Presidential candidates reply to questions on secular issues

Atheist Ireland is asking voters to consider the position of candidates on secular issues before voting for President on Thursday.

Four of the seven Presidential candidates have committed to recognising equally the rights of atheist and agnostic citizens if elected President, in replies to questions from Atheist Ireland. Currently an atheist or agnostic cannot become President as there is a constitutional requirement for the President to swear a religious oath asking God to direct and sustain them.

Mary Davis has said: “As President, I would recognise the rights of all Irish people, including atheists and agnostics… I believe that Article 44 (the religion clause) of the Constitution should be amended to reflect and recognise the right of non-belief. I believe that the best way in which this can be achieved is via constitutional referendum.”

Michael D Higgins has said: “There is to be a constitutional convention in the new year – which I fully support – and it is at this forum that matters such as the (religious) oath (for becoming President) ought to be examined. It is of great importance that the Presidency and all surrounding it ought to be fit for purpose for a modern state with a population comprising a large number of different religious beliefs as well as none.”

Gay Mitchell has said: “I believe that all citizens should have the right to run for president. A constitutional convention is due to review the constitutional text next year. I would suggest you lobby it on the issue. As president, I could not possibly intervene to advocate a specific constitutional change. But I would be comfortable with a change that recognises the rights of believers and non-believers equally by making declarations to God optional.”

David Norris has said: “During my life and political career I have always treated all citizens as equal… While I believe in God, I believe in a total separation between the State and church, and therefore would consider myself secular in this regard… Look at my record and what I said about the prayer on the order of business on the Senate.”

The Martin McGuinness campaign sent an interim reply, and Sean Gallagher and Dana Rosemary Scallon have yet to reply, to the questions asked by Atheist Ireland three weeks ago. If any of these candidates reply before the election takes place, we will update this page to include their reply.

Here are the full replies by Mary Davis, Michael D Higgins, Gay Mitchell and David Norris.

Mary Davis

As President, I would recognise the rights of all Irish people – including atheists and agnostics. I would be willing to meet with and listen to representatives from Atheist Ireland to ensure that the President can support and champion equality for all – those with religious beliefs and those with none.

I was raised a Catholic and my husband Julian was raised Church of Ireland. Our children were raised with both faiths – our daughters attended a catholic ethos school while our sons went to Church of Ireland and interdenominational schools.

I personally would have no difficulty in swearing the Presidential oath as I believe in God but I do understand your concerns and respect your views regarding members of the Council of State. As you are aware, the President is powerless when it comes to changing legislation.

I believe that Article 44 (the religion clause) of the Constitution should be amended to reflect and recognise the right of non-belief. I believe that the best way in which this can be achieved is via constitutional referendum.

Sean Gallagher

No response yet after letter followed by follow-up emails and phone calls, and a visit to his campaign office when his campaign phone number stopped working.

Michael D Higgins

Michael D Higgins has always been a powerful and sometimes courageous advocate of inclusion and equality for those of all faiths and none. He has made a more inclusive Ireland a priority of his campaign – an Ireland in which everyone is respected and everyone is supported in participating fully in all aspects of life.

He has pledged that, as President, he will visit and give voice to initiatives of inclusion right across Ireland – something he has already done as part of the campaign. Michael D’s sincere commitment to these issues is written on the public record and in a lifetime of work – he has played a leading role in many campaigns around separation of church and state and was often willing to pay a political price for those principles.

Michael D was also an early and leading supporter of the Educate together movement and in challenging any monopoly of religious control in our school system. His party, Labour, have taken a strong stance on these issues also. The Labour party includes public representatives of all faiths as well as a number of declared atheists.

Michael D has stated clearly in a number of public debates during this campaign that the Constitutional review taking place next year could and should be an opportunity to review the language of our constitution to make it more inclusive. Next year is the 75th anniversary of our constitution and it is appropriate that it should, as a living document be reviewed to better represent all our citizens as we move into the future.

