Irish Legislator Discusses Politics, Ethics at Fisher’s Annual Thomas More Dinner

March 27, 2019

A member of the Irish parliament told an audience at the St. Thomas More Dinner and Lecture at St. John Fisher College that the ethical purpose of politics is to work at improving the life of all people.

Éamon Ó Cuiv speaks to an audience of about 40 students, faculty, and community members in St. John Fisher College’s Wilson Formal Lounge.

Éamon Ó Cuiv, who was the featured speaker at the ninth annual More Dinner on March 18, said the topic was appropriate for an event honoring the Saint because More was a practical politician, “but he stood by what he believed.” More, a close friend of College namesake Cardinal John Fisher, was martyred by King Henry VIII when he would not endorse some of the king’s ideas that More believed violated Catholic Church precepts.

More embodied the idea that it was necessary to have moral standards to serve in public life, Ó Cuiv said.

Related to that, Ó Cuiv discussed the practical politics and ethical standards of his service as a member of the Dáil Éireann, or Irish legislature. He has been in the Dáil since 1989 as a member of the Fianna Fáil political party, and held several cabinet-level positions when his party held a legislative majority from 1997 to 2011.

He began with a discussion of the various legal regulations around Irish politics, including strict limits on campaign finance—both donations and spending—and disclosures about outside income and contacts with lobbyists. But, he quickly shifted to discussion of how morality and governance intersect.

“The object of being in politics is to improve life for everyone,” he said, comparing that goal to Jesus’ “greatest commandment” of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

Ó Cuiv said he, like many Irish people, is a practicing Catholic with strong beliefs. The Irish constitution, inaugurated in 1937, separates church and state but historically, the Catholic Church was a powerful influence on Irish society. That has changed in recent decades, which Ó Cuiv called “a seismic change” with many Irish people abandoning the church. “That’s something we’re going to have to live with,” he said.

Ó Cuiv said he strongly endorses the idea of keeping church and state separate, but felt that individuals also don’t abandon their core beliefs.

“I do not believe you leave your beliefs outside the door. There is nothing wrong with using political service to advance goals such as charity and human dignity that are also cornerstones of Christian principles,” he added. For example, he considers the day the Irish government abolished capital punishment as one of the best days of his political career.

Similarly, he said he opposes the idea of creating an army for the European Union, and is proud that the Irish army for most of the country’s history has been dedicated to various peace-keeping missions around the world through the United Nations. He believes the government ought to provide for the underserved members of society and that good stewardship of natural resources and the environment is a “moral duty.”

He also opposed removal of many restrictions on abortion laws in Ireland, a move that was approved by a public referendum in 2018. Ó Cuiv drew a parallel of himself to More when he said that among all the issues someone in the Dáil might potentially have to vote on, the sanctity of life is one where he would never compromise his principles.

That spirit is what stood out to the Rev. William Graf, chair of the Religious Studies Department and organizer of the dinner.

“He came across as honest and forthright,” Graf said. “I think he brought out that he saw himself much in the spirit of St. Thomas More that he had principles and he was going to live by them.”

The St. Thomas More Dinner and Lecture is held annually with funding from the Rev. John Cavanaugh, CSB, Endowed Chair. About 40 Fisher faculty, students, and members of the local Irish community attended this year’s event.

In addition to providing the More Lecture, Ó Cuiv participated in several Irish community events associated with St. Patrick’s Day, including serving as honorary grand marshal of the annual parade on Saturday, March 16.