The Green Book – Review

I came to this with mixed anticipation as my US friend had alerted me to it, shortly after its release there, and proposed it as one of her two candidates, along with Roma, for the Best Picture Oscar. Once it appeared in Ireland the reviews diminished my expectations. Many suggested it took an old-fashioned and undemanding view of residual racism in 1960s southern USA making it a slightly updated ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ albeit with role and gender reversal. It was criticised by some for its narrow, intensely personal commentary on what was still an institutionalised racism – epitomised by the eponymous Green Book – and by others for its inverted stereotyping with a rough, ignorant and uncouth white man as the driver and a multi-lingual, highly sophisticated, black concert pianist as his passenger. Having seen it, I find most of these criticisms unjustified.

For a start the movie is based on a true story. Just how closely based is unclear but the mere existence of such a story and of at least some of the incidents recounted seems sufficient justification for putting it on popular record. After all if it had all been invented the story would have been deemed incredible and the director accused of straining for effect. Secondly, the movie has so many sharp edges, scenes of tension and occasionally violence, moments of intense emotion and a subtle development of character in the two protagonists as to discount any comparison with Driving Miss Daisy. Perhaps some were expecting a Rodney King documentary; a story of ordinary poor blacks suffering under institutional neglect and racism and resented getting instead a story of poor urban Italians who had none of the wealth or opportunity of the gifted black musician. Taking the movie on its own terms – which seems only right rather than burdening it with our own expectations – we get a subtle development of an unlikely and, in reality, a lifelong cross-racial, cross-class friendship. Besides there is much more to like in the film. An evocative sound track of music of many genres; exhilarating piano performances ; atmospheric night scenes and a few moments of side-splitting humour all encased in a conventional linear narrative. Both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali give Oscar-worthy performances as, without being didactic, we are shown the depth and complexity of their own histories and the developing relationship between them. Perhaps we are overburdening movies that treat of socio-political settings by expecting them not only to entertain, inform and educate but also to give comprehensive analysis that reflects our current overly conventional wisdom. The Green Book is a beautifully told story of depth and impact and stands tall on that alone.

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Brexit – The Endgame

Samuel Beckett couldn’t have planned it. The Prime Minister of a once-great nation is buried to the neck in dirt of her own making while, Lear-like, she rages against the vicissitudes of the world and the demands of the wily foreigners. Except that she doesn’t rage – she drones – seemingly believing that something she says three times is true – while something she said three times last week isn’t.

It’s over two years now since I wrote here – ktr2016.wordpress.com/2016/10/04/brexit-the-fundamental-mistake/ that one possible way out was via a second, better framed, referendum. At that time I believed, foolishly as it turned out, that Theresa May was a deep, strategic thinker who had figured out that the only way to avoid the collective self-harm of Brexit was to pursue all the negotiations with vigour until the final, best available, deal was defined. Then, I thought, she would find this rejected by parliament and would feel justified in returning to ‘the people’ with a choice between staying in the EU or leaving with the deal. I gave her far too much credit. I now believe that she lacks all the hallmarks of a statesperson. She has no vision, no courage and no sense of honour. Instead she is driven by narrow party loyalties wishing, above all else, to prevent a split in the Tory party. She negotiated a ‘backstop’ with the EU, which forced them to accept, for the sake of the Belfast Agreement, a situation where the entire UK (rather than just Northern Ireland) would be allowed stay in the Single Market on privileged terms. She then told her parliament that the agreed backstop was essential and non-negotiable, before, in the face of another looming defeat, resiled from this position and resorted to another vague form of words so as to get the grudging support of the most extreme wing of her party. She is, she claims, going ‘back to Brussels’ with a clear statement of what the UK will accept – some (utterly undefined) legally enforceable, ‘alternative’ to the backstop. Frustrated Irish (and EU) politicians have pointed out that every conceivable alternative was explored, by the UK and EU, in the past two years of negotiation and the ‘backstop’ was the best alternative they could find that allowed May to retain her ‘red lines’ while protecting peace in Ireland. It is manifest that the EU will not allow re-opening of the negotiated agreement, still less the replacement of the backstop by something less definite, so I can only assume that she intends to return more of less empty-handed and proceed to blame the EU for her and her country’s predicament. Maybe – to paraphrase Myles – ‘I could be wrong this once because I was right all along’ and she will instead, once her agreed deal has again been rejected, reveal that she favours another referendum to settle the matter. Yes, I would be delighted to be wrong but sadly I fear that she is a inept and unprincipled as she appears and that the UK, the EU and especially Ireland, have even more difficult times ahead.

