Southern Protestant community participates fully in modern Irish society

Wed, Mar 21, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:IN RESPONSE to Brian Walker’s “Watching the fate of the southern Protestant” (March 12th, 2012), it is important to point out that the Protestant community in the Irish Republic has moved on.

In an Ireland of much greater diversity, Irish Protestants participate fully in society nowadays in a way that wouldn’t have seemed possible 50 or 60 years ago. They have friends throughout the community. They are involved in sporting organisations including the GAA and social bodies. They participate fully in all aspects of life.

Well-known recent or current examples of such people are judge Catherine McGuinness, Senator David Norris, former Green Party leader Trevor Sargent and ex-GAA president Jack Boothman.

As an elected public representative myself, I can testify that those who voted for me are concerned that I represent them effectively, irrespective of their religious attachments or lack of them. The fact that I’m a Protestant is, at most, a minor curiosity or a complete irrelevance.

This is in contrast to the Ireland of 50 or 60 years ago with the operation of the hated ne temere decree, which obliged the children of a Roman Catholic/ Protestant couple to be brought up in the Catholic Church. That was a different world.

Protestants, at that time, tended to stick to their own. Their friendships and social life tended to be within their own community. There was interaction with the world of business and commerce as well as organisations such as the Irish Farmers’ Association and the teaching unions which represented their sectoral interests.

However, this interaction was usually kept to a minimum. In addition to deep fear and suspicion of the Catholic Church, there was a lingering unionism, a sense of wanting to remain within the United Kingdom, amongst most, but not all, of the older generation. That has largely gone now.

Nowadays to be a Protestant of any hue in the Republic is an expression of religious outlook. Except in Border areas, perhaps, it doesn’t bring a political connotation with it. Being Protestant nowadays is being part of quite a diverse group even within individual churches.

For example, St Andrew’s, the Church of Ireland church I attend in Lucan, Co Dublin, reflects this. Possibly 50 per cent of those who attend come from a traditional Church of Ireland/ Protestant background. Approximately 25 per cent of a weekly attendance will be people of African and Indian origin with the remaining 25 per cent made up of people who grew up as Irish Catholics.

All of these people are there from choice, perhaps coming because they have a Protestant spouse or else because they prefer the Church of Ireland over other options. Some east Europeans and a few from other parts of the world can be added to this elsewhere in Ireland.

It is from this background that we must examine the unease among some in the Protestant community about how the recent regrettable education cuts may impact on Protestant schools. More than most, I recognise the fine work that they do. The cuts need to be put in context. Firstly, all schools are, unfortunately, affected by cutbacks. This has to happen because the country has run out of money and the Minister for Education has to provide for an extra 70,000 pupils in the next six years.

Small schools, including Protestant ones, are a major cost to the State. Pupil/teacher ratios can be more than three times lower in such schools than in larger schools. The slight worsening of the pupil/teacher ratio in such schools will still leave them with vastly more favourable ratios than larger schools. That’s why they can’t be excluded from the cuts.

Some Protestant leaders, such as Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin, see the cuts as a threat to the Protestant minority community. As a lay member of Archbishop Jackson’s church, could I respectfully suggest that a far greater threat to the Protestant community is the general drift away from Christianity in this part of the world?

In this regard, trying to engage with young people generally and with people in the wider Irish community might be a better way of ensuring a positive future for Protestantism in the Republic rather than too much focus on small schools, important and all as they are. Bishop Trevor Williams, with his focus on outreach, as seen in Sunday night’s Would You Believe? programme (March 18th), might be a more productive approach.

Robert Dowds is a Labour TD for Dublin Mid-West.