Eamonn O'BrienHow would you describe your personal beliefs in relation to religion?

Catholic, Christian.

What made you retain/adopt this faith?

I was a cradle Catholic, Irish Catholic family, grew up going to mass, when to Catholic primary and secondary schools and Catholic college. A lot of my friends did that too and haven’t carried it on. I always enjoyed the community around it, having a lot of people from different walks to life coming together to do things, in church, school and also charity things.

Do you think that GB is an equal and tolerant society in relation to religion and belief?

I think that by and large it is tolerant and open to religion, it hasn’t always been, and perhaps this experience makes us appreciate it more. I have recently been in Belgium, they are predominately a Catholic country and recently that has shifted a bit. They have a stronger demarcation about talking about religion in a public context, teachers in public schools cannot talk about religion. So in my experience it is quite open here.

Have you experienced any challenges living in accordance with your faith? If so, were they social, political or legal in nature?

For me it has been quite easy to be a Catholic, especially is you compare it to other countries. It has never held me back from in terms of getting a job, getting into a university, flying and getting on a plane. It was more difficult for my dad, but I think that was more about nationality than religion, being Irish. A lot of the challenges for Catholics effect people of other faiths, social and cultural changes which have happened fasted than the churches have moved, not necessarily always for the best. Even the culture is different, you go to mass and the sermon might be about living a humble lifestyle, you go out and society tells you to amass and earn as much as possible and have as much as you can as often as you can. There is a counter cultural element to religion, which can be difficult when people around might not agree with your point of view.

How does Catholicism understand human rights? Has it contributed to the world’s understanding of them?

I think it has in good and bad ways. It’s this idea of learning from mistakes sometimes, the church has been on the wrong and the right side of human rights at different times. A lot of the charity work and outreach I have been involved in has been implicitly or explicitly about HR. Whether that has been giving people dignity and security or giving political prisoners the right to practice their own faith. But equally as someone who studies history I’m not unaware that the church has held back those freedoms in the past when it was directed at them. I think that HR are a much higher priority in the church than they were, probably as a result of the wars and the atrocities of the last century. The church as a global instruction has no choice but to be aware of HR.

Does the RC church actively engage in human rights issues in contemporary Britain?

Yes, especially around refugees and asylum seekers, the church often fights their corner. I had some experience of some people in my church who had converted and were going to be deported, the church rallied round and managed to raise money for legal fees and the people are now able to stay, whereas perhaps without our help they perhaps wouldn’t have. Also issues of food poverty, food banks and work with the poor. I would class that as human rights.

What do you think about faith schools?

I think it depends on the context, and possibly each individual faith schools. My personal experience has always been quite positive, we were educated in a multicultural area and we learnt about other faiths and also the values which we share with Judaism and Islam. It is interesting if you look at contexts like Northern Ireland though, there faith schools can maintain a social divide, whereas sectarianism doesn’t really exist like that in North West England. So it does depend on the context, but there is potential for a lot good from faith schools.

Should the law allow religious groups exemptions from discrimination law in running their own internal affairs?

It is an interesting question, because you could disagree with what the church does but not want the law to be changed. I’m not sure whether that disappoints or satisfies both sides of the argument. I think if the state is providing a service, it has an obligation to start from the basis of equality. If a church or faith institution is setting up its own procedures, if there is no social harm to the discrimination that may be, the state doesn’t need to get involved. But you can still have opinions on trying to encourage the church to change its policies, without wanting the state to get involved legally and force them.

Should religious people running businesses be allowed to discriminate in their treatment of employees and customers?

My instinct is to say that they ought to abide by the rules of the state and wider society, if you are open to the public and providing a service to the public you should not be allowed to discriminate on your own ground. We don’t want to go back to the days where you could put up a sign saying ‘No dogs, no blacks no Irish’. I think that you have got to abide by the law of the land when providing a service to the general public.

Do you think that living in a democracy is a good thing?