If elected, Michael D will be actively encouraging all citizens to make their views known and engage proactively with this review process. He has also indicated that the language of the oath a President takes could be reviewed as part of the same process in order to ensure that it is more inclusive.

Here are the specific responses from Michael D Higgins to the five questions:

1. If elected President, what specifically will you do to ensure that you and the institutions of the State treat atheists and agnostics as equal citizens? What specifically will you do to make atheist and agnostic citizens feel welcome and included under your Presidency?
Mine will be an inclusive Presidency in which people of all faiths and none will be welcome to share and be with me over the seven years. I have always been a powerful and sometimes courageous advocate of inclusion and equality for those of all faiths and none. My commitment to these issues is written on the public record and in a lifetime of work. For example, I played a leading role in many campaigns around separation of church and state and was willing to pay the political price for that, including the loss of my Dáil seat in the early 1980s.

2. Do you personally agree that, as a President elected by the people, many of whom do not believe in a god, you should be required to publicly ask a god to “direct” you in your work as our President?
Clearly, l if I am elected President I will take the oath: I embarked upon this campaign in the knowledge that this would be expected of me if elected. There is to be a constitutional convention in the new year – which I fully support – and it is at this forum that matters such as the oath ought to be examined. It is of great importance that the Presidency and all surrounding it ought to be fit for purpose for a modern state with a population comprising a large number of different religious beliefs as well as none. In this context the oath may be looked at as well as a number of other issues, such as the bar on those under 35 from seeking election to the office.

3. Are you comfortable with the fact that you are running in an election that excludes many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?
As I have outlined I feel that the constitution, which will be 75 years old next year, needs to be examined with a view to potential change and modernisation. Ireland today is a very different place to the Ireland of 1937, and the issue of faith and secularism is one area where the difference, perhaps, is at its clearest. The convention next year ought to examine these matters and I would be happy to convene meetings and seminars in connection to this as well as add any suggestions and recommendations it may be appropriate for the President to make. As president my role would be to defend the constitution – it is the first duty of any president – and I would do this at all times.

4. Are you comfortable with the fact that as President your Council of State must exclude many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?
I will have a fully inclusive council of state. This includes having as diverse and varied membership of that council, including as wide a spectrum as possible, be it in terms of age, gender, and indeed belief. I intend to help create a truly inclusive Ireland- this has been at the core of my campaign- and this ethos would inform everything else.

5. If elected President, will you seek to address the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Nation under Article 13.2 of the Constitution about the following matter of national and public importance: that the Irish State should treat atheist, agnostic and religious citizens and organisations as equal under the law.
I will utilise the discretion allowed to the President under Article 13 of Bunreacht na hÉireann in a creative and practical way. I have made the point in a number of public debates during this campaign that there is the potential to review the language of our constitution and make it more inclusive as part of the constitutional review taking place next year. As regards addressing the Houses of the Oireachtas, I do intend to do this and will raise all points which I feel are relevant in terms of expressing the honest and genuine version of a healing Ireland as it comes out of a time of great trauma, and as it seeks to represent itself in an inclusive, creative and forward thinking way.

Martin McGuinness

Interim response after letter and follow-up emails and phone calls:

Thank you for your email. I forwarded on your email yesterday to our team for a response. Hopefully one will be sent soon. Le meas, Martin McGuinness for President Campaign.

Gay Mitchell

1. If elected President, what specifically will you do to ensure that you and the institutions of the State treat atheists and agnostics as equal citizens? What specifically will you do to make atheist and agnostic citizens feel welcome and included under your Presidency?
I will as president draw no distinctions based on a particular religious belief, on whether they are atheist, agnostic or religious, on gender, orientation, race or whatever. All Irish citizens have a right to be treated equally and deserve to be made feel fully welcome in the Irish family.

