On Thursday, 31 August, representatives of the Catholic Church in Ireland, including Archbishop Eamon Martin, and the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and other senior members of Cabinet. The meeting was part of the “structured dialogues” with the churches in Ireland that were initiated post The Lisbon Treaty.

One of the issues included for debate was the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The Bishops, in outlining the Church’s outright opposition to its repeal also made it clear that the Church would take an active part in any future campaign that sought to remove or dilute the protections it currently affords.

Reacting to the meeting, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, expressed the view that while the Church had every right to preach such a message to its own members it had no right to try and “dictate” the law on this matter.

The minister’s reaction not only speaks to her deeply flawed theoretical conception of what ‘separation of church and state’ actually means; more importantly it reveals a worrying lack of awareness of what is currently happening at the practical level to address gross human rights violations in this state.

The area in which this can be seen most clearly is the ongoing collaboration in combatting human trafficking that has developed between the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána and the Catholic Bishops.

The An Garda Síochána Annual Report 2016 refers to its work with the Santa Marta Group, which is an alliance of International Police Chiefs and Bishops from around the world working together with civil society to eradicate human trafficking and modern day slavery and which is endorsed and supported by Pope Francis.

An Garda Síochána has carried out a number of initiatives under this project including organising an international conference at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, in May 2016 with all Irish stakeholders and partners from the UK, Spain and Portugal.

As part of its 2016 Progress Report, the Santa Marta Group refers to the stakeholder branch that has been formed in Ireland comprising of Church, An Garda Siochana, State Agencies and Civil Society. This group meets every quarter and is co-chaired by Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne.

All of this happens because there is international recognition within law enforcement that the universal reach of the Church is vital in drawing the attention of the wider world “to the moral and human crisis evident in this widespread human exploitation.”

One can only surmise what Minister Zappone would have to say about this kind of extensive dialogue given her own view that the church’s sphere of influence on human rights issues ought to be limited to its own members and that it should not trespass into the formulation of government policy.

One could well argue that in the end, a view of such crushing limitation only serves to weaken our attempts to combat a ‘trade’ where 2.4 million people are trafficked globally and where annual profits generated from trafficking in human beings are as high as $32 billion according to The International Labour Organisation.

The position adopted by Minister Zappone on who gets to inform policy, taken to its natural conclusion, would also appear to be at variance with the approach adopted by the former Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald as outlined in her speech at the Garda Conference on Tackling Trafficking in Human Beings Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnership in 2014.

There, Minister Fitzgerald acknowledged that one of the many challenges in tackling human trafficking is that it cuts across the responsibilities of such a large number of Government Departments and Agencies, all of whom are necessary for any coherent and effective anti-human trafficking policy.

The Minister went on to note that “It is impossible for any one organisation to tackle it alone. It has been obvious from early on that a multi-disciplinary approach, across Government and civil society, is required.”

Now, if Minister Zappone wishes her position to be consistent, she will have to condemn the church’s partnership with the State in combatting human trafficking.

If she does not condemn that partnership she will have to justify why it is permissible for government departments or state bodies to work closely with the church to develop and inform one area of human rights policy but not another.

For her position to be even more consistent she would also have to condemn the unending lobbying for abortion rights carried out by other civil society groups like Amnesty International Ireland and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Or perhaps it is the case that for Minister Zappone some civil society groups have preferential status and that it is only those motivated by religious values that must be excluded?

As part of her 2014 speech, referred to above, Frances Fitzgerald said that she was delighted that so many representatives of the NGO community were present. She ended by mentioning the outstanding work they are doing in the field of victim care and personally thanked them and “all the other state and NGO services, for performing this vital work.”

Such an approach, regardless of the issue, appears eminently more just and pragmatic than the one Minister Zappone would have us adopt where collaboration in framing government policy is restricted to the chosen and predominantly ‘secular’ few.