What should the Taoiseach say to the Pope?

Enda Kenny must acknowledge the damage done by the Catholic Church to Ireland

Ireland's very own bronze-haired, twinkly-eyed Taoiseach Enda Kenny is today meeting Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. As to what should be on his lips is anyone's guess. One hopes that he is mindful of our history, and that his smile does not take precedence over the articulation of anger felt by our - although economically burdened - still optimistic people and that he makes the Catholic Church acknowledge the irrevocable damage inflicted by them and their institution head-on, face to face.

"A society of albanised peasants," was the damning depiction of 1960s Ireland declared by the late writer, Sean O'Faolain. Run, as he said we were then, by a completely obscurantist, repressive, regressive and uncultivated church, it was theocracy that managed the holy land of Ireland. And it was here, as in other places, that politics and religion have had an incestuous relationship. Ireland is a wicked example of what can go wrong.

While most of the west in the 19th century was industrialised and urbanised, Ireland remained an impoverished Catholic society, shackled with arrested development, where the men of the holy cloth had the last word not only in sermon, but on all sorts of policy, public and social. The Catholic Church was the alpha and the omega. There was deep attachment to land and faith, tradition and ritual. The modernisation of Ireland, however, inevitably would be in opposition to religion. Television, the sexual revolution and globalisation, all contributed fiercely. It was the sex scandals, though, that would be the killer element in the implosion of the church.

The church made expensive effort to hide the rape and torture of children from the relevent authorities, even forcing child victims to put their names to secrecy oaths that prevented them from testifying. A cocktail of fear and naivete enabled the silence to endure. Starting in the 1990s, a series of criminal cases and Irish government inquiries established that hundreds of holy men had acted in the most unholy fashion. In many cases, these men were shifted to other parishes to avoid embarrassment and scandal, assisted by those at a more senior level - an institutional conspiracy. 

Kenny's host, Pope Benedict XVI or Joseph Ratzinger as he was, is closely associated with this obstruction of justice. When promoted to cardinal, he was singularly responsible for the direction of "the congregation for the doctrine of the faith". In 2001, Pope John Paul II assigned Ratzinger's department to manage the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. Ratzinger promptly penned a letter which he sent swiftly to every bishop, in which he promoted secrecy around inquiries into sexual misconduct. 

Enda Kenny was accurate last year when he said that there was dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism dominating the culture of the Vatican to this day, and that the rape and torture of Irish children was downplayed or managed to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. All is now under question as its irrelevance gains momentum. A reiteration of this personally to Pope Benedict would be diligent.

He should also address the position of Cardinal Sean Brady, disgraced leader of the Irish Catholic Church, and his information about Father Brendan Smyth. Kenny should demand answers and justice on behalf of the victims who are of his electorate, whom he represents. This is an opportunity for him to gain some public clout, but, also too, an opportunity to show he has some steel behind his words. We can only hope that he acts diligently and addresses these issues, instead of aquiescing to this negligent institution.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Credit: Getty Images
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood