Diarmaid Ferriter: Schools system is blatantly sectarian

Admissions policies are another ‘dark stain’ and an affront to the ideals of the Republic

Are the snakes coming back? That was the question posed in 1976 by a nasty, sectarian and anonymous pamphlet circulated in response to the Dalkey School Project (DSP) in Dublin, which culminated in the school opening its doors to its first 100 pupils in September 1978.

It was a landmark development in Irish education history, as it became the first multidenominational national school recognised by the Department of Education since 1922, with the exception of those for some specialneeds children.

The DSP had started its journey with frequent requests to the Fine Gael minister for education Richard Burke for meetings, which were responded to with nothing more than official acknowledgement.

Fianna Fáil's John Wilson supported the DSP's campaign in opposition and, as minister for education in 1978, he sanctioned the opening of the school, backed by taoiseach Jack Lynch.

A triumph over prejudice

Various behind-the-scenes moves had been made to stymie and undermine the DSP, which were accompanied by strident public rhetoric.

Fine Gael's Oliver J Flanagan, a defiant conservative, suggested Burke "had done more than any other man in the history of our country to prevent the establishment of a godless society in our schools" and he lambasted the pressure groups trying to "drive God out of education".

At the time of the opening of the school, Magill magazine suggested it “represents a triumph over prejudice, intolerance and polite stone- walling on the part of the coalition government lasting four years”.

The DSP initiative had, in the words of its chairman, "unlocked the system". As Labour Party TD Barry Desmond saw it, taoiseach Liam Cosgrave "and several of his fellow Fine Gael ministers had hoped that the project would fade away".

But the extent of the challenge involved in unlocking the system was indicated by a parliamentary question asked by Labour Party TD John Horgan a month after the school's opening.

He asked the minister for education for “the identity of each person or group of persons recognised by him as the patron of a national school; and, in the case of each such person or group of persons, the number of national schools of which each is patron”.

The list given indicated that the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Dr Dermot Ryan, was patron of 541 schools; between them, the Catholic bishops of Ireland were patrons of just under 3,300 national schools.

It is astonishing that so little has changed in the meantime in relation to patronage. There are still roughly 3,300 primary schools in the State and 90 per cent of them are under Catholic patronage.

What has changed in very recent times is the extent to which this level of control and, by extension, discrimination against non-Catholic pupils, is coming under the spotlight.

What we have, nearly 100 years after the declaration of the Irish republic, and more than 180 years after the inauguration of the national school system, is neither republican nor national: it is blatantly sectarian.

A fifth of Irish Catholic schools are oversubscribed and more and more stories are coming in to the public domain about children being excluded from schools on the basis of religion.

Some parents have been forced to resort to the humiliating practice of baptising their children against their wishes, such is the stranglehold that exists, bolstered by the Equal Status Act 2000, which permits schools to discriminate in their admissions policy on the basis of religion.

This Act exists alongside article 44.2 of the Constitution: “The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.”

The current draft Bill on admission to schools does not resolve or challenge this contradiction.

Last week, 190 Educate Together teachers held their first conference in Dublin, while next month a new group is to be launched, under the title Education Equality, which asserts, entirely reasonably: "Equal respect for children and for the beliefs of their parents requires equal access to schools regardless of religion."

In 1966, minster for education Donogh O’Malley announced the introduction of free secondary education on the grounds that its absence was “a dark stain on the national conscience”.

It was significant he did so in the year that marked the Easter Rising’s 50th anniversary; the idea that an initiative to give some meaning to the 1916 Proclamation’s promise of equality was necessary was in the political ether.

It would be entirely fitting for an initiative to be undertaken by the State to erase the “dark stain” in relation to primary school admissions for the 100th anniversary of the Rising.

There is no indication the political will exists to do that. The State instead is, ironically, sending a 1916 Proclamation to every primary school in the state.

But this issue is not going away; the snakes are coming back and they are determined to stay.