Bertie Ahern on Interfaith Talks
Speech by an Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern T.D. at the Inauguration of the Structured Dialogue with Churches, Faith Communities and Non- Confessional Bodies in Dublin Castle, on Monday, 26 February 2007, at 3pm.

I am honoured to address you today at the inauguration of a new and important strand in the civic and political culture of this State. It marks the beginning of a process which will build better understanding across a more diverse society. It will also advance to a new and more appropriate basis the relations of mutual respect and engagement between the civil authorities and those who lead our Churches, Faith Communities and Non-Confessional Bodies, which have been so significant in shaping the ideas, values, and even identity of so many of our people.

It is little over two years since the Government indicated its intention to consult on the idea of initiating such a process of structured dialogue. We have proceeded carefully and with deliberation. In the first instance, we sought and received the reaction of the various bodies to the concept of such a dialogue. I am pleased to say that the response was overwhelmingly positive. Subsequently, the Government adopted a framework within which this dialogue might be conducted. Again, we engaged in a process of consultation as to the acceptability of these proposals. Once again, the response was broadly positive and supportive. We have, more recently, engaged in informal dialogue with the individual Churches, Faith Communities, and other bodies about the initiation at a bi-lateral level of this dialogue. Such bi-lateral discussions will commence shortly. The Government considered it appropriate that we should mark our arrival at that point by this formal event, which brings together so many who are centrally involved in the spiritual life and the dialogue of values of this society.

I welcome the presence here of members of the Diplomatic Corps, of the Social Partners and of Government Departments and agencies, marking the significance of, and interest which has been displayed in this process.

I would like to say a little about the background to the Government�s decision to embark on this process. The first consideration was the fact that engagement with and, respecting the voice of the key institutions of civil society is a key part of the democratic process. This was reflected, most forcefully in the draft constitutional treaty for the European Union.

Article 1-52 of the draft Treaty recognises the identity and specific contribution of the churches and philosophical and non-confessional organisations and commits the Union to maintaining an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations. This provision complements the terms of the preamble to the Treaty which acknowledges the inspiration drawn from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.

The legitimate role of the Churches and Faith Communities in the public life of the Union is thus acknowledged. The participation of civil society and the recognition of, for example, social dialogue in the draft Treaty makes the provision for dialogue with the churches entirely proper and welcome.

The Government considers that the principle of a structured dialogue with the churches is equally applicable at national, as at Union level. It would be anomalous if such recognition and dialogue were occurring in Europe, without its clear counterpart at home.

In addition, we are dealing with a much more diverse range of Churches and Faith Communities than in the past. This multicultural reality requires a new and sympathetic response from the civil authorities, while continuing to respect the position of the larger and more established denominations and faith communities.

There are many mechanisms to support participative democracy in this country. They range from the social partnership process at national level, through to the work of County Development Boards and the community fora which advise them. We also have principles of consultation for the development of public policy set out in the White Paper on Better Regulation.

I believe that it is entirely appropriate that we should have arrangements for dialogue with the churches, which play such an important part in the life of our country and of so many of our citizens. This structured dialogue does not, in any sense, compromise the principle of democratic accountability for policy.

Our second reason for structured dialogue is the importance of understanding the beliefs and values which have shaped our institutions, customs and values and which provide the key to the overall sense of identity of so many of our people.

Relations between Church and State in Ireland are at the core of our shared history over many centuries. Some of that history has been about those who were included either as an established church or as a church that under our Constitution enjoyed a special position. More of that history is about those who were, or at the very least perceived themselves, to be, excluded.

We are here today not to recreate a special or privileged relationship with any denomination or creed. Rather the Government wants to inaugurate a new departure and an open dialogue with all denominations that is respectful of every faith and that is equally mindful of those who profess none. It would be an irony of history if Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, having each experienced exclusion at some phase in our history, should now be bound together in a shared feeling of indifference from a secularised state.

Ireland shares in the inheritance of over two thousand years of Christianity. This heritage has indelibly shaped our country, our culture and our course for the future. We are home too, to people of other faiths and it is a special feature of the past decade that we have welcomed, what in a historical context, are relatively large numbers of non-Christian people.

A fast changing Ireland needs not only to adapt and to move on. It needs to cherish its roots, if our society is to mature and to flourish.

Turning our back as a country on our living and vibrant life of religious faith would be a loss and would be a mistake. Religious belief is at the core and bedrock of the values of a very great number of people in our society. The moral attitudes inculcated in a culture of faith are at the core of the beliefs of very many more people who would not particularly consider themselves aligned with any particular creed or denomination. If modern Ireland were to dislocate from its hinterland of religious belief, our culture and our society would be cut adrift from its deepest roots and from one of its most vital sources of nourishment for its growth and direction into the future.

That governments cannot legislate for morality is an old and true saying. The government of this republic is not and must not be sectarian. It is not our role to promote, or to actively protect the role or position of any church or faith.

What we can do, however, is be open and attentive to the views, the attitudes and the valuable contribution of all our religious communities to the ongoing life and future direction of the nation. Ireland at the beginning of the twenty first century did not arrive ready made, with a set of views and attitudes, in a vacuum packed container. Our country, our strengths and our weaknesses are all part of a long gestation of history, of culture and of religious belief. We cannot understand who we are today, let alone where we hope to go tomorrow, if we do not first understand and listen with an open ear to the deepest influences within our national life.

A further consideration in initiating this process is the recognition of the contribution which the Churches and Church personnel have made to the building up of this country and its place in the world.

Wherever in the world Irish representatives travel, we find direct evidence of the extent to which Irish men and women of all Christian traditions have been inspired by the Gospel to find new homes and new communities, far from their place of birth.

They have contributed much to the building up of nations across the globe. They have created a powerfully positive image for our country and its people, far beyond the impact our population would suggest.

At home, it is to many visionary Church personnel, from all the denominations on the island, that we owe particular thanks for facilitating our education as a people. It is they who recognised the importance of education for life. Thanks to those men and women, many gifted children from less privileged backgrounds were able to realise their full potential in life. At a time when the expectations and opportunities for young women in Ireland were extraordinarily limited, religious sisters were the loudest, and sometimes the only champions of education for girls. This contribution endures, despite the shadow cast by other, more painful events.

Embarking on this initiative, the Government is also anxious to develop its relationship with the non-Christian traditions. The Jewish community has been present in Ireland for many centuries and has played a very substantial part in the commercial, cultural and political life of Irish society. The community has provided personalities who have made a profound contribution through their leadership in their chosen field of activity. As a Dubliner, I am acutely conscious of the distinctive role of the Jewish community in this city. Indeed the very image of the modern Dubliner has, thanks to Joyce, been forever associated with the inheritance of it�s Jewish community. It is a matter of great concern that the characteristically �Irish� Jewish community should continue and thrive.

Recent patterns of migration very substantially increased the size of the Islamic community in Ireland. Their presence here has enriched the cultural life of our society. The pattern of events at a global level have underlined the importance of developing better knowledge, closer relations and a climate of inclusion and respect as this growing community develops its place within Irish society. It requires us, for example, to recall and appreciate the contribution which Islamic scholars and leaders made to the European inheritance, in philosophy, the sciences and literature. We do well also to recall that large Islamic populations have lived in parts of Europe for very many centuries and are an intrinsic part of the European experience.

We would do well to recognise that the churches and faith communities can be, in themselves, a powerful means to help those who migrate to this country to feel at home and to be confident in their new environment. This is most likely when their churches and faith communities are themselves confident of their place of respect in Irish civil society.

There are some who feel that the modern era is one with a shrinking role for religion, religious belief and religious identity. Our own experience over recent years demonstrates that this is not the case. On the contrary, so much of what is happening within our society and in the wider world is bound up with questions of religion, religious identity and religious belief, that Governments, which refuse or fail to engage with religious communities and religious identities, risk failing in their fundamental duties to their citizens.

There is a form of aggressive secularism which would have the State and State institutions ignore the importance of this religious dimension. They argue that the State and public policy should become intolerant of religious belief and preference, and confine it, at best, to the purely private and personal, without rights or a role within the public domain. Such illiberal voices would diminish our democracy. They would deny a crucial dimension of the dignity of every person and their rights to live out their spiritual code within a framework of lawful practice, which is respectful of the dignity and rights of all citizens. It would be a betrayal of the best traditions of Irish Republicanism to create such an environment.

We must, however, equally be alive to the rights and position of those who do not subscribe to religious faith. Many have contributed to building up Irish society and to the quality of our democracy, and the humanity of our society, from a philosophical basis which owes little or nothing to religious belief or practice. It is a special care for Governments in a society like ours - where religious belief and practice has shaped so much of our culture and institutions - to respect and provide for, and engage with and listen to, those who articulate public positions from such a perspective. The dialogue process which we are inaugurating today includes, as a core and defining feature, engagement with that important and growing section of Irish society.

I believe that all issues of mutual interest and concern can, in principle, be covered by structured dialogue. This process will not displace the well-established lines of communication between churches and church-based organisations on specific issues of concern to them, such as the administration and funding of services. Any dialogue of this kind must, of course, be transparent and open.

Rather, these opportunities for enhanced dialogue should relate to issues of faith itself and the role of the churches in society, on the one hand, and their views on major social and policy issues, on the other.

We live in a pluralist society, where doubt and disbelief exist side by side with an increasing diversity of faiths. But it is also a time of hope; a hope born of the vibrant traditions of our people and of the ultimate vision which has inspired men and women of faith over many generations.

There is hope, too, in the recognition that embracing difference and diversity can intensify and deepen self-understanding. As I have said before, the State is not indifferent. It is a willing partner with the Churches, a grateful beneficiary of the cultural and spiritual efforts of communities of faith, and a supporter of the search for reconciled and harmonious diversity among the Churches and Faith Communities.

As a society and as a Government, we treasure the spiritual, and we respect the prophetic role of spiritual leaders.

Following today�s event, we will proceed to engage in bi-lateral discussion with each of the Churches and Faith Communities and non-Confessional Bodies. The agenda for these initial discussions will be settled over coming weeks. We have engaged with those bodies and communities with a reasonably national spread of achievements and an interest in the dialogue with us. I expect that the scope and structure of the dialogue will endure over time.

I believe that we are today putting in place a process which will build up a more tolerant, inclusive, reflective society, which will continue to change and evolve but which, like all societies over time, will continue the search for the meaning of life, the basis for the living of a good life, and the means to live in peace and harmony with our neighbours.

Thank you.


Update 12 June 2011
I'm happy to say that I'm delighted that I never attended any of the pointless interfaith talks here in Ireland. Friends who have attended these talks say that they do not reflect ant sense of common ground between the established religions and free spirituality. I'm glad I did not waste my time with these EU funded talking shops. All grant aiding seeks to control the agenda and outcome - one can only wonder what that might be...
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