I haven’t been within state provided education for over ten wonderful years at this point. I went to a dilapidated, badly staffed school in an urban area (that has subsequently moved to a much nicer building), where an ethos of “toughening up” the all-male student population was a definite undercurrent with some of the faculty. Aside from some awful teachers and blind eyes deliberately turned to bullying and what could be charitably described as “anti-social behaviour” all over the place, the school also had a fairly obvious religious character.
I still vividly remember SPHE class in second year, when our extremely Catholic guidance counsellor, inexplicably assigned to telling a class of 14-year-old boys about contraception, would get outraged at the mere mention of abortion, and gritted her teeth as she was obligated to talk of prophylactics and not abstinence. There were masses aplenty, visits from priests, prayers before class, days off when John Paul II passed away, more masses (weirdly, Religion class was nearly always a study session, that not even the religious faculty took seriously).
When we started getting non-Catholics enrolled, mostly the children of refugees and immigrants, there was some awkwardness apparent, though not with the students: we honestly didn’t care if students were Muslim or anything else. If anything, it just made those guys more interesting, since they were so outside our experience.
But one thing you never encountered, either in the student body or among the faculty, was atheism. That wasn’t something that was talked about. Every time our aging geography teacher ordered us to rise so we could say an Our Father before learning about oxbow lakes, you were reminded that, whatever else, you were in a religious school. A Catholic school. And OK, we might have to take in some Muslims, but they all believe in a similar higher power. If you didn’t believe, it didn’t matter. You were standing for the prayers, and you were going to the masses, and I never remember a parent complaining or requesting that their son be excused from such things.
Fast forward ten years, and suddenly, when it comes to education, it is something that everybody is talking about. Abuse scandals, the growing diversity of the Irish school-going population and the increasing liberality of our society – as evidenced by the SSM vote last year – has people, in greater numbers than ever before, talking about whether a school’s religious ethos should allow it to turn down non-Catholic and non-religious students, and if the state should continue to allow the current system of religiously controlled education to continue at all.
Legislation passed shortly before the conclusion of the 31st Dail abolished “Rule 68”, ending religious educations officially sanctioned pre-eminent position in curriculums, but schools are still capable of denying entrance on the basis of religion if they are “over-subscribed”: that is, waiting lists for places can be sorted, if the school wants, by the child’s religious background.
The time has come for separation of church and state to become a reality in Ireland. It is not acceptable that my two nieces must be baptised into a faith that their parents do not have any strong attachment towards just so they can have a better shot at a nicer school, and it is not acceptable to me that the same nieces are then obligated to undergo religious instruction in the course of classes. The eldest mumbles through rote-learned prayers now, but has no idea what they mean. How could anyone, and especially a religious person, be OK with that? I know I’m not. The Catholic Church has proven itself an institution mired in corruption without the moral mandate to oversee the education of 96% of the nation’s children. Their growing irrelevance will only strengthen the movement to remove their influence from our schools. Leave religious instruction and education for church, or the home.
So, how do the parties fare on this point? And how about specific candidates, like those on Kildare North, who had the opportunity to answer specific questions on this exact point on sites like WhichCandidate?
Fine Gael do not favour repeal of the specific legislation – Section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act – at the present time. Their manifesto maintains that belief through what is not said more than what is, but also offers a commitment to build more multi and non-denominational schools as well as maintaining the plan to gradually end Church control over the majority of schools. In Kildare North, both Fine Gael TD’s, Bernard Durkan and Anthony Lawlor, believe schools should be allowed to give preferences based on religion, “but only if there are suitable alternatives”. Which, in most cases, there are not.
Labour, of course, do favour “amending” the law in question to change the focus from religion to locality. They’ve had the Education portfolio, under Jan O’Sullivan, and she expunged Rule 68 just before the end of the 31st Dail. One wonders if they will have the clout in the next government to get it done though. Kildare North’s Emmet Stagg advocates repeal, stating “local schools should serve local children”.
Fianna Fail’s manifesto states they will “Reform school admissions on the basis of locality to ensure children have access to their local school regardless of denomination while protecting religious rights.” That’s a sort of mealy mouthed statement really. Kildare North’s James Lawless differs a bit, stating that schools should be allowed to discriminate based on a new catchment area system that will somehow be worked so non-religion children will be ok. Uh huh. Frank O’Rourke has the exact same answer, which indicates to me that it’s a party line that didn’t make it intact into the manifesto. Methinks someone is fudging things.
Sinn Fein’s manifesto is contrastingly unequivocal: they will repeal the laws in question and “support increased diversification of patronage”. Kildare North’s Reada Cronin is right on board with the party position.
Renua’s manifesto “recognises” the over-saturation of religious schools over non-religious and “supports” the rights of those who want access to non-religious schools. Like Fianna Fail, this is a mealy-mouthed response to the issue. Kildare North’s Shane FitzGerald goes for the “suitable alternatives” answer to the question, essentially saying Yes and No, and suggests that an analysis of the census could ensure the problem is “solved speedily”. Uh huh.
The Social Democrat manifesto supports the repeal of that section of the Equal Status Act in question. They also introduced legislation to do just that in 2015, but were voted down. Kildare North’s Catherine Murphy, who probably helped draft the manifesto, is right on board.
The Green manifesto proposes to “End any discrimination at school entry on the basis of religion or special education needs”. You see, you can make a decisive statement while not actually naming the legislation in question. Kildare North’s Maebh Ní Fhallúin agrees wholeheartedly.
So, explicitly advocating repeal of Section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act are Sinn Fein, AAA-PBP, the Social Democrats and the Greens. Labour can be added to that list, though they have no formal policy set down during this election cycle (yet). Fianna Fail and Renua seem like they are on the fence a bit. And Fine Gael are against, for the moment anyway. The Social Democrats giving me even more reasons to vote for them then.