Dr Elizabeth Healey

by | Jul 17, 2017 | Education / Academia, Interview | 0 comments

Elizabeth HealeyHow would you describe your identity and beliefs in relation to religion?

I am a practising Roman Catholic though not a particularly strict one.

What made you adopt or retain this position?

I embraced Catholicism as a student in Ireland during the late ‘60s / early ‘70s. With hindsight I think I was looking for a way of accepting religion in to my life in a meaningful way (rather than something that was confined to Sundays) and it seemed to me then that Roman Catholics in Ireland  did not regard religion and going to church as something separate from their everyday lives, so that Catholicism seemed to be the answer. I was brought up nominally an Anglican, and I went to a Quaker boarding school Although I liked the reflective nature of Quakerism I felt a lack  of tangible  manifestation of the sacraments. 

Would you describe GB as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?

I would like to think so and compared to many countries it is, but in reality we can be extremely and embarrassingly prejudiced (as the discussion about immigration and Brexit has demonstrated). We tend to be wary of people that are different in some way, whether in religion, race or language.   Catholics, or Left Footers,  are often seen as rather strange people, slightly suspect, perhaps a bit of an embarrassment though, not to be laughed at either… There is always a surprise, not in a particularly nasty way when someone discovers that you are a Roman Catholic and the conversation usually ends there. I don’t think people are generally nervous about Catholics as long as religious beliefs are kept at arms length and I think that goes for most other Christian religions as well In that respect Britain is tolerant (if somewhat ill-informed), but probably not open. You can think and believe what you like as long as you don’t talk about it.

In academic circles I wouldn’t start a conversation about religion, unless there was a really good reason; most people simply don’t talk openly about their faith and religion. 

Are there any challenges to living in accordance with your faith, and if so, are they social, legal or political?

There are no longer many strong political or legal challenges for Catholics in this country… except may be in the sense that some scientific advances  may  run contrary to our religious beliefs, especially those relating to the sanctity of life, for example abortion laws, euthanasia and genetic engineering … but as science and medicine advances I think people need to be pretty understanding of each others views on these topics and accommodate views that differ from their own. There also needs to be clear legislation that permits people to abstain from taking part in certain procedures and prevents discrimination against them.

I do sometimes feel a bit different, maybe self-conscious of being a Catholic in some circumstances – this is a mainly social challenge and fortunately I have never been in a position to have to declare my belief in those areas let alone make a decision.  .

As well, there are some difficult social challenges in relation to things that include outward manifestations of one’s faith such as special clothing, wearing a crucifix, etc. Other issues include the sacrament of marriage and same sex unions.   Society is going through a big change and it sometimes difficult to reconcile this with one’s religious beliefs and one’s duty as a Christian; there also seems to be a bit of a disjunction between the law, social pressure and religious beliefs. 

Have HRs enshrined in law been a positive development for our society?

I think it is probably a good thing that HRs  are enshrined in law;  they do  set some parameters and might stop some terrible things from happening But they are not always positive.  For example not being able to deport a foreign national who has done something criminal because he may be abused in his own country causes a dilemma and one that is not easy to solve. There are always two sides to a story which are not always appreciated.  In general it is probably useful to have HRs enshrined in law, but   it is sad that the attitude of society is such that we have make what many would see as decent behaviour into a law. 

Has the Roman Catholic Church influenced our collective understanding of HRs?

I hope that Catholics have influenced the way HRs are understood in the world. Maybe not as overtly as some would like. 

Does the Church have a practical role in relation to any HRs issues?

In general the Church does have a role in relation to HR issues though it is more a Christian than a specially Roman Catholic matter and the C of E bishops in the House of Lords can of course speak out.   Religious groups get involved in the rights of refugees and asylum seekers too.  I cannot think now of a leading Catholic organisation particularly vocal in HRs apart perhaps from SPUC  but that is because I am not very politically aware and it does not mean they are not there.  Somehow the RC Church will need to find a way to accept other people’s rights even when they run contrary to the teaching of the Church. 

Do public authorities generally respect HRs?

I think generally speaking HRs are respected by the Government and other public bodies even if it is sometimes something to hide behind.  I would like to think that  if something contrary to human rights happened to  me in a foreign country for instance  I could rely on the government to help.  I think I am reasonably happy that HRs would be followed by the Government (though according to reports this does not always appear to be the case).I don’t think public bodies are proactive as they might be – for example over the alleged neglect by public bodies such as social services over child abuse or abuse in care homes, but it is difficult to know all the facts  when stories get hyped up by the media.  I feel that sometimes individuals may be scapegoated. Nevertheless it is important to have individual accountability and not to hide behind an organisation. 

