Tuesday 26 July 2011

Enda Kenny's anti-Vatican stance represents ordinary Irish Catholics

Much of the commentary on last week's Dáil speech by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, where he strongly criticised the Vatican for its failures over the child abuse scandals, has sought to present his intervention as being anti-Catholic. But that would be a profound misreading of its significance. Yesterday's decision by the Vatican to withdraw its Papal Nuncio from Ireland would have provoked a crisis had it occurred even 20 years ago: today it may raise a few eyebrows, but at Rome not Kenny.

That is because he spoke up not just for the victims of child abuse, he also gave voice to the millions of bewildered Irish people, many of whom remain massgoers, who feel utterly appalled by the actions of the institutional Church, both its Bishops and the Vatican. Kenny, himself a practising Catholic, gave a speech that was much more powerful because he understands exactly how ordinary people in his Mayo constituency feel about the Church's attempts to cover up incidents of clerical child abuse even, as in Cloyne, after supposedly tough new procedures had been put in place to prevent a repeat of what had been covered up for decades. Kenny's critique of the Vatican was unprecedented:

The revelations in the Cloyne report have brought the Government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture. It is fair to say that after the Ryan and Murphy reports, Ireland is, perhaps, unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children. However, the Cloyne report has proved to be of a different order because for the first time in this country a report on child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. In doing so the report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict’s “ear of the heart”, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a Canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position is the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion on which the Roman Church was founded. Such radicalism, humility and compassion comprise the essence of its foundation and purpose. This behaviour is a case of Roma locuta est: causa finita est, except in this instance nothing could be further from the truth.

The Cloyne report’s revelations are heart-breaking. It describes how many victims continued to live in the small towns and parishes in which they were reared and abused. Their abuser was often still in the area and still held in high regard by their families and community. The abusers continued to officiate at family weddings and funerals. In one case, the abuser even officiated at a victim’s wedding. There is little that I or anyone else in the House can say to comfort that victim or others, however much we wish to. However, we can and do recognise the bravery and courage of all the victims who told their stories to the commission. While it will take a long time for Cloyne to recover from the horrors uncovered, it could take the victims and their families a lifetime to pick up the pieces of their shattered existence, if ever they do.....

The people, including many faithful Catholics like me, have been shocked and dismayed by the repeated failings of church authorities to face up to what is required. They deserve and require confirmation from the Vatican that it does accept, endorse and require compliance by all church authorities here with the obligations to report all cases of suspected abuse, whether current or historical, to the State’s authorities in line with the Children First national guidance which will have the force of law. Clericalism has rendered some of Ireland’s brightest and most privileged and powerful men either unwilling or unable to address the horrors cited in the Ryan and Murphy reports. This Roman clericalism must be devastating for good priests, some of them old, others struggling to keep their humanity, even their sanity, as they work hard to be the keepers of the church’s light and goodness within their parishes, communities and the condition of the human heart. 

Thankfully for them and us, this is not Rome. Nor is it industrial school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane, smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland in 2011. It is a republic of laws, rights and responsibilities and proper civic order where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of morality will no longer be tolerated or ignored.
As a practising Catholic, I do not say any of this easily. Growing up, many of us in here learned that we were part of a pilgrim church. Today, that church needs to be a penitent church, a church truly and deeply penitent for the horrors it perpetrated, hid and denied - in the name of God, but for the good of the institution.

Through our legislation, through our Government’s action to put children first, those who have been abused can take some small comfort in knowing that they belong to a nation - to a democracy - where humanity, power, rights and responsibilities are enshrined and enacted always for their good; where the law - their law, as citizens of this country - will always supersede canon law that has neither legitimacy nor place in the affairs of this country.

This report tells us a tale of a frankly brazen disregard for protecting children. If we do not respond swiftly and appropriately as a State, we will have to prepare ourselves for more reports like this. I agree with Archbishop Martin that the church needs to publish any other and all other reports like this as soon as possible. I note the commission is very positive about the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, established by the church to oversee the operation by dioceses and religious orders. The commission notes that all church authorities were required to sign a contract with the national board agreeing to implement the relevant standards and that those refusing to sign would be named in the board’s annual report......The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said: “Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church”. As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloyne Report, I want to make it clear, as Taoiseach, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself cannot and will not be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic - not purely, or simply or otherwise, because children have to be and will be put first

Bishop Magee, the former Papal secretary who became Bishop of Cloyne, was perhaps even more a creature of the Vatican than many of his colleagues, but with the sole exception of the current Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, there is little sign even yet that the hierarchy understands quite how much pain it has caused not just to those who were physically abused but to the many more people who trusted its priests and hierarchy to stand for the conservative values their predecessors preached relentlessly in the early decades of the Free State and the Republic.

