Bruton defends educational diversity


FORMER TAOISEACH John Bruton has defended denominational education as a means of protecting diversity in Ireland.

Opening the Parnell summer school at Avondale, Co Wicklow, yesterday, he said that Parnell had recognised that Irish people saw a link between ethical formation and religious belief.

Mr Bruton’s comments came in advance of a Government White Paper later this year which is expected to make sweeping recommendations for change in the current system of denominational education.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said recently that there was “a compelling need for the patronage of our schools to reflect the changes that have already taken place in wider society”.

Mr Bruton said that in his first election campaign in Meath in 1875, Parnell had committed himself to denominational education, “under the proper control of the clergy”, as he put it and had subsequently supported denominational education at university level too.

“The issue of denominational education has been a live issue in Irish politics since the 1830s, and remains so to this day,” said Mr Bruton.

“As Parnell recognised, Irish people saw a link between ethical formation and religious belief, and thus favoured denominational involvement in education, as most of them still do. Exactly how this is to be done is a matter of balance, which alters over time.”

“Denominational education preserves diversity, something Parnell wanted in a Home Rule Ireland,” added Mr Bruton.

He said there were other parallels between politics in Parnell’s day and the present.

“Very early in Parnell’s parliamentary career, Ireland faced something, with which we have unfortunately recently had to cope with again, a sudden fall in income, partly due to the forces of globalisation.”

In the 1870s the arrival of cheap American wheat and a recurrence of the potato blight undermined the rural economy and left a significant proportion of the population facing starvation.

Mr Bruton said Parnell saw this crisis as an emergency but also as an opportunity to change the basis of land ownership in Ireland and link the issue with the cause of self-government.

“Parnell’s ability to turn what was objectively a humanitarian disaster into a vehicle for political and economic reform marks him out as a politician of exceptional talent.

“This is, I think, something that current Irish political leaders can draw from Parnell’s career, in facing today’s economic crisis.

In a crisis, it is possible to get people to see things differently and to agree to changes they might not undertake in calmer and less anxious times,” said Mr Bruton. He also said Parnell’s career demonstrated the value of grass roots political organisation, and disciplined parliamentary parties.

He said the Irish Parliamentary Party, of which Parnell became the first leader in 1884, was the first disciplined party of its kind in the House of Commons, and perhaps in the world.

Members were bound by a pledge, signed before they were accepted as candidates, and agreed to sit, act and vote on the basis of collective majority decisions. “I believe it is part of Parnell’s legacy that Irish parliamentary parties in Dáil Éireann, 130 years later, are more disciplined in the way they vote, than is the case in equivalent situations in the United Kingdom, in most European countries, and certainly than in the US. This is a strength in Irish politics, which can be traced back to Parnell.

“While party discipline has downsides, it creates conditions in which decisions, once made, can be quickly and coherently implemented.

“This is important in dealing with a crisis. I would argue that party discipline in this Dáil, and in the last one, was one of the factors which enabled the Irish governments of the day to act more quickly in dealing with the financial crisis than most other European states were able to do, and certainly than has been the case in the US.”

Mr Bruton asked people to imagine what it would have been like in the last four years if the Dáil consisted of 166 entirely independent members, responsible only to their own particular constituencies, or like US politicians beholden to special interests who could ignore the collective view of their party.

“A speedy response to the crisis would have been impossible,” said Mr Bruton.

The Parnell summer school runs all week and concludes on Friday. The theme for this year’s event is sovereignty and society.