Bishop who successfully defended the right for separate Catholic education in Northern Ireland


The former Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Michael Dallat, who died on September 25th aged 75, was a defining figure in shaping Catholic education in Northern Ireland and played a crucial role in defending and strengthening the separateness of the Catholic system there.

In 1980, the Chilver committee, set up to study the provision of higher education in Northern Ireland, recommended that the two Catholic teacher training colleges, St Joseph's and St Mary's, both located in west Belfast, should be amalgamated and merged with the state teacher training facility at Stranmillis.

As principal of St Joseph's, Dr Dallat played a pivotal role in opposing the plan because the church fundamentally believed there could be no distinction between secular education and religious formation. In a campaign, later described as "hysterical" by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, the Catholic Church marshalled every ounce of its considerable influence, to the chagrin of the main Protestant denominations.

The promise of a new Catholic church, built at public expense, failed to temper the church's opposition, although it did agree to merge the two colleges in 1985, with Dr Dallat as president.

He again went into battle on behalf of Catholic education in 1988 when British government proposals appeared to be preparing the way for the rapid expansion of integrated education, at the expense of the existing Catholic and state schools. Skilfully citing associated research, which showed fewer Catholics obtained grammar school and university places than their Protestant counterparts, and that more Catholics left school without basic qualifications, the church argued that inequities in the provision of existing resources needed to be resolved rather than giving favourable treatment to a new integrated sector, to which the church was anyway opposed.

The state-funded Council for Catholic Maintained Schools emerged from this political contretemps as a vehicle to improve the management and control of Catholic schools, not least through providing more stable employment conditions for teachers who had previously been vulnerable to the whims of school governors and parish priests.

Dr Dallat, who always took a strong interest in the welfare and well-being of individual teachers, was one of the key figures in this innovation and was chairman of the body at the time of his death.

His most recent achievement was to oversee another groundbreaking initiative: a new £14 million expansion for the St Genevieve's community education facility in west Belfast, the first Catholic school to be provided under private, rather than public, financing. Over two weeks ago, in what was to be his last public appearance, he presided at the formal announcement of the project.

Despite his unyielding adherence to the most conservative traditions of the Catholic Church, Dr Dallat was universally respected as a churchman and public figure. In 1997, he was a member of the delegation of the Catholic Hierarchy who took part in their first formal meeting with the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party. Tough and quiet, Dr Dallat was a formidable opponent who, despite the acrimony generated by the teacher-training controversy, had many contacts and friendships within the Protestant churches and all sectors of public and private life.

He was also a staunch supporter of the Making Belfast Work initiative and travelled to the US with Joe Hendron (SDLP) and Cecil Walker (UUP) to seek jobs and investment for the socially disadvantaged west and north of the city.

Michael Dallat was born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, on June 11th, 1925, and educated at St Malachy's College, Belfast. After graduating in modern history from Queen's University in 1947, he studied theology at the Lateran University in Rome, where he was ordained on March 10th, 1951. After obtaining postgraduate degrees in history and social and political sciences, he was appointed to the teaching staff at St Malachy's College, where he remained until 1963. He was conferred with an MA in education in 1967.

Subsequently, he was on the staff at St Mary's College of Education before becoming principal of St Joseph's in 1969 and taking charge of the amalgamated colleges in 1985. Two years later, having been appointed monsignor, he was moved to St Paul's parish in Belfast, where he ministered until being appointed auxiliary bishop in 1994. He retired from that post six months ago but, despite illness, maintained an active involvement in his educational interests until his death.

Dr Michael Dallat is survived by his sisters, Kathleen and Sheila, and brothers, Father Christopher, Cahal and Peter.

Dr Michael Dallat: born 1925; died, September 2000