2. Do you personally agree that, as a President elected by the people, many of whom do not believe in a god, you should be required to publicly ask a god to “direct” you in your work as our President?
The constitution does not make that declaration optional. I have indicated that it should be, to recognise that many citizens are agnostic or atheist and find the requirement offensive. Equally some religious people find the requirement for such a public declaration uncomfortable, believing that religious belief is a private matter between them and their god, and does not require constitutional recognition. Others wish to be able to make that sort of declaration. It should be up to the conscience of the citizen as to whether or not they include a reference to god or not. However any change to that provision would require a constitutional amendment, and as president I could not possibly intervene and comment on a proposed amendment. The final decision on that issue would belong to the people.

3. Are you comfortable with the fact that you are running in an election that excludes many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?
I believe that all citizens should have the right to run for president. A constitutional convention is due to review the constitutional text next year. I would suggest you lobby it on the issue. As president, I could not possibly intervene to advocate a specific constitutional change. But I would be comfortable with a change that recognises the rights of believers and non-believers equally by making declarations to God optional.

4. Are you comfortable with the fact that as President your Council of State must exclude many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?
Again, I believe all citizens should be eligible for appointment and not feel that they are disqualified because of the requirement that they make a declaration to a god they don’t believe in. But again that is something that is covered by the constitution and would need an amendment to the constitution, as president I could not publicly advocate any stance in a referendum.

5. If elected President, will you seek to address the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Nation under Article 13.2 of the Constitution about the following matter of national and public importance: that the Irish State should treat atheist, agnostic and religious citizens and organisations as equal under the law.
I have not made a decision on which topics to make addresses on but all options will be considered.

David Norris

1. If elected President, what specifically will you do to ensure that you and the institutions of the State treat atheists and agnostics as equal citizens? What specifically will you do to make atheist and agnostic citizens feel welcome and included under your Presidency?
During my life and political career I have always treated all citizens as equal. My Presidency will continue this principle and will put the welfare of the people at its heart regardless of gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, social background or race. While I believe in God, I believe in a total separation between the State and church, and therefore would consider myself secular in this regard. I would treat all citizens as equal, regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof. As President I will meet with many people who feel marginalised. This would include groupings such as Atheist Ireland. My Presidency will be about inclusiveness. I know what it is like to feel excluded as a minority and have always used my political career to fight for the marginalised.

2. Do you personally agree that, as a President elected by the people, many of whom do not believe in a god, you should be required to publicly ask a god to “direct” you in your work as our President?
Look at my record and what I said about the prayer on the order of business on the Senate.

3. Are you comfortable with the fact that you are running in an election that excludes many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?
It doesn’t exclude people because they do not believe in God as they can vote.

4. Are you comfortable with the fact that as President your Council of State must exclude many conscientious Irish citizens simply because they do not believe in a god? If elected President, what specifically will you do to try to change this situation?

5. If elected President, will you seek to address the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Nation under Article 13.2 of the Constitution about the following matter of national and public importance: that the Irish State should treat atheist, agnostic and religious citizens and organisations as equal under the law.
If elected and if I decide to seek permission to address the houses of Oireachtas I shall select my own subject.

Dana Rosemary Scallon

No response yet after letter followed by follow-up emails and phone calls.

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2 Comments

  1. Russ Painter
    Posted 26 October, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Sean doesn’t have time for anyone unless they’re sending money into his grubby hands.

  2. Posted 27 October, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    David Norris does not seem to understand questions 3 and 4. I think he got the impression that Atheist Ireland thought atheists couldn’t vote, when of course the issue is that atheists cannot honestly take the oath of office so could not run for President.

    I’m not a fan of the general distancing the candidates seem to be doing between their potential office and making actual efforts to change the constitution. They pretty much all seem to be saying that they will sit back and allow the issue to be discussed at the convention, and possibly there will be a referendum to decide issues like whether or not atheists should be allowed to have the same rights as everybody else. I really do not think that civil rights should ever be up for a public vote. Generally the point of civil rights legislation is the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Asking for the permission of the majority is completely backwards.

    Fortunately, though, I think Ireland is quickly coming to a point where the mainstream voting population won’t really give a toss about getting rid of a meaningless oath to a god that candidates may or may not believe in but who never shows his face around the place.

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