The best summary of the Brexit debacle I have seen so far is in today’s Guardian.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/30/brexit-political-class-politicians?CMP=share_btn_link

Irish Times re Anglo Bondholders

Sir, –

You report (Front page, December 19th) that some junior bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank are to be repaid in full.

It seems they resisted government “pressure” to accept a “haircut” and the courts adjudged that they had the Constitution on their side.

I’m a retired public servant who worked, under contract, for this State for over 30 years. My salary and my pension were reduced by fiat, namely Fempi – the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, and this reduction has continued to this day.

I accepted this reduction as I believed it was, indeed, in the public interest. What sort of Constitution is it that protects people who invested unwisely, lured by potentially high returns, while allowing the long-term penalisation of those who served the State? – Yours, etc,

Dr KEVIN T RYAN,

 

 

 

A Review of S-Town – June 2017

I wrote this after I’d listened to the full series over a week or two in Oregon and sent it to a friend but forgot to post it here. Comments welcome as ever.

 

An unexpected email to the radio show ‘This American Life’ in 2012 was the starting point for this long and winding journalistic narrative (by Brian Reed) which was released – in seven one hour episodes – in March of this year to widespread acclaim. The comments that follow assume you’ve listened to all of them as they are replete with spoilers.

It is a paradox of our time that ‘in depth’ journalism, the kind we associate with the BBC or the newspapers of record, has been all but obliterated by the rise of online content, universal publishing and the frenetic, unreflective deluge of ‘news’ coverage that is calculated to optimise the delivery of potential consumers to advertisers rather than convey anything that is new, still less challenging, to its audience. We appear to have more news than ever but less information and even less insight. It was a promising pleasure therefore to hear about S-Town (short for Shit Town) which took five years to make and required countless edits, rewrites and myriad fact checks in order to bring us a selective but wide-ranging and coherent slice of life in a small, remote and undistinguished town in rural Alabama. The chronology (a very apt word in this context!) of events is, by the end, pretty clear and the seven episodes cover the period from March 2012 to December 2016 more or less as they happened. But the programmes were not released piecemeal so the team were able to edit the ‘earlier’ episodes in the light of what happened in the following years and then present them as if they were a contemporaneous record of an unfolding story. This slight piece of artifice caused me to pause a few times – despite the thrall of the storyline – and wonder if it was really a ‘true’ story or just well-constructed and thoroughly researched historical fiction. Sometimes the editing was just too impeccable as sound bites were stitched into a knowing narrative – knowing more than the listener could ever have inferred.

