Even a decade ago, if any professional soothsayer had suggested that there would come a time when an Irish Protestant newspaper would take the Irish Catholic church to task for not being conservative enough, someone would have sent for the men in white coats to lead him or her quietly away. Yet this is precisely what has come to pass, and at the center of it all lies the private life of the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic, Bertie Ahern, which is currently rivaling that of Bill Clinton for headline space in Irish newspapers.
The facts are not in dispute. Mr. Ahern, who is married with two teen-age daughters, has been separated from his wife for a number of years. More recently - before his election as leader of his party and then as taoiseach - he established a relationship with a prominent worker in his Dublin constituency, Celia Larkin. Few people paid any attention to it: the Irish news media, despite the ever-present example of the British tabloid newspapers which have substantial circulations here, generally ignore their politicians' private lives unless they impinge in some way on their public duties. It became an issue, but only briefly, at the time of Ahern's election as leader of the Fianna Fail party, when the man he displaced, Albert Reynolds, expressed none too subtly the view that the Irish people were entitled to know where their leader slept at night. Larkin is now a paid public official in Ahern's office, looking after his constituency organization. She accompanied him on a recent official visit to China as his partner, and joined him in escorting Tony Blair on a walk-about in his Dublin constituency during the British prime minister's recent visit.
Enter, stage left, the Church of Ireland Gazette, and its editor for the past seventeen years, Canon Cecil Cooper. The Gazette, which is an independent weekly newspaper with a circulation of some 6,000 among Ireland's Episcopalians, north and south of the border, has generally been thought to reflect liberal Church of Ireland opinion. Its attitude toward the Catholic church has sometimes been mildly critical, but generally on the grounds of Catholic conservatism. The Catholic church's attitude toward mixed marriages, seen by Irish Protestants as a continuing threat to the viability of their community, has been the object of its criticism on many occasions.
The Gazette's editorial was uncompromising, to say the least. Mr. Ahern, it noted, was not just an individual, but a role model: In Britain his behavior would have led to scandal and probably resignation. …