Dr John Neill: Singing from a different hymn sheet

Tipped to succeed Robin Eames  as archbishop of Armagh next month, Dr John Neill talks to Justine McCarthy about Protestant liberalism in public health, women priests, the age of consent and why he takes communion in Catholic churches while on the continent

It took 17 years to convert Tallaght Hospital from an idea into a reality. Throughout that time, from when the hospital was first mooted in 1981 until it received its first patients in 1998, Ireland was kicking and dragging itself out of its blinkered, monotheistic past. There were the bitter and repeated divorce and abortion referendums, the tragedies of the Kerry Babies and Anne Lovett at Granard, the long campaign to decriminalise homosexual acts, the crumbling of the Roman Catholic monolith with the/images/village/5th.jpg revelations about Bishop Eamon Casey and disclosures about other bishops' failure to deal with child abusing priests. Just as the euphoric election of Mary Robinson, a feminist human rights lawyer, as the first woman president was interpreted as a measure of the nation's progress, so too was the charter for Tallaght Hospital, finally agreed after years of State resistance to incorporating the Protestant ethos of the Adelaide Hospital.

Eight years since the doors of Tallaght Hospital swung open for business, the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough wonders, under the glittering sky of a whole other millennium, if officialdom's commitment to the principles underlying Tallaght Hospital was nothing more than “lip service”.

The proposal from the outset was to merge the Meath Hospital and the National Children's Hospital in Harcourt Street with the Protestant-run Adelaide on the 35-acre Tallaght Hospital site. It was a time when Catholic-run hospitals still imposed a doctrine-based blanket ban on tubal ligation and vasectomy procedures, signalling a medical-ethics gulf between the three hospitals which, observers feared, could never be bridged. But it was, and the Adelaide Hospital Society continues to exert a progressive influence, currently pressing for the development of a medical genomics service. The entire field of genetics is another national apoplexy-waiting-to-happen, as is the medical sphere of assisted fertility, following the recent High Court judgment in a dispute between an estranged couple over their frozen embryos. But it is a long-simmering row about funding for Tallaght Hospital and a political decision about the location of a new national children's hospital that seem set to put the brakes on Protestant liberalism in the public health service.

“You know Tallaght Hospital was never formally opened?” muses Dr John Neill. “They put the three separate budgets of the three different hospitals together and imagined you could run a large teaching hospital on them. The man who was driven out, McCutcheon, is now running the Canadian health services.”

The mild tone of the 61-year-old grandfather, who is tipped to succeed Robin Eames as the Archbishop of Armagh on 10 January, belies the bluntness of his words. For the man he is talking about is Dr David McCutcheon, the inaugural chief executive of Tallaght Hospital who quit in 1999 because of inadequate State funding. He is now the assistant deputy minister for long-term health care in Toronto and chief executive of the Gibraltar Health Authority, on a consultancy basis. The archbishop does not accept that Tallaght Hospital has simply fallen foul of the resourcing malaise afflicting the entire health service.

“We feel we've suffered from the lack of development of a lot of specialities and the number of beds has been reduced as well,” he argues. “Even when other hospitals have had their bed numbers increased, we have not.”
On the day of this interview, national newspapers reported that the Health Service Executive sent a letter to management at Tallaght Hospital berating them for an inordinately high level of private patient treatment, estimated at “twice the official norm”, and low utilisation of the National Treatment Purchase Fund. The bickering has been tit-for-tat for months. In his address to the diocesan synod in October, Neill warned that the reliance on hospital trolleys “would be very serious in a third world economy” and was a national scandal “in a country that boasts endlessly about its economic achievements”.

At the core of his concerns is the government's grand plan to remove the national children's hospital from Tallaght and to locate it in the Mater Hospital complex, smack in the Taoiseach's north city constituency, and in the process, diluting the Adelaide's ethos. Medical personnel and patients' advocates at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin have protested that the Mater site is not big enough for the project and that it is difficult for the public to access it. John Neill has raised his objections both in public and behind closed doors, with Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney and the HSE.

