Ending church control of State-funded hospitals may need vote

Canadian experience suggests referendum may be only way to resolve issue

The church continues to own more than 90 per cent of all primary schools and well in excess of half of all post-primary schools as well as numerous hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The church continues to own more than 90 per cent of all primary schools and well in excess of half of all post-primary schools as well as numerous hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

It may seem scarcely credible that well into the 21st century the State proposes to hand effective ownership and control of a billion-euro publicly-funded utility to a private denominational charity. However, placed in the context of the continued dominant position of the Catholic Church in education and healthcare it seems less remarkable. The church continues to own more than 90 per cent of all primary schools and well in excess of half of all post-primary schools as well as numerous hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

That this situation is a historical legacy is well known. When the then British administration in Ireland established the national school system in the 1830s it was designed to be nondenominational. This, however, was subverted by the churches, who gained control of the system which they have never subsequently relinquished. That this is fundamentally undemocratic in the changed Ireland of today is widely accepted. Even some eminent churchmen such as former archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin regarded it as untenable and urged the church to be open to divesting a significant number of schools.

Gerry McNamara is professor of education at DCU

In order to attempt to reform the system a forum on patronage and pluralism under the chairmanship of the late Prof John Coolahan was set up more than a decade ago. The forum proposal was essentially that in areas where there were three or four schools in close proximity all under Catholic patronage the church would voluntarily relinquish control of one of them to another patronage body. Coolahan suggested that this could mean that perhaps up to quarter of primary schools would change hands, thus providing a degree of school choice at least in urban areas.

Glacial change

This report came out in 2012. By 2015 not a single school had been divested. In November of that year the exasperated Coolahan, famed for his patience and courtesy and certainly no enemy of the church, gave Joe Humphreys of The Irish Times a remarkable interview in which he suggested the State should use financial penalties as a ‘stick’ to make the church move. Nothing came of this idea and the voluntary transfer process has continued to be glacial in terms of progress.

Is there perhaps another way to introduce the reforms appropriate to a modern, democratic and pluralist republic?

In fact, the one thing that did emerge with complete clarity is that the church had not, then or now, displayed the slightest intention of voluntarily giving up control of any significant number of the publicly-funded institutions it governs.

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Is there perhaps another way to introduce the reforms appropriate to a modern, democratic and pluralist republic? In the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador a rather similar situation pertained. Also due to a 19th-century legacy the education system was almost entirely dominated by the Catholic Church and a variety of Protestant denominations.

In the early 1990s the government felt that this situation was no longer appropriate in a modern country and put a referendum to the people effectively proposing to abolish denominational schools and limit the role of the churches in publicly-funded institutions. After a hard-fought campaign the proposal was carried (by 55 per cent). The resulting legislation was appealed by the Catholic Church together with some parents who won in the Newfoundland supreme court.

However, there was some disquiet that the will of the people had been blocked in this way and the government introduced a tougher referendum effectively removing all church power and influence from publicly-funded schools. This was carried – (by 73 per cent) – and appeals against the enabling legislation were rejected in both the Newfoundland and Canadian supreme courts.

Multidenominational

In 1997, church domination of public schools ended and the system became nondenominational and under democratic control. The change was remarkable. For example, denominational schools have largely disappeared, with the number of Catholic schools reduced from 160 to two today and similar outcomes for the schools of other denominations.

Tobin admitted that it was no easy matter for him, a Catholic, or the Protestant members of his government to take on church power

Interviewed in 2017 the prime minister who led these campaigns, Brian Tobin, remarked that 20 years on, the change had been good for education and even for the churches and that no serious body of opinion was suggesting a reversion to the old structures.

Could something similar happen here? After the referendums of recent years and the remarkable changes in Irish society it is probable or certainly possible that such a proposal could pass. If it were to do so it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court would or could oppose the democratic wishes of the people. Even it was defeated we could at least say that the present arrangements are supported by the people and not an historical overhang with which we are stuck.

Tobin admitted that it was no easy matter for him, a Catholic, or the Protestant members of his government to take on church power but in retrospect it was definitely the correct course of action. Would our political leaders step up to this challenge and hopefully put an end for once and for all to sterile debates such as that of the patronage forum and the current St Vincent’s issue? Time will tell.

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