There were other misgivings, one serious, the others minor, but, in fairness, I should first give credit for some of the excellent work embodied in this substantial piece of journalism. And there is much to like and to praise. From beginning to end there is a balanced approach to complex issues and situations. Subjects including racism, sexuality, poverty, fanaticism and ecology are teased out in the earthy language of the rural poor. Simplistic conclusions and stereotyped personalities are both studiously avoided by the production team so that we meet all our protagonists on their own terms. The tone, register and cadence of speech are captured in the verbatim recordings of the people of rural Alabama (and elsewhere). Initially we hear mainly from John B McLemore, our chief protagonist, as he talks frequently and at length with the narrator, Brian Reed. From the very start McLemore is a profane, profound and intriguing person. A self-taught polymath, who is either dirt poor or very rich, but whose longtime profession is that of horologist, specialising in the restoration of the most complex and rare timepieces. His initial allegation is that a murder has taken place in the town – which he christens Shit Town – and has been covered up because the guilty party is the scion of the town’s richest family. I got the feeling that it was not so much the alleged murder but the range and depth of McLemore’s knowledge that eventually caused Reed to travel to Alabama and meet him. McLemore does not disappoint. He is manic and magnetic. Talking rapidly and precisely about ecology and global finance, while showing his collection of clocks, his numerous dogs and his carefully constructed maze, which can be configured to vary its challenge. John lives with his declining mother and appears never to have had a serious romantic relationship. He inhabits a dystopic world, but he is not irrational, since he can provide scientific findings and published data to support his conviction that the world is on a disastrous trajectory. In the end he can’t provide much evidence for the alleged murder and the story might have ended there. A wild goose chase. A colourful interview. A bucolic road trip. Material for a short, light programme. But instead, John killed himself before the story had been wound up. Reed goes to the meagre funeral and stays on because his interest is piqued by the contradictions surrounding John’s death. There are grasping relatives – from central casting via Florida; Mourning ‘family’ – especially Tyler – John’s unofficially fostered son; evasive lawyer and mysterious town clerk. There is even a ‘death list’ – the names and phone numbers of people John wanted phoned as soon as he died. Most weren’t phoned, for reasons that remain unclear, but Reed follows them up and, in the course of the last three episodes explores and explicates the ever richer story of John B McLemore. Former (male) lovers are identified, John’s exalted status among his peer horologists is firmly established and, with some sense of closure, the cause of John’s terminal depression is identified as being mercury poisoning, contacted by using a very dangerous gilding process – ‘fire gilting’. But the riddle of John’s wealth (or lack of it) is not solved. The strange behaviour of the town clerk (Faye) is not explained and, as the series ends, we are unsure of Tyler’s fate as he has been charged with removing materials from John’s estate which he believes belong to him.

 

It is a compliment rather than a criticism to say that the story leaves many loose ends. These are testament to its real-world nature, where human stories don’t fracture neatly along plot lines but, instead, we have to accept that people’s lives are irregular networks which have no obvious beginning and no clear conclusion – apart from the biological. But I would have liked to know more about the relationship between John and Faye, the woman he rang as he was poisoning himself with potassium cyanide. Why didn’t she phone the people on the list and why did she feel compelled to say she did? And what happened to John’s clock collection? Was it shipped to Florida and sold off? These are minor quibbles and can be answered simply with the statement that the story had to stop somewhere and, at almost seven hours in length, it had already fulfilled its purpose. My main misgiving is with the level of intrusion on people’s lives. Even in the FaceBook era with its pervasive self-exposure I’m uneasy hearing the actual sound of people hearing heartbreaking news; the raging sadness of a mercury poisoned man (who’d been optimistic in his earlier years); the intimate details of a dead man’s love life – which he’d kept so secret while he was alive. Balancing this is the recorded testimony of an impressive life which might easily have gone unnoticed outside a small circle. The education of we, the listeners, in the real lives of poor but stalwart people and, to some extent, in the passionate interest of John McLemore. Assuming that all who were featured have given informed consent and, realising the exuberant mind that was to be recorded for posterity, I’m inclined to accept that the intrusion is justified by the result.

The Making of Donald Trump – review

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Making of Donald Trump’ by David Cay Johnston and I would recommend it to anyone interested not just in politics, US or international, but also to students of journalism, media and modern culture. Johnston is a highly regarded investigative journalist who happened, during the period 1988 to 1995, to cover Trump’s activities in great detail because of Trump’s involvement with casinos and criminals. At that time he was not expecting Trump would run for president but he didn’t rule out that possibility and, to his credit, he anticipated that Trump might win if he did run. His reasoning was that Trump had shown a lifelong ability to do exactly what he wished without abiding by laws, principles or morals and still get away with it. In precise detail, with extensive notes and references to back up his assertions, Johnston chronicles the rise and rise of Trump family and then of the Donald himself. He shows that Trump has perjured himself many times, by giving contradictory answers while under oath, and has had strong and long-lasting connections with criminals of all sorts. Citing Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that ‘character is shown by actions’ Johnston makes no attempt to understand, still less judge, Trump’s character but confines himself to detailing his actions in business and in his personal life where he has shown himself, repeatedly, to be vengeful, dishonest, ignorant and unprincipled. The book was published in hardback just before the election and Trump, true to form, threatened to sue – a tactic he has used to suppress unfavourable press many times. Johnston stood his ground, believing he had substantiated every claim he made and Trump never took it any further.