Ireland has freed itself in many ways from the vice-like grip that the Church had on the body politic: voters have accepted divorce and contraception, though not abortion. The censorship that saw great writers and movies banned has long been relaxed. The bookies' and pollsters' favourite for the Irish Presidency is the gay Joycean scholar, Sen David Norris. The moral attitudes of Irish young people differ little from their European counterparts. Yet, until Kenny's speech last week, no senior Irish politician had captured the feelings of those who were brought up as Catholics, and may still practice, but felt a huge sense of betrayal in that upbringing.

Kenny's speech will surely rank as being just as important in Irish history as DeValera's 1943 St Patrick's Day address during the Second World War (referred to in Ireland as 'the Emergency'), where he talked of "a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens". While that speech signalled another two decades of isolationist introversion, Kenny's speech suggest a determination to grasp the country's failings, social and economic, which had been lacking in the hapless later Fianna Fail years, especially after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

The irony is that eighteen months ago, Kenny was being written off by the pundits as a no-hoper. I joined an RTE discussion that sought to draw comparisons with the fate of Gordon Brown. Yet in that time it is Fianna Fail that has sunk to its lowest ever representation and the Taoiseach has ratings that any European leader would dearly love: a 53% approval rating at the weekend. Kenny's newfound popularity has given the Dublin coalition an unprecedented opportunity to reshape Ireland for the better: it is one that he and his Labour coalition partners must grasp with every power at their disposal.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Hidden by the hacking: end-of-term education manoeuvres

With the eyes of the world turned elsewhere, the education department has been performing a few subtle U-turns that could save it further embarrassment later on.

First, they effectively ditched the whole idea of a National Funding Formula yesterday, as they bowed to the local government lobby and launched a consultation to continue using local factors, effectively a simplification of the existing formula. While many headteachers favour a formula that reduces the extraordinary anomalies that exist between schools in similar circumstances, but across council boundaries, it was always going to be a tall order to introduce the change at a time of funding cuts. There would, of course, have been many howls of outrage if the cuts had been even more severe. But now, even academies and free schools will have their funding tied to local formulas, albeit with the more generous funding that comes from not taking local authority services. Sensibly, they propose to strengthen school forums, but this will need to be more than cosmetic and to avoid gaming, it should have to gain support from a majority of secondary and a majority of primary schools for anything beyond the basic formula. The shift was obscured by a more contentious statement on Building Schools for the Future, where Michael Gove said he would do what he intended all along.

Second, while ministers have clung to the English Baccalaureate in its current form in the league tables, they have announced that the existing vocational equivalences for GCSEs will continue for two years. Had they dropped them quickly, there would have been huge problems for schools adjusting, akin to the outrage caused when the EBacc was introduced retrospectively. However, they have missed a chance to add a Technical Baccalaureate to the mix, something that Kenneth Baker and Andrew Adonis have joined many heads in arguing for. The two year vocational hiatus should allow time to think again on this: but students starting their GCSE options in September need to know what their qualifications will be worth, as do their schools.

Monday 18 July 2011

Anti-immigrant protectionism is not the answer

Until now, it probably didn't matter a whole lot what Maurice Glasman had to say about anything. I quite happily allowed the chatter about Blue Labour to pass me by. Indeed, I probably thought there was something in the attempts to revive things like credit unions at a time of banking crises. His community projects offered a useful counterpoint to David Cameron's Big Society. But Ed Miliband was not in any position to challenge Cameron, and few cared what his 'gurus' had to say about policy. Not any more. Miliband's deft handling of the ever-widening hacking scandal has given him a new prominence, and the utterances of this guru start to matter.

As someone who has played my part in taming, if not slaying, a few sacred cows, I suppose I shouldn't really object if this 'guru' wants to start a bovine bloodbath. But when what he proposes is a troubling combination of protectionism and a view of immigration that would be seen as daringly brave in the Monday Club, it is surely time to question Miliband's wisdom in listening too closely to his views.