I think democracy is the best thing we have at the moment, it does better than any other system to provide participation in the process. Whether our own system does that as well as other democracies is open to question. If I have the option to change the system to something more proportional I would, I voted in favour of AV in 2011.

Do you believe that you have a duty to vote?

I would say so, I try my best to get as many people to vote in my area. But if you expect the benefits of the system we have you should be involved in it at this fundamental level. People should do a lot more, but voting is the bare minimum. If you expect to use services, complain about things you should back that up with some participation, even if you spoil your ballot paper.

Is it a problem in your view that the House of Lords is not elected?

I think it can be, at times it has proven itself to be what it was designed for, a more thoughtful, less politicised chamber than the House of Commons. I would say the House of Lords is okay but could be much better. What form that would take I am not sure, but something better is out there.

How do you feel about the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords as of right?

Well, I guess it depends on what influence those bishops have, if they had a veto on making laws it would be a problem. I don’t see a problem with people of faith getting involved, for me it’s more of a problem that it is only Church of England bishops who are there as of right. If it was reformed you could have representatives from other religious communities and other interest groups as well, you could widen it out. Again I don’t think that having religious people involved in law making is a bad thing, but the current system would be improved. If would be interesting to see how crucial the votes of the bishop have been to the outcome of decisions.

Do you feel represented by the Church of England bishops?

I think by and large it is an interesting situation that whenever their interventions are sought it tends to be in agreement with what a lot of other faiths, especially the Catholic faith talk about. We share agreement on a lot of moral issues, I tend to feel quite comfortable that there is a religious voice in the process, because in our own process it can be crowded out in the Commons.

Are you comfortable that Parliament has the final say in making law? Would you like to see more powers given to the judiciary?

I quite like our compromise here, where judges can review a law, it doesn’t get struck down, but it is considered to be a law which they wouldn’t support. The judiciary’s voice is important, but they don’t have a monopoly on what is right and wrong in terms of legislation. To give them power to strike down law could be good or bad, but at the moment the compromise is quite effective.

Is it good or bad that some decisions affecting the UK don’t come from Westminster, but are made by the devolved administrations?

I think by and large yes, it is important that we share power as much as possible. There is a principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching, power should be exercised as low as possible but as high as necessary. I think that it is a good balance as it stands.

How should society hold people who exercise power to account?

Public opinion is good check on a lot of power, it doesn’t always get it right, but I don’t think that any system would, you have to look at how often it gets it right compared to how often it gets it wrong, especially in relation to countries where there isn’t freedom of the press. It can force the hand of people in power to act in ways which they otherwise would not have done, for instance when MPs resign. We don’t currently have a recall law, so it is difficult to get an MP who has done wrong to resign without a free press. Equally if the media is doing something wrong, the MP is not compelled to resign. I still think that more could be done to improve accountability in terms of legislation. It is harder with business and religious leaders, but again the media has an impact, CEOs of companies have had to resign because stories have broken about them.

What duties do all citizens owe to the rest of society?

For me it is always about sharing as much as possible on different levels, not just financially. Sharing resources, time and skills. I found form my limited experience at university that people could help you a lot without giving you money, giving you a book that they’ve read or emotional and spiritual support. That is difficult to quantify in terms of money and we don’t tend to think about it as much, some things we are taught in a religious sense are different from what society expects. Things that we can consume are not always the most important thing, solidarity and support can contribute more.

Do you think that our leaders are representative of society as a whole?

They’re not great across the board, it is getting better in some areas but not all. It is great that there are more women involved in politics, but there are some groups who are still not represented. I was talking to a Sikh recently who said that there were no Sikh MPs because there is no constituency with enough Sikhs that would….

There are several Sikh MPs

Are there?

It’s interesting that that guy has the perception

Another aspect is the professionalization to politics which cuts a lot of people out, people feel that they cannot operate in that world. It’s quite intimidating to get into politics with PR experts, whereas in history some of the most vocal politicians wouldn’t survive in today’s politics. While some things are improving, others are declining.

Have you ever felt so strongly about a situation that you campaigned to change it, and if so, what did you do?

