In 1950, Ireland’s then minister for health, Dr Noel Browne, announced his intention to radically reform the former Free State’s ailing health service.
For the first time, maternity care for all mothers and healthcare for all children up to the age of 16 would be delivered free of charge.
Dr Browne’s proposals met with fierce resistance, particularly from the Catholic Church, which characterised his scheme as “socialist” medicine and an intrusion by the state into the sanctity of the family.
Led by the all-powerful then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, the Mother and Child scheme’s opponents succeeded in destroying the bill, Dr Browne’s political career and even the coalition government of the time.
The experience of Dr Browne was hardly unique: since the foundation of the state almost 90 years ago, the Catholic hierarchy has exerted unparalleled social and political control in Ireland.
Supplicant Irish leaders bowed to the demands of Rome and local bishops. The Church itself was accorded a “special position” in the 1937 Irish constitution.
But Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent watershed comments have seriously eroded the once rock-solid relationship between the Vatican and Ireland.
Speaking to the Irish Parliament last week, the Irish premier attacked the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism” within the upper reaches of the Catholic Church.
In Ireland, the reception to Mr Kenny’s withering remarks – which came after a devastating report criticising the Church’s handling of clerical sex abuse in the diocese of Cloyne, Co Cork, was published – has been nothing short of sensational.
Victims of clerical abuse have bravely spoken out on radio phone-ins, while many ordinary practising Catholics have applauded the intervention as statesmanlike.
Rather predictably, the reaction from the Vatican has been more equivocal. After a period of silence from the hierarchy, yesterday it was announced that Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, the Papal Nuncio in Ireland, the Church’s equivalent of an ambassador, was being recalled from Dublin.
Does Archbishp Leanza’s move signal a further deterioration in Rome-Dublin relations or is it a necessary first step in the Catholic Church finally dealing with the reality of endemic clerical children sexual abuse in Ireland?
For now it’s difficult to tell. Yesterday a spokesman for Rome said that recalling the envoy “denoted the seriousness of the situation”, but then went on to express “surprise” and “disappointment” at what he described as “excessive reactions” to the Cloyne Report from the Irish government.
Mr Kenny should not be unduly concerned by the Vatican’s response. To the surprise of many – particularly supporters of the Labour Party, his coalition partners – the Irish prime minister, who hails from the rural west of the country, has shown a willingness to confront the power of the Catholic Church conspicuous by its absence in Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, his immediate, and more metropolitan, predecessors.
That a leader of the traditionally conservative, pro-Catholic Fine Gael party is calling the Vatican to account attests to how far the Church’s stock has fallen in Ireland.
Whether the Papal Nuncio returns to Dublin or not, one thing is certain: the Catholic Church’s hold over Ireland has been well and truly broken.