Of the many potentially complicated effects of Brexit on Irish affairs to have been given an airing over the last few days, the implications for the historical leadership of the Irish Catholic Church is probably one which has received the least attention. Yet, it may well be one of the first to manifest itself in the short to medium term.
After having survived the twelfth century church reform, a reformation, a counter reformation and even modern Irish independence itself, it now seems likely that one of the more arcane results of Brexit on Ireland will be the transfer of ecclesiastical primacy of the island from Armagh to Dublin city. Ironically, the motivation for the move has rather more to do with modern day EU legislation concerning religious freedoms, than centuries of tradition and precedent.
Claims to the ecclesiastical primacy of Ireland date back over 1300 years, when Armagh emerged as the leading ecclesiastical federation on the island by virtue of its close association with, and claim of succession from, St. Patrick himself. Whilst the connection has no historical basis in reality, it nevertheless served as a potent origin myth. Armagh was the earliest to champion the cult and primacy of the national saint during the seventh century. For the next 400 years or so, Insular Irish Christianity operated under a fluid and dynamic model of competing factions and ecclesiastical federations; with Armagh enjoying a preeminent position as titular head.
Church reform arising from influence from Europe, along with the coming of the Normans in the twelfth century, resulted in the transformation of Insular Irish ecclesiastical organization. The creation of Irish metropolitan sees and the basic diocesan and episcopal framework which largely operates to this day, was laid down at this time. Armagh secured her own, along with Dublin, and for the next 200 years, both occasionally challenged the other for ultimate control of the Irish church. Matters were officially decided by Pope Innocent VI in 1353 AD who commanded that Dublin receive the title ‘Primate of Ireland’, while Armagh received ‘Primate of All Ireland’.
Whilst no doubt being ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’ at the time, the arrangement has proved remarkably stable. Tensions between the two have naturally, on occasion, bubbled to the surface (eg. in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries), and even as recently as the last few decades, Ireland’s singular cardinal ‘red hat’ has, at various times, been controversially granted to one at the expense of the other, depending on the favour of the reigning pope.
Despite ecclesiastical noses being out of joint, as well as being located within another jurisdiction since Irish independence – Armagh has nevertheless continued to retain the Primacy of All-Ireland in ecclesiastical hierarchical terms. Ordinarily, an upheaval such a Brexit would have made little difference to the ongoing situation; but for a remarkable and little known EU legal framework document published as recently as 2013.
On June 24th of that year, EU foreign ministers approved a set of “guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief” which definitively set out, in great detail, firm protections concerning religious freedom and liberty within the wider EU common area. Underpinning the framework was the likes of Article 10: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Essentially, modern EU legislation now goes much further, and is perhaps even more firmly entrenched, than many individual national legislative provisions. Ironically, for such a secular institution, the EU now provides one of the most secure safeguards for religious people anywhere in the world.
Step forward Britain’s triggering of Article 50; its forthcoming exiting of the EU and the rising concerns as to the fate and treatment of EU citizens (let alone those from outside Europe) within a Post-Brexit United Kingdom. Add to that, a rising tide of insular nationalism, xenophobia, centuries of anti-catholic form, the small matter of an international EU frontier running through a significant portion of Ireland – and perhaps most bizarrely – the ecclesiastical primacy of the entire Irish Catholic Church being on the wrong side of same.
Welcome to a very 21st century headache.
According to an Armagh insider, there is already significant ‘behind the scenes’ preparations on the issue. Some observers even anticipate that things will start to happen as early as next year, ahead of Britain’s formal exit from the EU, during the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to Ireland in 2018. “Officially, he is coming to oversee the World Meeting of Families, but that’s just a cover story we made up. I mean, seriously. The Vatican only confirmed he was actually coming, the very day after Brexit was triggered. Coincidence? Yeah right. It will actually be the perfect time to make a formal announcement to the Irish faithful about initiating the process of moving the ecclesiastical primacy to Dublin.
“Look, nobody is saying Northern Irish Catholics will become second class citizens in their own country overnight. But one can’t be too careful. One can’t just take things for granted any more. Brexit means brexit, as they keep saying. Look at history. The religious wars of the 17th Century and the resulting turmoil and internecine conflict on this island. What they would have given back then for a set of European legal protections, such as that which we now enjoy. To think that we’re potentially faced with them being stripped away within a few short years? With the mere stroke of a pen? If anything, it would be absolutely remiss of ourselves if we didn’t take precautions for our own people.”
Other Catholic spokesmen were more trenchant in their views. “If you ask me, the whole thing is absolutely outrageous”, said another insider, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The prospect of some Irish Catholics, through no fault of their own, being forced to travel to another jurisdiction in order to receive free, safe and legal access to religious freedom of belief and worship? The very same rights and protections afforded to everyone else in modern Europe? In line with best practice and international human rights norms? It just unbelievable. A total violation of a Catholic’s right to religious integrity and self-determination in their own country.”
“As far as we’re concerned, they need to repeal Brexit itself. But if that isn’t going to happen – if they’re really going to continue ignoring the will of a sizeable portion of their own people who want to have another referendum on the issue – then we simply have no choice but to move the whole shebang down to Dublin where, thanks to progressive European legislation, the all-male Catholic hierarchy would be guaranteed ongoing access to their basic European and Human Rights.”
“At the end of the day, its a no-brainer.”