Border debate is irrelevant - priest

�Press Eye Ltd - Northern Ireland.20th February 2011'Father Eugene ONeill pictured at his Glengormley home.'' Photograph: Stephen Hamilton
�Press Eye Ltd - Northern Ireland.20th February 2011'Father Eugene ONeill pictured at his Glengormley home.'' Photograph: Stephen Hamilton
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NO Roman Catholic priests under the age of 45 are interested in removing the border and many Catholics are re-thinking their nationalism, a Catholic priest has said.

Fr Eugene O’Neill said that many Catholics were questioning whether as Catholics they necessarily had to be nationalist and look to Dublin when the United Kingdom was more respectful of Christian churches.

Fr O’Neill was speaking to the News Letter following a broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster’s Thought For The Day earlier yesterday morning.

In comments backing up polls which suggest that many Catholics would now vote to retain the border, Fr O’Neill said that as an Irish passport-holder he saw the Queen and senior British government figures as defenders of faith in the UK.

And, in a blistering attack on the Dublin government which shows how far the church and the state have moved apart in the Republic, Fr O’Neill claimed that there were similarities between how the Irish government is making life difficult for churches and how repressive communist regimes have persecuted Christians.

The Republic is now “a cold house for Catholicism”, he told the News Letter, singling out the atheistic Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore for particular rebuke.

By contrast, he said that the UK Government had demonstrated a respect and appreciation for the role of Christian churches which Catholics could support.

Fr O’Neill — who is a priest in the parish of St Mary’s on the Hill, a parish of 15,000 on the outskirts of north Belfast — said: “I’m 45 — for my generation of priests and everyone below us, the national question is irrelevant; literally irrelevant. No-one is interested in discussing that — people are interested in discussing Europe, what’s going to happen to Greece, whether the Euro will last... no-one is interested in the national question.

“There’s a desire to say that we have to unpick this fusion between one sort of politics and faith because history has shown us that that has always been a mistake.”

Asked what had prompted his broadcast yesterday morning, he said: “It’s been engendered by the present events with the coalition in the south, starting last year particularly with the attack by the Taoiseach in the Dail and the particularly focused nature of the attack on the handling of the whole abuse issue.

“Whilst there is certainly a huge amount that the church at a local level did wrong and it behaved egregiously — there is no doubt about that — it is certainly also the case that the Irish state horrendously failed to acknowledge its part in that.

“That is not in any way to minimise the role of misbehaviour and crime in the church but everyone has to put their hands up if they’re guilty and I felt therefore that it was a very dishonest statement and pretty cheap politics.”

Fr O’Neill, who was partly brought up in Dublin, said that he was further shocked by the Republic’s recent closure of its embassy to the Vatican — something the Irish Government claimed was to save money but has led to fierce criticism.

And he accused the Dublin Government of a “fairly brutal attempt” to remove control over Catholic schools in the Republic from the Catholic church as part of a wider assault by the southern state on Christianity having a role in society.

“There’s a continual critique and a lack of recognition of any positive role for faiths, any positive role for the churches, not recognising the vast effort that they make in social services and the good that they do.

“Something strange is going on while, at the same time, in the United Kingdom the tide is going the other way.”

Fr O’Neill praised Baroness Warsi’s speech last week in the Vatican as a “really, really powerful” articulation of the role which faith can play in society.

“When you read that, when you read what Cameron said, when you see how the Pope was welcomed to Britain — it was amazing — when you see that and how the British diplomatic service engage on the ground with churches, it’s telling a different story.

“So I was asking myself more fundamental questions like: Why in a state whose head of state is in fact the leader of a church, the Church of England, it seems to be a more open space for faith, debate and cooperation.

“Whereas in a republic it seems to be a very cold house for Catholicism and in fact Christianity, where there is a really powerful hostility, exclusion, aggression.

“I also found it interesting in the last few days to see the touching of the hem of the Chinese vice-premier by Michael D Higgins who I remember as a schoolboy was out protesting against Ronald Reagan.

“We know China’s human rights record — still the biggest executor in the world, oppression of massive numbers of Christians, Falun Gong or anyone opposed to them — don’t we have values beyond the economy?”

Asked whether the proposed changes to the Royal succession laws which would allow the heir to the throne to marry a Catholic were significant, Fr O’Neill said that they had little impact on those other than the Royal family and “do not affect my respect for the role of the Sovereign”.

And the Glengormley cleric said that he believed his thoughts were shared by many ordinary Catholics.

“I did a Thought For The Day a few weeks ago on the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession and what we can take from her. On the back of that I got overwhelmingly positive comments from parishioners.

“This morning, I got back from the studio just after nine and again parishioners who I was meeting at Mass were saying ‘I agreed with what you said this morning’.

“I used to be in south Belfast in Malone and middle class professional people have moved on from this issue — I think there is a greater sense of openness and just as people are being more critical of the church, I think people are reassessing what sort of polity they feel comfortable in.”