Even for someone like myself who has read much Trumpology and formed a very low opinion of the man, the accounts in this book are astonishing. Trump has been sued over 2,000 times – most often by people he has double-crossed. His abiding motto – repeated ad nauseum in public and private – is to ‘get even’. His vengefulness has extended to close relatives, former employees and business colleagues. The most extensive set of scandals concerns Trump’s casino operation in New Jersey. On numerous occasions – detailed and documented in the book – Trump has escaped sanction by NJ authorities, even when his guilt was established beyond doubt. His operations in NJ were deemed ‘too big to fail’ so regulators, prosecutors and even the police force looked the other way as he consorted with gangsters, flirted with bankruptcy and broke numerous gaming regulations. More outrageous still are the accounts of property developments where Trump licensed the use of his name – took part, along with his family, in promotional events and materials – and when the developments folded argued that he was not the developer and had no responsibly to the investors who were left high and dry. Many sued him but while some cases are still in progress, the ones that were settled are all ‘sealed’ so no one knows what redress, if any, the investors secured.

Johnston’s strongest criticism is reserved for the US media who, throughout the presidential campaign, failed to challenge Trump on any of his well-documented misdemeanours. Johnston himself asked the editor the NY Times why this was so and got the unconvincing answer that it all happened ‘a long time ago’. Bogus equivalence and a twisted concept of balance led to Hilary Clinton’s deleted emails getting far more scrutiny than Trump’s well documented perjuries, racism and deception. In retrospect Clinton would have been well advised to reflect on this book before her debates with Trump. A single persistent question would have been more effective than any amount of in-depth briefings or memorised statistics. His narcissism and thin skin – combined with his deep misogyny – could have led to a melt down that would have ended his chances.

For anyone who values good journalism, or who has a friend or relation who voted for Trump, it is well worth spending the few euros it will cost to buy this book for your Kindle.

My Man in Havana

 

It must have been around 2001, while I was Registrar at the University of Limerick, that I was asked to host a visitor from Cuba who had expressed interest in the Irish software sector and, in particular, in how UL worked with industry though industrial placements and industrially funded projects. Such visits, by representatives from less developed but ambitious countries, were not unusual – I remember the excellent bottle of rum left by a delegation from Martinique – but this was the first from Cuba. I was intrigued, sharing the general liberal fascination with this feisty Caribbean nation, though conscious that it was by no means the workers’ paradise preached by some.

On the day, I greeted a heavy-set, quiet and bearded man who introduced himself as ‘Jose-Fid’ and asked that I call him by his first name. His card, as chief scientific advisor to the Cuban government, told a wider story, giving his full name as Jose Fidel Castro Diaz Baleart. It may seem incredible but I did not infer that he was in any way related to Fidel Senior, at that time still the all-powerful President of Cuba. I suppose I thought Castro was a common name and since he – Jose-Fid – did not allude to anything political or to his family or relations, I didn’t query him either. So we talked about computing, software development, the nature of industry in Ireland and especially about the best way of training future software engineers. His own background was in nuclear engineering – he had a PhD from Moscow University – but he had been involved in computing, which he called informatics, for many years and was promoting a government plan to establish an ‘informatics university’ just outside Havana.

