By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A wide-ranging debate about the role of the taoiseach’s partner, Celia Larkin, as the country’s "first lady" has dogged Bertie Ahern following a controversial invitation to a state reception for Cardinal Desmond Connell that was issued in both their names.
Their co-hosting of the recent reception in Dublin Castle on behalf of the state has led to a discussion that centers on the uneasy relationship between official church teaching and private and public morality.
The taoiseach and tanaiste greeted the cardinal when he arrived at Dublin Castle on May 14. Larkin had arrived earlier with Ahern but vanished inside before the cardinal turned up for what was a celebration of his elevation by the pope earlier this year.
Connell, who is also archbishop of Dublin, has been a strong upholder of traditional church values, including the sanctity of marriage.
Ahern separated from his wife, Miriam, in 1992 but they have not divorced. They have two daughters.
Since he took over as leader of Fianna Fail, he has been quite open his new relationship. Larkin has traveled with him on official visits abroad and both their names are usually on official state invitations.
The division in attitudes was underlined in a Sunday Independent/IMS poll. It found that for every four who said it was right to include her name on the invitation (38 percent), five thought it was wrong (47 percent). There were 15 percent who did not know or had no opinion.
Those supporting Larkin’s status as "first lady" had dropped by seven points to 43 percent.
Members of both the country’s main churches have criticized the decision to include Larkin’s name on the invitation.
Church of Ireland Dean Robert MacCarthy revealed he turned down all invitations because Larkin’s name was on them and it suggested a non-married relationship was on a par with a marriage.
He received a rebuke from long-time government advisor Dr. Martin Mansergh, who is a member of the church. He accused MacCarthy of being "gratuitously discourteous."
Ahern said there was no controversy between he and the cardinal and explained how he was in a no-win situation. "From the time I became taoiseach, I used the same format on every card and not to do so would have made it a controversy," he said.
Connell’s spokesman said that as far as he was concerned "the invitation was from the government."