A prominent Catholic parish priest in Belfast has claimed nationalism is irrelevant, slammed the Catholic Church in the Republic and hailed the Queen of England as a defender of his faith.
Fr Eugene O’Neill has provoked a storm of protest with his comments, made in an interview with the Newsletter newspaper in the city.
Fr O’Neill, the 45-year-old in charge of the parish of St Mary’s On The Hill, claimed that no catholic priests under the age of 45 are interested in removing the north-south border,
He has also told the paper that many Catholics are ‘re-thinking’ their nationalism and said that many are questioning whether. as Catholics, they necessarily had to be nationalist and look to Dublin when the ‘United Kingdom was more respectful of Christian churches’.
He made his comments to the paper in the wake of a broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster.
“As an Irish passport-holder I see the Queen and senior British government figures as defenders of faith in the UK,” claimed Fr O’Neill.
“There are 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.”
Singling out the ‘atheistic’ Tanaiste (deputy PM) Eamon Gilmore for particular rebuke, Fr O’Neill said that the UK Government had demonstrated a respect and appreciation for the role of Christian churches which ‘Catholics could support’.
“I’m 45 - for my generation of priests and everyone below us, the national question is irrelevant; literally irrelevant,” he said.
“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 to explain his comments, Fr O’Neill 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 (PM) 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.”
The priest, partly brought up in Dublin, expressed his shock at the Irish government’s recent decision to close its embassy at the Vatican.
“There’s a continual critique in the South 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,” he claimed.
“Something strange is going on while, at the same time, in the United Kingdom the tide is going the other way.
“When you read that, when you read what David 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?”