Since the 1970s the position of the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic has been, as Roy Foster correctly summarises it, ‘comprehensively destroyed’. The moral certainties of Archbishop McQuaid, guardian of conservative orthodoxy, have been replaced by those of Mary Robinson – the universally admired exponent of feminism and modernity. Gone are the popular rosary devotions: instead there are contraception and divorce. These changes are not in themselves especially remarkable, and they more or less parallel the collapse of traditional morality that has occurred in England, too, in the last three decades. But in Ireland there is one great difference, for Irish nationalism has been considered inseparable from Catholicism. ‘There has been’, as Foster observes, ‘a rewriting of the language of national identity.’ Such an undertaking has not been felt necessary in England: the ineffective Church of England – the State Church no less – is so characterised by internal moral incoherence that no one has considered it a bulwark of Christian morality, and its luminaries, indeed, have justified the deconsecration of public life by reference to theological constructions of their own devising. In Ireland a new kind of void has more openly appeared. There is not a clear replacement for the discarded Catholic teachings of the past but a disinclination to address the philosophical issues which lie at the basis of civilised human association. This is the age of no ideology, in which the acclamation of cultural relativism is considered not merely laudable but a politically correct necessity.
Ireland is actually the same as England in this respect; it has plunged (as England has more sedately slipped) into secular materialism. But there is a problem. The collapse of Catholic nationalism has not been so apparent in Northern Ireland, and the species of republicanism on which the nationalists north