“I'm very seriously concerned about what is good for children. The space is not there for the infrastructure and transport is not in place,” he explains. “The variety provided by the various hospitals and traditions is going to be lost and the ethos as it's reflected by the ethical approach of the hospital, and more liberal approaches described as Protestant. There would be some difference, for instance, in genetic research. When the McKinsey Report was commissioned (by the HSE), I raised my concerns with the Taoiseach and when McKinsey was published (recommending that the children's hospital be located on the site of an adult hospital), I talked to Mary Harney about it.

“The arrangement in Tallaght Hospital is very carefully worked out between the three hospitals. That balance will be totally upset by this decision. The charter of Tallaght Hospital provides for a paediatric dimension. We hope there will continue to be a children's emergency service and there has been talk of a maternity unit as well.”
Accepting that his worries and the worries expressed by others opposed to the Mater plan have not been listened to by the government, the archbishop is not prepared to concede defeat. “It's very hard to reverse a major decision,” he agrees. “It's not a Tallaght Hospital battle alone. We are finding ourselves increasingly singing out of the same hymn sheet as Crumlin Hospital.”

The deaf ear is an obstacle that is familiar to John Neill. On the same day that he cautioned against politicians trying to legislate for teenagers' morals via the age of consent, the Taoiseach announced that the Oireachtas committee's recommendation that the age be lowered to 16 was not a foregone conclusion. If anything, Bertie Ahern's demeanour indicated there would be a reluctance to change it.

“Teenagers are not too concerned about the age of consent,” says the Dún Laoghaire-born prelate, the episcopal purple of his shirt front picked up by the amethyst ring on his right hand. “The prime concern has to be the protection of teenagers from predatory adults. Our formal representations from the Church of Ireland was that there would be a high bar set for anybody in a position of authority over a youngster. Setting an age of consent in law between teenagers, to prevent criminal activity which has a moral concern, is not realistic. What is the role of law in this? Is it there to be a moral guardian or simply to shape society? The sexual activity of teenagers needs to be controlled by morals and education but not from the point of view of law. From my discussions with the authorities, there is no question of the age of consent being put into the Constitution.”


Five generations of churchmen

John Neill belongs to a family that has produced churchmen in five successive generations. He, upon his ordination as a deacon in 1969, is the fourth generation, following in the footsteps of his father, Canon Bertie Neill. The eldest of his three sons, Stephen Neill, is the rector in Cloughjordan, county Tipperary. His two other sons, Andrew and Peter, are a garda and a web designer, respectively. The archbishop recalls when his sons were schoolboys and the tide of public opinion started to turn against clergymen. “I noticed the sort of reaction against the Catholic Church was opening up questioning,” he says. “Respect for clergy has diminished. In many ways, the rector's and the parish priest's positions were very similar.”

Yet, the Catholic Church's loss has been the Anglican Church's gain as the latter records an increase in ordinations from lapsed Roman Catholics. In the Dublin archdiocese, Neill reckons those converts have accounted for 20 per cent to 50 per cent of ordinations, coinciding with the first recorded growth in the Republic's Anglican population; up by 23,000 people in the 2002 census after a century of decline. “There is something attractive about a church that is more liberal in many ways,” he suggests, “and different to what you were brought up with.”

In contrast with those churches that have yet to lift the ban on women's ordination, the Church of Ireland has not suffered a shortage of recruits and, according to Neill, his Church has enjoyed a new dimension since the arrival of ordained women. Would he recommend it to other churches? “Oh, yes, I certainly would,” he replies unhesitatingly.
While he does not regard the State's deafness to his views on medical ethics and the age of consent as a hangover from Rome Rule – “I don't see it as an issue of State against Protestants” – he substantially attributes Protestants' eventual integration in post-independence Ireland to his predecessor, Archbishop John Gregg, who deleted references to the English monarch and the Commonwealth from prayers in the Republic's churches in the 1940s.
“I think that Protestants found it very hard to accept the State after independence in 1922 and 1923. A large number of them fled, including my own grand-father who fled from the Western Road in Cork. There was a huge exodus at that time. It was said that Northern Ireland was a Protestant state for a Protestant people and I think it was felt that the South was a Catholic state for a Catholic people. It took time for a large number of Protestant people to identify with the State.

