Details of proposed church-state covenant expected at dialogue meeting

Religious control of schools likely to dominate discussions

Religious leaders are expected to ask Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to elaborate on Thursday on what he meant when calling for a new covenant between church and state during last year's papal visit.

"Holy father, I believe that the time has now come for us to build a new relationship between church and state in Ireland – a new covenant for the 21st century. It is my hope that your visit marks the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church, " the Taoiseach said in Dublin at an event attended by Pope Francis last August.

The latest structured dialogue meeting involving the Taoiseach, members of the Government and representatives of the churches, of other faiths and of non-confessional bodies will take place at Dublin Castle on Thursday.

It will be the first such meeting since the papal visit.


Last March, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, who will represent the Catholic Church at Thursday’s meeting, criticised what he described as a lack of progress on developing the Taoiseach’s proposed new covenant.

"So far, no progress has been made by the Government" in developing the idea, he said. While acknowledging the issue of Brexit was taking up a lot of politicians' time, Dr Martin said "this does not mean that this dialogue is not important not just for the interests of churches and government, but rather for the good of Irish society".


On a similar theme, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson warned at Easter that it would be hugely ironic for an Ireland "that pushes relentlessly a secular agenda" to ignore the diversity among its people "simply and precisely because such diversity wears a religious smile," as he put it.

Religion in Ireland today was a much bigger and wider concept than “the inherited and all too easily dismissed binary divisions internal to Christianity and between Catholic and Protestant,” he added.

Civic engagement which takes account of religious and non-religious stakeholders in Irish society was essential to the public interest and to building a trusted democracy, he said.

He wondered whether a citizens’ assembly might not have a role in this. “Might it not be a place for people of faith and people of society together to discuss the future of public interest?” he asked.

Each of the groups attending Thursday’s meeting was asked to submit three topics it wanted to discuss in advance. Unsurprisingly, policy on education features significantly among the submissions.

The Catholic Church, which will also be represented at the meeting by Siobhán Hanley, head of Trócaire Northern Ireland, will call on the Government to support parents “who wish for a faith-based education for their children”.

The Church of Ireland is to discuss the primary school forum, which it said was “extremely constructive as a means of critical engagement with the formation and implementation of Government policy in the sector”.

Atheist Ireland, on the other hand, is to call for a Government "commitment to develop a secular education system" as well as a commitment to amend the Education Act by the end of this year "to remove the role of religious ethos as a barrier to the objective and factual delivery of sex education". It will be represented at the meeting by chairman Michael Nugent and human rights officer Jane Donnelly.

School divestment

Humanist Association of Ireland chair Steve Rawson and chief executive Noeleen Hartigan intend raising "the rate of change in the school divestment programme".

Their submission said “the programme, as presently configured, gives priority to institutional and religious interests over the lawful preference of parents”.

The education issue will also be raised by Methodist Church representatives Fergus O'Ferrall and Liz Parkin who also feel the meeting offers a platform to consider how the Taoiseach's proposed new covenant "might evolve".

The Jewish community will be represented by Rabbi Zalman Lent of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation and Leonard Abrahamson, president of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland. Rabbi Lent said he intended raising the "negative effect of unfiltered internet access on our youth" at the meeting.

Among others in attendance will be Imam Anwar Shah of the Al-Mustafa Islamic Educational and Cultural Centre in Blanchardstown, Imam Ibrahim Ibrahim Noonan of the Ahmadi Muslims in Galway, and Nick Park of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times