Do public authorities get the balance right between freedom and protection when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?

I think public bodies interfere in our lives rather a lot generally. I am quite bolshie about these things, but in terms of most religious matters, I think in a strange way they are very hands off, except perhaps with regard to education.  For example non-Catholic parents may choose to send their children to a Catholic school because they think the school generally has a good ethos.  However, it seems that   if there are complaints that things are done in a too  overtly Catholic way, it it is the Catholic values that have to be compromised. … I think that is wrong. So sometimes public policies can be detrimental to religious schools, and detrimental to religion and the balance tips too far in the other direction It often seems that ‘citizenship’ is taking over the role of moral and religious education and there is a danger that freedom of expression could be compromised by trying to accommodate every belief. But there is another way to look at it. It could be argued that (state) education and religion should be separate anyway.  Religious education can take place out of school hours at home in the family and in special ‘Sunday schools’.  I do not think that this a positive thing because it tends to set religious belief as something separate from daily life.

On the other hand I think the State must intervene when people go to extremes and harm other people or could harm other people or themselves or breach the law. .  There is though an issue of where things like the right to protest or  the freedom of speech ends and extremism begins and when the law must come and stop it. It is a difficult balance to strike. 

Does living in a democracy make it easier or harder to live in accordance with your faith?  Is there any system which you would prefer?

I know of no sensible alternative to democracy and it certainly generally  enables me to live in accordance with my faith and belief.  It also brings individual and collective responsibility which is often hard to accept and I don’t think people always feel represented by the system we have now…It does depend on everyone generally acting decently and accepting other people’s views and not being intolerant, which is not always easy. . I certainly wouldn’t like to live under a dictatorship or a police State though! 

Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?

Yes, I do have a duty and  personal responsibility to vote, but that is not as a result of being a Catholic, but because I am a citizen. Some people feel this duty very strongly. Let me give you an example.. Earlier this year my brother-in-law and sister both had terminal cancer and were expected to die long before the general election. However they didn’t die and despite being very ill and confined to bed my brother-in-law suddenly decided on election day that he was going to vote, So  he got out of bed put on a suit,  roused my sister (who was less enthusiastic) and together they walked to the polling station and cast their votes. He died shortly after. It seems that  he must have had a very strong duty to decide to vote despite being so ill. When my sister told me I found it quite moving but at the same time  somewhat crazy! 

Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law?  Would you like to see a more empowered judiciary, able to strike down legislation?

I don’t think I would like to see an American ‘empowerment’ of the judiciary Though the problem with parliament making laws is that although they are a democratically elected body  they can be politically motivated and are not fully representative of the population.  As long as enough checks and balances are in place it should works out. The judicary is there to apply the law to individual circumstance not to make it.  I think if you do have judges taking matters in their own hands, there is a big danger that they’ll become too powerful. They are also unelected.  Maybe in the beginning it’s ok, but I think eventually it could lead to anarchy ., In an extreme situation you have different parts of the country permitting things that are not allowed in others.  In that case things would break down, we would no  longer be the UK or even a democracy. 

Is a majoritarian understand of democracy a problem for minority groups?  Are there some groups who face barriers to participation?

It is definitely more difficult for  small groups to  get proper representation because of the first-past-the-post system, I so that I think parliament is becoming increasingly unrepresentative.  However,  a member of parliament is supposed to represent the views of their entire constituency not just those who elected them.  I understand that there is shortly to be some reorganisation of constituency boundaries which is supposed to make constituencies more equal in size, but  it will not necessarily make them more representative  and there have been some accusations of gerrymandering.,  I feel that the voting system needs amendment.  If we don’t take account of minority views we are in danger of causing disaffection and we may well find protests increasing  and more divisions with in the community instead of more participation. 

Does it concern that the House of Lords is unelected?

Yes, I think it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected Hereditary peers are a quaint anachronism (though individually some may be very wise) and there is a danger of chronism in the appointments system (as we have seen in David Cameron’s latest list), I think now we have one or two people’s peers although we here very little about them or from them. … We certainly need an ‘upper’ house or better a second chamber  that represents all walks of life and interests who can act both as a sounding board for, and a check on, the House of Commons.  I think it would be a difficult task to determine the composition of such a body. 