To be fair, there is always a bit of Maurice Glasman that is worth listening to: his wish to revive crafts and community has much merit. But it is his corollary of those ideas that can be worrying.

In an interview published in today's Daily Telegraph, apparently conducted for the Fabian Review, Glasman has plenty to say about previous Labour leaders, regarding Tony Blair, who won three general elections, as having a 'slightly demented' view of modernisation. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion. So I trust he will forgive me if I raise an eyebrow at his view of the role of migration in a modern economy, though I will leave any psychiatric analysis to professionals. Here's how Mary Riddell reported him:

[He would] renegotiate the rules on European workers and freeze inward migration for EU and non-EU citizens, except where employers or universities make a case for a specific, skilled individual. "We've got to reinterrogate our relationship with the EU on the movement of labour. The EU has gone from being a sort of pig farm subsidised bloc... to the free movement of labour and capital. It's legalistic, it's administrative, and it's no good. So I think we've got to renegotiate with the EU. His call is to restrict immigration to necessary entrants such as highly skilled leaders, especially in vocational skills. "We might, for example, bring in German masters, as we did in the 15th and 16th centuries to renew guilds."
But exemptions should be made on a case-by-case basis? "Yes. We should absolutely do that... Britain is not an outpost of the UN. We have to put the people in this country first." Even if that means stopping immigration completely for a period? "Yes. I would add that we should be more generous and friendly in receiving those [few] who are needed. To be more generous, we have to draw the line."

Let's just get this straight. We need to stop migration, regardless of the contribution migrants make to the economy. That means losing billions from university students who pay to study in the UK. It means forcing industry to employ only British workers, unless they are German meisters, though quite why they might wish to come here now with their own economy doing so well is not clear. It means that the economy should be allowed to take a nose-dive while we test the theory that those who are currently out of work are ready to take on the jobs that are currently filled by EU migrant labour, in turn surely increasing unemployment in the short term and making it impossible for British workers to work overseas. It means reducing our opportunities to export into international markets. Businesses facing real difficulties can go whistle if they need to recruit abroad to survive.

And, of course, it means leaving the European Union and defying our international asylum obligations to retreat into bucolic splendid isolation. Of course, the whole thing is not just isolationist, it is economically suspect, simply ignoring the realities of globalisation in favour of workerist nostalgia that would even have stretched crudulity in the 1950s Soviet Union. There was a reason that New Labour was an electoral success: it was in tune with the realities both of people's lives and of the world they lived in. David Cameron had to make similar adjustments with his party. The last thing Ed Miliband - and Labour - needs is an attempt to turn the party into an isolationist, anti-immigrant, protectionist force: that is hopefully not where the centre ground of British politics really lies. 

Monday 11 July 2011

More reasonable force in the classroom

I'm delighted to see that the coalition is ending decades of wet liberal discipline policies in schools by giving teachers the right to use reasonable force in the classroom, something they have not been legally allowed to do since that scourge of disciplinarians David Blunkett published a piece of guidance entitled circular 10/98 (with those same rights to be enshrined in a 'right to discipline' in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act). Circular 10/98 said that teachers could use reasonable force where pupils were
  • committing a criminal offence (including behaving in a way that would be an offence if the pupil were not under the age of criminal responsibility)
  • injuring themselves or others;
  • causing damage to property (including the pupil's own property); 
  • engaging in any behaviour prejudicial to maintaining good order and discipline at the school or among any of its pupils, whether that behaviour occurs in a classroom during a teaching session or elsewhere.
It received the backing of teaching unions (aside from NASUWT, which warned teachers off it as it is worried about litigation ) at the time. Of course, there may be a little more rhetorical flourish in the new regulations. But it is absurd to suggest that previous governments have not sought to address this issue. The reality is that it is fear of parental litigation not too much state regulation that is holding back teachers who don't use their existing powers. Perhaps, the parallel changes to the rules on allegations against teachers will change that. But in today's litigious climate, I wouldn't count on it.