For many years my wife and I had hoped to visit Cuba fearing, as did many others, that we might leave it ‘too late’ and that the coming, as we thought, inevitable thaw in US-Cuba relations would soon transform Cuba, both good and bad, into a standard less developed Caribbean nation complete with tacky souvenir shops, advertising hoardings, fast-food outlets alongside rampant deprivation. We got a good airfare for the last day of 2008, booking an Air France flight via Paris to Havana. Now comes the embarrassing part. I made email contact with Jose Fid telling him we’d be in Cuba during early January for 10 days, 6 of which would be spent on an organised tour of the west of the island. Politely he replied that he’d be busy for the first few days but that on the last full day of our trip he would love to host us for the day. Since the late 60’s I’d learned much about the Cuban revolution and its aftermath. I’d read of the guerrillas triumphant entry into Havana and of course I knew the year and date it had happened but I didn’t make any connection with our arrival being on 1 January 2009, exactly 50 years since the revolution’s culmination. Of course Jose Fid would be busy – there was a revolution to commemorate after all – but I just assumed he’d other things to do and was happy to take up his offer of meeting on our last day in Cuba.

Our time and Havana and on tour passed quickly. Impressions were manifold and contrasting. A proud people with reason to be proud but hungry to live and not just survive. Outspoken and uncowed in their criticism of the regime (but not Fidel) and yet not fully free either. Impressive medical and educational facilities even in remote areas being constantly undermined by the perversity of a twin currency system that caused surgeons to work as taxi drivers to supplement their incomes. One resort we stayed at had a specialist doctor to care for scuba divers but she also gave massages as these were paid for in exchangeable pesos. Overall it was a country in a controlled but unsustainable situation facing growing uncertainty as the revolutionary generation passed, reluctantly, into history having failed to foster a generation of successors.

The morning after we arrived back in Havana we were collected by a friendly young man driving a Hyundai minivan. He took us to the nascent Informatics University just outside Havana, Jose Fid’s pet project and the reason he’d been so interested in visiting UL. We were met by the man himself and a group of colleagues, mainly women, who were lecturers and admin staff in the college. The training model they had adopted involved the senior undergraduates working with a (state-owned) campus company on the development and delivery of software systems for both non-profit and commercial organisations in Cuba and a few overseas. I recall that they were providing the infrastructure of a modern immigration control system in Venezuela. It was noticeable that the colleagues deferred to ‘Dr. Castro’, as they called him but there was no questioning the high personal regard in which they held him. The ‘Informatics University’ was taking shape in what used be the USSR’s largest overseas intelligence station. Recounting tales of its previous use allowed our hosts to express their abiding loathing for their Soviet overlords who, they claimed, had stripped the site of everything – even pulling the phones off the walls – when they withdrew in 1990. We were told that ‘mass graves’ had been found – to the horror of the Cubans – indicating that ‘rendition’ wasn’t a CIA monopoly.  Next stop was lunch in the Havana Club.  It was surreal to walk through panelled hallways, past a pantheon of US movie stars from the 30’s and 40’s, and enter a beachside dining area where we were plied with exquisite food by a uniformed and thoroughly professional waiting staff. Jose-Fid was accompanied by his (second) wife and by his eldest son (from his first marriage). The latter spoke good English and joined in the animated conversation. I began by remarking to Jose-Fid that the Club seemed like a very exclusive place but he countered that it was ‘open to anyone’ but accepted they’d need many convertible pesos to afford the prices. When I questioned the wisdom of the twin currency system he was defensive saying that it was a necessary evil to fend off the twin threats of creeping dollarisation of the economy and abject poverty. The ‘local’ peso could buy local produce which ensured people could subsist, even on modest incomes, while the convertible peso, linked, unofficially, to the dollar, provided a fig-leaf of independence from the US currency. He wished for the day when, with economic growth, they could end this arrangement and have a strong independent currency. As for political developments, he was more forthcoming than previously. Yes he understood why I advocated multi-party democratic elections but Cuba was not yet ready for that, being under constant subversion and threats of invasion by its mighty neighbour. He was pleased and surprised at Obama’s election but cautious in his hopes for significant improvement in relations. With obvious pleasure he told how, a few days before, on the 1st of January, he had ridden into Havana on a tank, re-enacting the triumphant entry of his father exactly 50 years before. It was the only time I recall him mentioning his father. After lunch he posed for photos with us and we parted with assurances of continuing collaboration. None of this materialised however. I didn’t learn Spanish as I’d intended to do which limited my usefulness to their project. Surprisingly few of the IT staff or students spoke English. A few years later I had an invitation to attend a ‘world congress’ in Caracas, which was to focus on the potential use of IT in redressing the North/South imbalance. No doubt I’d have found the congress was dominated by Hugo Chavez but pressure of work meant I couldn’t go in any event. I

