Mrs Thatcher destroyed Irish Catholicism? Well, not so much Mrs Thatcher herself as the social and economic doctrine she espoused.
As Pope Francis begins his visit to Ireland on Saturday, it might be worthwhile for Catholic leaders to review the unfolding of Irish history since 1979. It was the year when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, a moment seen as Irish Catholicism reaching its zenith; it was also the year when Margaret Thatcher won the British general election and began to change the country over which she was to preside for the next eleven years.
The intellectual roots of Thatcherism lay in the revival of classical liberal thinking, they lay in the philosophy of von Hayek and the economics of Milton Friedman, but at a popular level such subtlety was lost. Thatcherism was expressed in the idea that you get what you pay for and should pay for what you get; the measure of plans and policies was the bottom line. The market became the arbiter of everything, the criterion by which nations and people should live. A year after the Conservative victory in 1979, Ronald Reagan won the presidency of the United States – neoliberalism would come to dominate global economic thinking.
Ireland’s economic development through the 1980s and 1990s brought an open economy, and, inevitably a more open society. New industries, workers arriving from elsewhere, the population rising after years of falling, the decline of the significance of agriculture and the increasing urbanisation, the rise of the pharmaceutical and information technology firms as dominant in the private sector, the communications revolution, the combination of the new trends meant the evolution of a new society. The new Ireland was one where money mattered most, where the market was dominant, where people asked what they were getting for what they paid. People became consumers rather than citizens; certainly, consumers rather than church members.
In a society where cash was king and where non-material concerns took a second place, it would have been impossible for a church still rooted in a pre-modern mindset to have withstood the trends among younger people to disregard religion. Were the vile abuse of children over decades the sole cause of the decline of Irish Catholicism, it would have been possible for the church to reform itself, to overhaul its structures, to expel those who collaborated with the criminals, and to re-present its ideas, in the hope of regaining lost ground. But how are abstruse ideas rooted in the ancient past going to compete with much simpler concepts such as how much money a person earns, or what they can buy with what they have?
It is no coincidence that the progressive sweeping away of the influence of the Catholic church, the referendums and the legislative reforms, is taking place under a government strongly committed to market values, privatisation and an open economy. Paradoxical as it may seem, Ireland has proved the most fertile ground for Thatcherism. It was not the visit of the Pope in October 1979 that has been most influential, it was the new arrival in Downing Street the previous May.