IT WAS former Scottish Secretary, Michael Forysth, who best described the 300 year old Act of Settlement. In his typically direct style he labelled the legislation "the grubby little secret of the British Constitution".
The Act, passed by a single vote in 1701 and absorbed into Scots Law under the Act of Union in 1707 contains words of bile directed against those of the "Popish" persuasion, which, if they were included in a TV programme, would force schedulers to broadcast it after the watershed.
Yet three centuries on, the act remains on the statute book, untouched and almost forgotten had it not been for the determination of a group of parliamentarians from all parties to push for change. Among the heroes of the hour have been Lord James Douglas Hamilton for the Tories, John McAllion for Labour, Mike Russell and Roseanna Cunningham for the SNP and just about any Lib Dem who was asked his or her opinion.
To say the issue has put the Government in a spin would be an understatement. A first attempt at burying the issue as "not a current priority" went grotesquely pear-shaped when Dr John Reid, the affable Scottish Secretary was verbally duffed up by an audience in the BBC's Question Time.
The next tactic — to describe the issue as unbearably complex and thus not worth the bother of amending — was tried in a letter from Prime Minister Tony Blair to Scottish aristocrat Lord James Douglas Hamilton, now a Tory member of the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish press — never the Prime Minister's most docile lapdogs — impertinently asked constitutional expert Tom Mullen of Glasgow University for his view on the matter.
Alas for the advocates of the status quo, the expert ruled that amending the Act of Settlement "should not pose any major difficulties".
Strategy two thus fell by the wayside.
Strategy three was to attempt to show sympathy to Catholics' feelings while avoiding any commitment to rewrite the Act. This was tried last weekend when newspapers were given anonymous briefings that the Prime Minister was minded to amend the act, as soon as parliamentary time allowed for it.
Unfortunately for the beleaguered PM the nasty Scottish press reported the briefing as an "embarrassing U-turn by Tony Blair" — the sort of headline to have any selfrespecting Millbank spin doctor admitted to hospital for heart failure.
In the middle of this comedy of errors stood the Catholic Church. While it has never been the top priority for the bishops of Scotland, nevertheless, Scottish Catholics would be almost universally in favour of change to omit the offensive articles.
Cardinal Winning entered the debate by calling the Act of Settlement "an embarrassing anachronism", and pointed out that no person of good will could justify the terms of an Act which discriminates against Catholics as such. However the Cardinal stopped short of demanding instant action. In doing so he was quite wise.
Throughout this debate the Church has had to keep an eye on the wider political agenda. It is no accident that the running on this issue has been made by the Scottish Conservatives and the SNP. (Conservative voices south of the border have been strangely, some might say, culpably, silent on the issue.) And while the Church welcomes those who support its concerns from whatever quarter, we must be careful to avoid appearing to turn a question of equity and human rights into a party political I suspect in common with most Scots Catholics, I am reasonably satisfied that the Government has taken cognizance of the issue. The fact that they have shown a willingness to look at amendment, albeit during the next Parliament, is, all things considered, reasonably good news.
As Cardinal Winning put it: "We've put up with it for 300 years, another short wait won't make much difference."
But in analysing the events of recent weeks a series of questions is raised which demands answers.
Firstly, why is it that no group of Westminster MR has taken up this issue with any gusto in 300 years, yet pressure from the Scottish Parliament, which has existed for less than 300 days, can bring about at least a promise of action?
Secondly, why does the Conservative Party, which was in power for 18 years, suddenly seem to have discovered a constitutional hot spot which they singularly failed to recognise during their own time in power?
And thirdly, how is it that a Prime Minister as powerful, charismatic and determined as Tony Blair, who has tackled the big constitutional issue of modernising the House of Lords, and has even managed to apply a spot of oil to Labour's own creaky constitution, seems strangely bashful about pushing through amendments which would have almost universal support?
I would hazard a guess that the PM's current reluctance to champion the fuial stage of Catholic emancipation may have more to do with a certain set of talks at Stormont taking place these days than any sympathy for an anachronistic insult to, among others, his own wife and children.
The prize of peace in Ireland is within reach. Anything which plays into the hands of the bigots of Orangeism or the fanatical fringes of Loyalism is certainly to be avoided. And given the tragically long memories of both sides in the Northern Ireland divide, perhaps no-one should be in any doubt that a change in the Act of Settlement now could risk upsetting the applecart of the peace-process.
In these circumstances, I hope Catholics will bide their time. Let peace in Ulster be achieved once and for all.
Then, when justice and normality are restored in the six counties, let us take up the fight with determination to repeal the "grubby little secret" which shames our nation.
Ronnie Convoy is Director of Communications of the Archdiocese of Glasgow