Largely I got involved, not as any plan to get elected, I got involved because it was something that was important to me before formal politics. I talked a lot of politics with my older brother who studied it, with friends who had different views, I always felt that there was a political dimension to my faith. I took a few years to get involved in the campaigning side of things, then I was asked to consider it, and felt that there were things which I could contribute which weren’t already there. So that’s why I got involved really.

Have public authorities shown appropriate awareness and respect for your needs as a Catholic?

So far I have found so, yes. At the local council with have prayers before a meeting, we consult with faith and religious communities, for example the Orthodox Jewish community in Prestwich. So far it has been move positive than I had expected, even people not from a religious background are interested to hear and ask questions. And when people disagree it is respectfully done.

Do you feel that it is important to act within secular law?

I’m sure I could think of examples where they could be a law that I would disagree with. It’s topical now because we are celebrating 100 years of the First World War, with something like conscription, I can see why people who genuinely disagreed with what the state was doing in terms of morality, I can see why people felt compelled to do it. I don’t think that I would ever break the law to influence the law, because I think that the processes in this country allow you to do that in other ways. But I’m not sure that I would have paid the Poll Tax.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out for third parties who are vulnerable?

Yes, it does, there are lots of examples. Increasingly domestically, traditionally internationally, international developments, refugees and asylum seekers who are not on the priority list for politicians throughout Europe. But we are finding through work with the food bank that the views of the homeless are never sought, they don’t feel that they can interact with politics, especially those who have been involved with the criminal justice system.

Do you think that the rule of law is applied equally to all citizens in the UK?

In theory it largely does, but in practice there are lots of examples where people aren’t treated equally, stop and search powers are interesting. Who gets stopped has changed, now may it is perhaps Muslim people how get searched, 40 years ago it was Irish people. My dad used to be constantly stopped in airports. Even thigh there hasn’t been a change in the law, there has been a change in who is on the receiving end of it.

How do you feel about allowing the police to suspend or soften the rule of law in certain circumstances?

It’s a difficult one, you have to have sympathy for the people trying to make these calls, and if it was easy you wouldn’t have the problem. It’s important that on a regular there is some oversight and accountability. All of you need is one person to slip through the net and a lot of lives can be lost, but equally there have been examples of the whole system working against people. It’s hard to know whether that is better than it was. It has never affected me personally, so it is difficult to know what other people go through on a daily basis.

Are you aware of any legal rules which you find restrictive?

I suppose no……….not really.

Do you think that we have enough RC people in public life?

It’s interesting, there are probably more than I would know are there. I am already surprised of how many there are, considering the number of practising Catholics in the country, I already know of more than I would expect. As it stands I’ve felt that there is a pretty good general representation of Catholics.

Is there anything which you would like to add?

There is a restriction on Catholics to be king or queen, not prime minister any more, but there is still a legal restriction that is specifically against Catholics. I was surprised to learn that Ian Duncan Smith was a Catholic, obviously Tony Blair converted after he left and there was a suggestion that he didn’t think it was politically wise to do it while he was there.

Eamonn was born, raised and lived all his life in Prestwich, Greater Manchester. He attended the University of Manchester where he studied Politics and Modern History, obtaining a First Class degree, followed by a Masters in History.

Whilst at University he joined the Catholic Chaplaincy committee, first as Vice-President for Faith and Society and then two years as President. During that time, he established a Faith and Politics Society, which had speakers from a wide range of backgrounds, faiths and political parties. Furthermore, he was also part of a team that set up the country’s first ever student-led foodbank, The Manchester Central Foodbank.

He was a local organiser for the Manchester meeting of the Citizens UK Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life, which explored the state of the current relationship between civil society and Islam and how the Muslim communities of Britain can better engage and participate in public life.

He has also been active in campaigning for CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), including lobbying MPs and Lords, as well as organising local hustings around election times.

He was elected as a local Councillor in the Borough of Bury for St Mary’s Ward in Prestwich at the 2014 local elections. He is currently Deputy Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Families and Lead Member for Policy Development.


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