It was in February of this year that I heard, casually, that Jose-Fid had died, by his own hand, about a month before. I found a short article by Newsweek – which didn’t enlighten me much except to confirm the bald facts of his passing.

https://www.newsweek.com/fidel-castro-diaz-balart-cuba-suicide-fidelito-fidel-castro-797917  I contacted Jose-Fid’s office and his colleagues emailed that they were still shattered by his death. I don’t know the current state of the Informatics University but, whatever its state, it will surely miss his knowledge and leadership.

I’m left to wonder why he would have taken his own life. The Newsweek article said he suffered from depression and it may be as sad and simple as that. But it cannot have been easy for a shy, modest but immensely aware person to live his life in the shadow of a twentieth century icon, all the time knowing that the revolution they had all espoused was slowly withering away due, partly, to its internal contradictions but, ironically, probably far more due to the ubiquitous spread of informatics, as Jose-Fid would have called it.

The ‘Repeal the 8th’ Referendum and the Catholic Church – some reflections

Following the resounding defeat of the “No” side, Breda O Brien (Irish Times 16 June 2018 https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/breda-o-brien-a-timid-religion-will-die-fast-1.3531901 ) returned to the fray with an article suffused with resentment bordering on the paranoid. She predicted the scathing headlines that will follow Pope Francis’ visit when – as she expects – there is no comparison with the numbers, the hype and the excitement of Pope John Paul’s visit in 1979. Commentators,from that fuzzily undefined group ‘the elite’ will ‘find it odd that things have changed in other ways since then’ and she claims to look forward to articles about the cost of the visit, which will cry out that ’the money should have gone to the poor’. The main thrust of her article however is that while Irish Catholics only have to endure derision and ‘casual sectarianism’ much worse is to come their way and they should be ready for it. With an infallibility that the modest man from Argentina would never aspire to, she declares that “In reality, the pope’s visit will just be a media circus unless it causes people to realise that there is a cost to being a Christian.” So even if many thousands of Catholics, orthodox and not-so-orthodox, other Christians and even non-believers may take inspiration from the manifest goodness of Pope Francis; perhaps be encouraged by his non-judgemental attitude to their human failings and even inspired to work for equality, justice and environmental causes, Breda dismisses all that in comparison with knowing the ‘cost of being a Christian’. She quotes, with approval, an apocalyptic rant of a US cardinal to the effect that secularisation of society might lead to one of his successors dying ‘a martyr in a public square’.  Her rallying call seems to be, as we say in Munster, ‘Stand up and Fight’.

I’d hoped for something more reflective. What was remarkable about the triumph of the Yes vote was that it cut across all the cliched divisions that commentators ascribe to Ireland. Only one constituency voted No. That means a majority of the citizens of Roscommon, Leitrim or Kerry, voted to repeal an amendment a previous generation had approved 35 years ago. Only the over 65 age cohort had a No majority and that wasn’t overwhelming. A second remarkable feature was the systematic way the question was deliberated upon by Irish society. A citizens’ assembly heard comprehensive expert and lay opinion, met over weekends and eventually came to the near unanimous conclusion that the existing situation was not tenable and that limited provision for abortion was essential. This reasoning and proposal were taken up by an all-party parliamentary committee who came, albeit with some dissension, to the same conclusion. Once the government called the referendum the established process was set in motion. The independent referendum commission circulated an impartial and clear statement of the implications of the decision, one way or the other, to every household in the land. During the TV debates – which many voters cited as influential – a serious effort was made to challenge unfounded assertions; to allow equal time for each side and to inform the public as thoroughly as possible about the arguments and examples put forward by both sides.  The Iona centre, with which Breda O Brien is associated, were prominent on the No side but their hard-line position – that abortion was wrong no matter what the circumstances and that a fertilised egg had the same value as a mother with children – may have contributed to the undecided voters swinging more to the Yes side, against the usual pattern in Irish referenda where they normally drift to the No side, whatever the proposition.