Friday 8 July 2011

After the World has ended

I feel sorry for many of the journalists who have lost their jobs as a result of the demise of the News of the World. Like many, I know people like David Wooding, the associate and political editor, to be good journalists who do their jobs professionally. I also still enjoy reading newspapers and recognise that there is a lot to be said for the variety that is available in both Britain and Ireland, and that such competition is in many ways healthy. But I refuse to mourn the potential demise of two unpleasant aspects of a British newspaper culture that have been more damaging to our society than MPs' claiming for duck islands on their expenses.

The first is the notion that anybody who is successful deserves to be brought down, by whatever means possible. Of course, there are those who are breaking the law or being grossly hypocritical, and they deserve to have their hypocrisy or illegality revealed. But the extent of the hacking that appears to have occurred, and the standard fare not just of the News of the World but of the tabloid press generally, works on the assumption that virtually everybody in political or public life is a wrongdoer who deserves to be exposed by whatever means possible. That is the culture that led to a toleration of hacking and apparently of contaminating computers with Trojans, using private investigators to obtain illegally private information or accepting that lying is all part of a greater good. It is not just a problem with the Murdoch press, and if we see it as confined to the News of the World, we will miss a chance to develop a much clearer sense of where the public interest differs from the potential prurient interest of the public.

The second is a degree of prurient morality that holds people in public life up to standards that few people manage in their private lives, and which are certainly not maintained by those who produce the newspapers. This morality holds that the fragility of many private lives must be held up to public ridicule regardless of the circumstances. That was as much the stock and trade of the News of the World as it is of the other tabloids (often, it is true, followed up by the broadsheets with a pretence of po-faced distaste or of inquiry into the activities of the tabloids.)

The inquiries that David Cameron has announced this morning need to do more than get to the bottom of the hacking scandal, or even of other illegal methods used to acquire private information about individuals who just happen to find themselves - even by tragedy - in the public eye. It needs, as Ed Miliband has said, to see a robust replacement to the Press Complaints Commission, one that is legally required to uphold both the freedom of the press and the responsibilities that it has too. It also needs to gain a new consensus both on those responsibilities and the parameters of the public interest. There needs too to be an understanding of where these roles lie in an increasingly electronic media.

Those who argue along these lines have, in the past, been accused of wanting to muzzle a free press. But the way that newspapers have evolved in the last two decades, where even the broadsheets make it difficult to separate fact from comment, has done more to undermine the strengths of a free press than any such regulation. The challenge for the press now is to recognise that this is far more than a challenge for News International: they need to help lead the new rapprochement or they will find that it is imposed on them; and, to do that, they need candidly to admit that, in backing the toothless charade that is the Press Complaints Commission, they have so far failed to grasp this nettle.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

Monday 4 July 2011

Time for a genuine cross-party consensus on care

Andrew Dilnot has produced an excellent report today on the future of social care for older people, addressing head on the fears of many about the costs of care in their old age. His proposals, that the level above which assets are taken into account should rise to £100k is more realistic than the current £23k, while his proposals for a cap on care costs and on living expenses in care are both reasonable. Ed Miliband offered yesterday to develop a cross party consensus on this issue, a generous offer given the pathetic pre-election attitude of the health secretary Andrew Lansley to imaginative suggestions from Andy Burnham while he held the same post, dubbing it all a 'death tax' in a piece of sub-Palinesque (Sarah not Michael) rhetoric ill-suited to such a sensitive subject.

Now there is again the chance to develop a proper consensus on this issue. David Cameron needs such a consensus as it will involve significant costs, and some difficult decisions about how to pay for it. He has been open to using individual Labour politicians on some issues: it is as important to be open to genuine cross-party working where it is so patently in the wider interest. For Ed Miliband, there is a lot to be gained from being consensual on such an issue. It was politically shrewd to speak to the Sunday Telegraph on the issue yesterday.

But this is, above all, about reaching a solution that is right for a growing elderly population, providing reassurance to those not yet in need of care, but also ensuring quality if they do need to enter care. And a lot more work is also needed to provide a proper quality mark for care homes and to create higher minimum standards, as that is as much a concern for many as cost. It is absurd that the Government is scrapping rather than widening the star rating system: families need a single easy to understand system that is clear on both facilities and standards, and it needs to be regulated and enforced by the government regulator. There should also be an equivalent of TripAdvisor where families can add their views and comments, as Janice Turner suggested in Saturday's Times.(£)

Social care is an issue that will not go away. It is something where politicians can genuinely make a difference - and show themselves in a better light in the process.