How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?

As above, they are an anachronism – simply being an Anglican bishop doesn’t mean that you are qualified to govern.  On the other hand given our system,  I am glad that they are there.  They can (and do)  speak up on behalf of all  Christians  So as a practising Catholic, I think it is benefical for Christians  that they are there… but these days the House of Lords should include f other religions, and other Christian Churches, nevertheless it is better that the Anglican bishops are there by right rather than there being no religious representation at all.  If the choice is no representation or Anglican bishops, I’d rather have the bishops. 

Do public bodies respect the will of Parliament, as expressed through legislation?

This is a difficult question – not least because public bodies are made up of individuals who may have their own agenda.  Public authorities probably do sometimes deliberately ignore legislation, if they want to get something done  and pick up the consequences afterwards.  This may be a consequence of the legislation in a particular area no longer being fit for purpose.  One area that really concerns me is genetic modification of humans and the possibility of artificially created life; I even have qualms about in vitro fertilisation and genetic medicine because I think nature does or doesn’t do things for a purpose sometimes… Nevertheless science is advancing very rapidly and we are discovering more and more new things which legislation can and sometimes does  impede and veto,  though it must be very frustrating for scientists.  Most public bodies do respect the will of parliament even if it is to ensure their next tranche of funding. 

How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?

I think being a member of the EU is positive. I don’t think I was very pro-EU when the issue first came up in the  1970s, but having joined the EU and experienced it  I definitely think we should stay. Maybe we need to change things too;   people think the EU interferes  overmuch in people’s lives through what they see as irrelevant rules  and   maybe that needs to be tempered, though sometimes I think it is a matter of people interpreting a ruling rather too  literally and using that as a point to score off. I think that life is much more globalised that it used to be but that at the same time… nationality/identity  is important… you probably appreciate that, because you are happy to be both British and Spanish.  I see that is something to applaud and celebrate, I think the EU demonstrates that we are part of a bigger poolin which we can retain our  identities but enjoy wider networks and support.

In such circumstances I think devolution for Scotland and Wales (and even some regions of England) could be positive provided that they remain members of the  bigger pool too and certain common rules are adhered toIf devolved areas started to act irresponsibly and that had consequences for the overarching body then I wouldn’t be too pleased, but with careful administration that shouldn’t happen and the composite overarching  body should be more than the sum of its constituent parts.

What are the most appropriate mechanisms for holding to account those who exercise power in society?

Of course the law is the best way of holding those in authority to account (though one always hopes that internal mechanisms and peer pressure would intervene first). BThe press is definitely not an appropriate mechanism of accountability Although it is true that they have uncovered some awful abuses.

However, I don’t think the press should start doing their own investigations and hectoring people and I don’t like the tone of some radio interviews either. Nor should the press deliberately seek to rake up people’s past and hold it against them when it is irrelevant and simply for the puposes of gossip.

People can change and they shouldn’t be hounded by the press, just because in the past they have done something, even smoking cannabis, for example. Isn’t it part of growing up? If the person has reformed Is that so dreadful? Should it cost you your job?

Are Roman Catholics appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?

I don’t have any idea about how many Catholics we have in public bodies, and I think it shouldn’t matter… I don’t elect my MP because he/she is Catholic… I think that would be irrelevant… I elect them because they have the good of the community at heart ,  and effective in making change happen. But , if there were two or three candidates on an equal footing, that could be a reason to choose the Catholic one. .

If we wish to have  overt and appropriate representation in public life it would have to be for all religious groups not just Catholics,  then there would need to be some sort of quota system;  I would not particularly like that because it smacks of tokenism and may well bar the best person for the job. 

Are the judiciary sufficiently independent?

I am not quite sure what you mean by this question.

If you mean of the government then yes, but if you mean able to act in a fair way then I am less sure. . The little bits I have seen of the law operating suggest to me that  lawyers play games trying to outsmart each other and  wouldn’t be confident that I am going to get a fair outcome

Have you ever felt so strongly about an issue that you have campaigned for change?

I was involved in the protest march against the Iraq war, the first and the only tine that  I have demonstrated. I have only once written to my MP… I am not a particularly active member of the community. I only demonstrated once, and it was because I felt very stronglythat the grounds for invasion where unfounded. I also think that war is  wrong… One of the reasons why I don’t write to my MP is because I don’t think it would do any good though I have signed petitions sometimes but I know that it is unlikely that anything will come out of it, so there is no point in wasting everyone’s time… perhaps it is very cowardly… 

Do you think that public authorities understand and provide for the needs of practising Catholics?

