Emerald Lessons For Iraq
Misgovernment in the land of saints and scholars.


What could yesterday’s Ireland possibly have in common with tomorrow’s Iraq?

Here’s the short answer: indirect but nonetheless effective clerical domination of nearly every aspect of state and society.

The rise of the so-called Celtic Tiger–marked by the Irish Republic’s ongoing economic and social transformation–has dimmed memories of a time when a word from the Roman Catholic hierarchy could result in the withdrawal of a policy initiative, the dismissal of a cabinet minister, or the electoral defeat of the sitting government. The passage of time–just over a half-century–makes all but unintelligible a 1951 dispute in which the Irish bishops denounced state-funded maternity care as “a ready-made instrument for future totalitarian aggression,” since “the powers taken by the state in the proposed Mother and Child health scheme are in direct opposition to the rights of the family and are liable to very great abuse.”

At issue was the bishops’ claimed monopoly over Irish family life, as well as their institutional interests in a health-care system run almost entirely by Catholic religious orders. Less than a month after the issuance of the bishops’ pastoral letter, the ruling Coalition was defeated–a defeat due in no small part to episcopal intervention.

This episode, a stark demonstration of political power without electoral accountability, is but one example from a period when the archbishop of Dublin held as much sway as his elected political counterpart, the taoiseach or prime minister. Nor was the clergy’s influence limited to public-policy matters.

Consider a related example. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), it was widely preached–and believed–that simply to enter a Protestant church was a grave sin. No Irish Protestant of my acquaintance has ever forgotten the circumstances surrounding the 1949 funeral of the Protestant former president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, a genuine hero of the struggle for Irish independence. While his funeral service was taking place, members of the Irish government, acting on instructions from their bishops, remained sitting in their limousines, motors running, outside the Church of Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Austin Clarke, the poet, left this account of that shameful day:

. . . At the last bench
Two Catholics, the French
Ambassador and I, knelt down.
The vergers waited. Outside.
The hush of Dublin town,
Professors of cap and gown,
Costello, his Cabinet,
In government cars, hiding
Around the corner, ready
Tall hat in hand, dreading
Our Father in English. Better
Not hear that ‘which’ for ‘who’
And risk eternal doom.

All this has now changed. De Valera’s Ireland–”pastoral, pure and Papist” in Seamus Heaney’s words–is dead and gone, replaced by a culture at once more prosperous and more materialistic. Two decades ago, the Irish bishops acknowledged that their role in Irish life had long since changed–and changed for the better:

The Catholic Church in Ireland totally rejects the concept of a confessional state. We have not sought and do not seek a Catholic State for a Catholic people. We believe that the alliance of Church and State is harmful for the Church and harmful for the State.
Given the transformation of the relationship between church and state in Ireland, it is appropriate to ask just how–if at all-Archbishop McQuaid’s 1951 edict differs from Ayatollah Sistani’s June 2003 fatwa purporting to mandate–as a matter of religious obligation–a particular selection process for delegates to Iraq’s planned constitutional convention.

Immediately at issue is whether to elect or select delegates. The electoral option would favor Iraq’s Shiite majority at the expense of Sunnis and Kurds (the latter of which belong to both Muslim traditions), not to mention Iraq’s other religious and ethnic minorities: Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and Turkmens, among others. How delegates are selected looks increasingly like a dress rehearsal for the debate over the constitution itself. Iraq’s Shiites risk overplaying their hand by relying on sheer force of numbers–and clerical mandates–to shape the constitution without taking into account the legitimate concerns of others.

There’s also a broad range of views within the Shiite community on the proper relation between religion and state. Hussein Khomeini, a noted Iranian Shiite cleric deeply grateful for the present climate of religious freedom in liberated Iraq, speaks for many of his co-religionists in maintaining that a proper degree of separation benefits both religion and the state. Indeed, some 60 percent of Iraqis (and 66 percent of Shiites) said they did not want an Islamic state in the only independent, scientific, and nationwide poll of the question, conducted by in August by Zogby International.

Religious edicts like Ayatollah Sistani’s risk closing down debate on public-policy issues before that debate has even begun. An even more serious risk for the future is that of clerical governance by remote control–short-circuiting the political or judicial process–through the issuance of fatwas binding elected officials, judges, and civil servants alike. Ireland in the mid 20th century offers a troubling precedent.

A colorful Irish turn of phrase for matters of acknowledged fact is that even the dogs in the street know what’s up. In the matter of government-by-fatwa, does the Coalition Provisional Authority know what’s up?

Jack Cullinan handled Northern Irish matters at the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as a senior foreign-policy adviser for the U.S. Catholic bishops.


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