on YouTube and been viewed by almost half a million people. An example of how the debate has moved was the recent escapade on Primetime when members of the audience displayed t-shirts supporting O’Neill. Iona may be seen to have won a battle but will it be at the cost of losing the war? Are at least losing some of its authority.
Few people are, I think, looking forward to the debate on same-sex marriage. Many, I suspect, can’t wait for it to be over. If the opening debate on what constitutes homophobia is anything to go by we can look forward to more heat than light. The lobbing of grenades across open, empty spaces rather than a meeting of minds.
Respect, of course, is the key and while those who show it tend to convince the doubters, a reasoned debate or a critical examination of one’s own position are probably too much to hope for. It will be a long year.