The real problem for the Catholic Church is that it lost the argument. Educated, intelligent and practicing Catholics voted in their thousands against the official teachings of their church leaders because they didn’t buy their arguments. Catholic moral teaching is founded on two pillars – Scripture and Natural Law. As scripture has nothing to say about many of the socio-sexual issues of the day the Church must rely on natural law, the basic premise of which is that an open-minded rational person, whether a believer or not, will be persuaded by the logical argument in favour of the Church’s position. Horrific posters and scare-mongering notwithstanding, a rational argument was put forward based on reproductive science and ‘axiomatic’ human rights but very few accepted it. If an argument from natural law cannot persuade Mary McAleese then it has failed. It is this failure that Breda O Brien should be addressing. The same Mrs McAleese has recently opined that the Catholic Church has yet to reconcile its claim to divine authority with the notion of universal human rights. That is hardly surprising since the church has, over the centuries, often been on the wrong side opposing, as it did, the moves towards freedom of religion, integrated education and access to contraception. Especially in the last case, it was opposed to citizens having the right to do something the church deemed immoral. In Ireland, Mary Robinson, another of our excellent presidents, successfully fought the case for access to contraception, despite vigorous Catholic opposition and this was the first in a long series of defeats. At no time, that I am aware of, did the Irish Catholic church make the distinction between what the State could allow its citizens to do and what the Church could approve of its members doing. The sort of debates that take place in places where Catholics are a minority, albeit an influential one, such as Holland, the USA, France and Australia, has not been replicated in Ireland. In these countries Catholic thinkers try to persuade the citizenry, of all religions and none, as to what is in the best interest of the country, accepting that a pluralist, secular democracy must avoid imposing restraints on its citizens that are merely the teachings of a particular religion. This means they must construct fact (not faith) based arguments that rely on shared human understanding and values i.e. on the ‘natural law’. Unfortunately, the record of the Catholic church, in countries where it had the allegiance of a majority of the citizens, has not been good. In Franco’s ‘Catholic’ Spain, even the public advertising of other forms of Christian worship was forbidden by law while Malta required Catholic doctrine to be taught in all state schools. Ireland was not unique in having ‘Christ and Caesar go hand in glove’.

Looking back on the past fifty years it is clear that the turning point was Pope Paul’s rejection of contraception in the Humanae Vitae encyclical. He did this against the majority recommendation of the expert commission he had established to advise him. That group, relying on natural law, concluded that it could be morally good to limit the size of one’s family and that the means used to achieve that end was of secondary importance. Within the context of a loving Christian marriage it was ok to have sex that was known to be sterile. The encyclical was divisive from the outset but, crucially, as an argument based entirely on rational natural law, it was a total failure. The vast majority of practising Catholics rejected it. Unfortunately that rejection was not interpreted by the church as a sign from the Spirit that the teaching was wrong, even though such a deduction is quite tenable under church principles. Personally I believe that the problem for Pope Paul was not contraception. He might well have been persuaded to follow the commission’s proposals. The problem was infallibility. While the rejection of contraception had not been officially proclaimed as an infallible teaching ‘of faith or morals, to be held by all the faithful’ it had been restated numerous times over the preceding hundred years, most crucially after a Lambeth (Anglican) conference had indicated a change in Anglican teaching to favour contraception. Infallibility really does mean never being able to say you’re sorry. However to save face and possibly to avoid that intrinsic evil referred to as ‘scandal’, Paul felt he had no choice but to stick with the established teaching. Of course clerical abuse scandals and the even more scandalous coverups contributed to the decline of adherence among the Catholic faithful but I am firmly of the view that Humanae Vitae was a wrong turn for the church of Rome, one that has done grievous harm to its standing in much of the developed world.