“I don't think there is any remnant of hurt among Protestants. There was something very confident about the minority. I don't think we felt threatened, except when it came to marriage. Catholic rules drew children away from the Protestant church.”

In one respect, at least, he believes the Church of Ireland, with two cathedrals in the capital city, is more privileged than the Catholic Church, which has none. “I think it's a pity the Roman Catholic Church doesn't have a cathedral,” he agrees, “and I often wondered why there was no move to do something about it. The Pro-Cathedral is beautiful but, let's face it, it's a bit small.”


Witnessing dramatic changes in Ireland

Since he first became a bishop, elected to the see of Tuam in 1986 after stints in Glenageary, Kilkenny, Skibbereen, Dublin and Waterford – but never in Northern Ireland – John Neill has witnessed dramatic changes in Ireland. “On balance,” he thinks, “they are for the good. I think we're too hard on ourselves. I think it's a happier country to live in. It's a more socially aware society. I was in Britain in the mid-1960s, when the QE2 was being launched and there was a feeling that ‘we are a nation that can't do anything right'. I sometimes think we're like that now.”

One area, however, where he believes we are getting it tragically wrong is in the asylum process. “I don't think we should be sending anybody back (to the countries they left) if they are at risk. That means females being sent back when they are at risk of genital mutilation; people who have become Christian being sent back to Muslim countries where they are at risk” he says. “The system is not seen to be quick and transparent and it can be very slow to react to family unification matters.”

Last May, the archbishop was leaving a confirmations ceremony at Kings Hospital school when he was informed that 41 male teenagers and men had embarked on a hunger strike in St Patrick's Cathedral in an attempt to prevent their deportation to Afghanistan. The first thing Neill did was to check the protest's legal status and was surprised to discover that neither the law of the land nor canon law accorded sanctuary to a church building. In the end, a compromise deal negotiated by Anglican officials with the strikers, allowing for a neutral observer to attend their interviews with gardaí, was rejected by the Department of Justice and gardaí moved in to arrest the men. The Church of Ireland, however, declined to pursue a complaint of unlawful occupation against them. Neill admits it was an emotionally stressful experience for him personally.

“I was in touch with the State authorities at the highest level,” he says. Did you receive the support of the State you needed? “No, I don't think we did. It was a very difficult situation because we were trying to bring about a peaceful resolution but we felt there could be great risks. It was like walking a tightrope. The Garda were most helpful. That must be said. I think the general feeling in the Department of Justice was that it was either our problem or their problem and they wanted it to be our problem for as long as possible. I fear there is an awful lot left unresolved.”
In the event of his election as Archbishop of Armagh next month, John Neill will be the island's leading Protestant voice on the peace process. One of his priorities is the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission similar to post-apartheid South Africa's.

“It allows people tell their stories, both oppressed and oppressor. In both communities there are stories to be told in order for trust to be established. Each community has its own narrative.”

Throughout the island, he is known as a leading enthusiast for ecumenism but, he confesses: “I'm very frustrated that we've moved so slowly.” Though he maintains that the controversy over President McAleese receiving communion in St Patrick's Cathedral in 1997 “helped us to see our differences more clearly”, he adds: “I would receive communion very happily in a Catholic church if invited to do so in a private capacity. When I'm on the continent, I always do so, but in a personal capacity.” At the moment of receiving communion in a Catholic church, says the archbishop, he is generally untroubled by the theological debate over transubstantiation.