ASH Wednesday is upon us, and though it is early, its arrival is a reminder that this young year of 2018 is galloping on apace.
The start of Lent also recalls one my favourite political anecdotes, which combines a dash of oldstyle roguery, a deal of grass-roots politics and a smattering of religion. A novice politician, arriving late at the cemetery for an important constituent’s funeral, was obliged to park some distance away.
The early leavers from the cemetery were crossing our friend who had now broken into a smart trot fearing he could lose the business entirely. Suddenly he noticed many of these early departing mourners had a big black smudge on their foreheads, and just as quickly remembered that it was indeed Wednesday.
Our political novice could not sympathise with the bereaved family without an appropriately adorned forehead. Not to be outdone, he reached a finger into the exhaust pipe of an elderly car and then made the sign of the cross.
Hardly the blessed ash dispensed at masses that morning, but it looked much the same. And image is vital in politics. These days, you do not see too many political foreheads adorned with ash at Leinster House. Some 20 years ago, the reverse was the case, as it was easier to count the ash-free ones. But times certainly change, in politics as much as in anything else.
This is also a reminder that in the coming months, we will also be taking a major step on the separation of church and state in Ireland.
Something very significant in that regard happened last month, though the church-state element was barely remarked upon. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said his views on the issue of abortion had changed significantly over the years.
“I believe we each have a duty to be willing to question our own views, to be open to different perspectives and to respond to new information,” the Fianna Fáil leader said.
Much of the commentary focused on how Mr Martin was at odds with some of his own TDs and senators and the bulk of his party membership. But it also represented the first clear occasion when the party, which had led government for the bulk of this State’s history, diverged from the Catholic Church’s teaching.
Back in autumn 1995, as voters deliberated on the question of divorce, the then-Fianna Fáil leader, Bertie Ahern, had publicly conceded what many people knew informally. He was separated from his wife and in a new relationship.
But even then, Fianna Fáil members played an important role informally in campaigning against divorce which in the end was carried by fewer than 10,000 votes. Fine Gael is only slightly different in that regard.
True, then-Fine Gael Taoiseach, John Burton, campaigned for divorce which was against the advice of the Catholic Church.
Still, Leo Varadkar’s statement of 10 days ago that he will campaign for a referendum expected in late May which will liberalise our abortion laws, was a significant step. You will note that sense of dread this writer expressed about the upcoming abortion referendum campaign. We have not distinguished ourselves in the past when dealing with this most divisive and difficult subject.
So far the debate has been well-mannered. But it is early days. Whatever your religious views, Lent does offer an opportunity for change and selfimprovement. Pledging to maintain a courteous and moderate tone could be a Lenten pledge.