A simple suggestion that MPs leave their religious views outside Parliament turned me into a hate figure for Labour Party Catholics, says Mary Honeyball
On 20 May this year I wrote an article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site outlining the reasons why I believe a number of Ministers and MPs have acted undemocratically, kowtowing to the whip of the Vatican instead of their elected party in their, thankfully unsuccessful, bid to halt the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.
I was prepared for a tough argument and, as you may expect, my piece received a large number of comments, 98 in total, which were fairly balanced between those who supported me: “Why is it that what is claimed to be ‘freedom of conscience’ always seems to be freedom to follow the Vatican whip rather than the Government’s?”
Those who vilified me: “How many more anti-Catholic bigots like you are lurking in the Labour Party?”
And those who humoured me: “In what kind of private masochistic hell does Gordon Brown live where Ruth Kelly resigning is a ‘threat’?”
The “anti-anti-Catholic” diatribe that many commentators trotted out of Catholics being “traditional scapegoats” and “easy targets” takes the ready stance of portraying the Church as the victim. More manipulatively many people threatened never again to vote Labour and predicted the loss of the whole Catholic vote. Most viciously, some railed accusations of bigotry against me for daring to question the party loyalties of the Catholic members of the front bench.
However, most of these comments are to be expected in an online forum where people can anonymously trot out whatever opinions they wish without the necessity of having to stand up and defend them publicly.
But more surprisingly Connor McGinn, vice-chair of Young Labour, wrote to me saying my comments were “gratuitously offensive” and “an insult to me and the thousands of other Catholics who are Labour Party members”. Before even waiting for a response McGinn then publicly quit his job as vice-chair of Young Labour, accusing me of making “sectarian diatribe” and suggesting that he, “like many Catholics and Labour Party members, feel very hurt and insulted by these comments and actions”. He then set about publicising his case of anti-anti-Catholicism to all who would listen.
The Catholic Press appear to have been the most receptive, with the Catholic Herald and The Universe still continuing to find space to update the story, but a few weeks after my Guardian article was published the New Statesman weighed in with a piece from well-known Catholic journalist Paul Donovan, citing McGinn and various Catholic Labour MPs in order to accuse me of serious anti-Catholicism. In the words of Ealing MP Stephen Pound, my views had "a strong whiff of the 17th century about them”.
Another left-wing weekly, Tribune, covered the McGinn’s escapades in their diary section in a jovial way, but more recently he has continued to press his point and the magazine has given him a comment piece titled “Religious persecution may drive us out of the Labour Party” threatening a mass evacuation of Catholics from the Party if “the low level war on politically active Catholics continues”. He has also facilitated an interview on popular call in show Talk Back on BBC Radio Ulster to discuss growing anti-Catholicism were was able to defend my position.
The story of Mary the anti-Catholic has spread like wildfire, fanned by the dedication of Catholic journalists, commentators and bloggers. An email I sent to a well-known intellectual monthly seeking to redress the comments that McGinn had made was leaked to the blogger Red Maria who titled me ‘Venomballs’ and printed my email in full as evidence of my “intense hatred with the Roman Catholic Church”.
The meaning of my original comment piece been extrapolated to such an extent, to fit the anti-anti-Catholic lobby’s agenda, that Catholic composer James Macmillan blamed my words (misquoted) for his argument that “there is no place anymore for Catholics in New Labour” in his comment piece “Why Gordon Brown will lose Glasgow East” for the Telegraph on 8 July.
Such inflammatory media grabbing methods and wildly inflated rhetoric are the text-book tactics of US conservative Catholic organisations such as the Catholic League, which UK Catholics are now adopting as their own. Unfortunately when the media covers the tempests such methods whip up, few journalists ever stop to examine the basis for the objections and question their authenticity. This has the desired intention of bullying the opposition into silence; discrediting their position and making others extremely wary of attempting to call into question the methods or practices of the Catholic Church.
Well I am refusing to be bullied in such a fashion and I’m calling on others to do the same thing. I hadn’t attempted to knock off the Pope, but rather penned a comment piece scrutinising the parliamentary process by which a key piece of government legislation had been passed. Being voted in on a party ticket but voting frequently with your religion and against the party, especially on the points to which the party is aligned in its manifesto, is totally undemocratic.
Politicians are paid to represent the views of all their constituents, not just the religious few. They are voted in on a party manifesto and expected to vote accordingly. If people were judged by the electorate to vote along religious lines more so than political, it would limit the opportunities for people who hold less popular religious beliefs to be elected. People can hold whatever religious opinions they like whilst in office, so long as they do not seek to impose them on others by limiting the public’s freedoms and rights in accordance to their religion.
I believe we need stricter rules on keeping our political system secular, including repealing the 1701 legislation which prevents a Catholic monarch taking the throne, in order to make Parliament more diverse and democratic.