I am not sure  in what respect you mean. I have never had to put it to the test. Some people do say that  if you are admitted to hospital they can no longer ask you about your religion though you may tell I also heard that they would never bring you a priest unless you asked for one… I don’t know if that is true… My Catholicism has never been an issue in my relationship with public authorities and I have never been in circumstances where my faith was relevant. , I guess it could have been an issue had I wanted my children to go to a Catholic state school, and we couldn’t get them in but my non Catholic neighbour’s children  were admitted.

Is it important for you to always act within secular law?

Yes, but I think hypothetically speaking if I were asked something against my religion, I wouldn’t do it, but I have never been in that situation. I cannot really think of a situation like that in academia either. 

Do you believe that you have a duty to speak out for the vulnerable?

I would like to think that I would do, if I thought something was wrong… it is part of my Catholicism… If I thought that someone had been the subject of some injustice, I would definitely intervene though I would find it difficult because I am cowardly…  butt is something that I would feel I would have to do.  I don’t think I have the strength of character to open up an issue independently. 

Is the Rule of Law applied equally, or are there some groups which experience prejudicial or preferential treatment?

I don’t think that people are on an equal footing. I get the impression that people who look different are treated differently And poorer people tend to be disadvantaged. In the courts for example people who come from poor backgrounds cannot afford top lawyers but may be have access legal aid… I think that lawyer wouldn’t probably have the time to act in the same way as the opposing lawyer who would be paid;  in such cases there  could be unequal representation.  There are barriers too for people who can’t afford to go through the legal system, but have too much income for legal aid. They are simply not able to get recourse to justice. 

How do you feel about the increase in police powers over the last 15 years or so?

Unfortunately, because of the increase of terrorist threats, a strengthening of the powers of the police is necessary. I think they need to be sure about what they are doing… you hear instances in which they get into the wrong house or pick the wrong person… but let’s not forget that the police are also terrified about what they are going to find! They are brave. 

Are there any legal rules which you would like to change?

I cannot think of a legal rule which I would change if I could… but I am sure that I’ll think about it as soon as I leave this room! 

Is there anything which you would like to add on the topic?

One thing I would like to bring up is  that, because we are now a seven days a week society, Sunday as a traditional day of Christian worship  (and enshrined in British life) is compromised. However,  we do have to balance that with  the fact that other religions  need to  fulfil religious obligations on other days of the week and little or no allowance is made for them.

Despite this I am not sure the seven dayworking  week is necessary.  For all sorts of reasons… I think people need a day off together , in which they have down time and don’t do their the usual activities … they can go to church or stay in bed later, have family time and simply relax and recharge their batteries!  However,  I find that even my own views are changing:  if I go somewhere where the shops are closed on a Sunday  I find it very strange. It is a bad reflection on me, I know… On Sundays do I buy the newspaper and small food things that I have might have forgotten, but I wouldn’t deliberately go shopping on a Sunday But there is a temptation…(!)

Perhaps the time has come for a big debate about how we accommodate all beliefs (and none)  within all aspects of society in a pro-active way –‘Religions’ need to consider their positions as much as the ‘state’ and ‘society’.  Nevertheless we must be careful not to dumb-down the variations within society.

I am sure I didn’t answer all the questions you posed adequately but it was certainly thought provoking – thank you for inviting me to take part!

Dr Healey is an archaeologist specialising in lithic artefacts of the Neolithic and Bronze Age of the Near East.  She has been married to John whom she met when they were both students in Dublin for nearly 45 years.  They have a son and a daughter and a daughter-in-law and a grandson.

She has always worked in some way as a specialist in lithic artefacts and is now an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology in Manchester, researching the use of obsidian (a volcanic glass) for tool and ornament manufacture in the Near East.  She is particularly interested in the way it is exchanged over wide areas and the implications of this for social relations in the prehistoric world.

As well as her archaeological work, when she came to Manchester in 1969 she became Head of Residence (Warden) of Ashburne Hall, a University Hall of residence for female students a post she held for 16 years.  She became Senior Warden of the Fallowfield Campus in 2004 but resigned from the residential sector in 2006.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *