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Fintan O’Toole: Ireland is no longer Catholic. Why are our schools?

Political inertia in the face of sweeping social change is simply indefensible

Political systems run into deep trouble when they lose touch with social change. If they can’t respond to the ways in which ordinary life is being transformed, they become dangerously irrelevant.

If you want a textbook example of how this is working in Ireland, consider the inability to face up to one of the most obvious anomalies of Irish life: the Catholic Church’s continuing control of primary education. Here, epoch-making social change meets sclerotic and timorous government.

A decade ago, in 2012, the then minister for education Ruairí Quinn unveiled the plan to try to deal with the mismatch between, on the one hand, an increasingly diverse population and, on the other, a 19th-century religious educational monolith.

Even then it was clear that Ireland was no longer a Catholic society. Inward migration had brought a new diversity of religion, with Orthodox and Muslim communities growing rapidly. Indigenous shifts had created a steep rise in the number of nonreligious people.

Yet such parents often had no choice but to send their children to Catholic schools. In 2012 the official advisory group established by the government pointed out that this situation was “unique among developed countries”.

Since 2012, the gap between what Irish society is really like and how primary schools operate has widened considerably

The core of the plan to deal with this incongruity was so-called voluntary divestment. The church would gradually hand schools over to other patrons such as Educate Together.

I wrote here at the time that this plan was “disastrous” and would result in at best 50 of the then 3,169 Catholic primary schools becoming multidenominational. This was not a blinding insight – it was patently evident that the church would make only the most token efforts at divestment.

And so it has turned out. In 2012, 91 per cent of primary schools were Catholic. In 2022 the figure is 89 per cent. My bleak suggestion that a mere 50 schools might be divested was overly optimistic. The number of new multidenominational schools created under the divestment process stands at 20.

But the reality is much worse even than these figures suggest. This is because, since 2012, the gap between what Irish society is really like and how primary schools operate has widened considerably.

No longer Catholic

In the decade since the divestment policy was created, we’ve had referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion, both of which suggested that Irish society no longer wished to define itself as Catholic. In 2020, 42 per cent of weddings in Ireland were civil ceremonies; just 35 per cent were Catholic.

Practising Catholics – defined as those who attend Mass every week – now make up just 27 per cent of the population. And since many of those are older people, it seems highly likely that they form a lower proportion of parents with children of primary school-going age.

Even the Catholic bishops increasingly recognise that the church now lacks the institutional capacity to manage primary schools. Last year the Bishop of Clonfert, Michael Duignan, asked rhetorically, "Can we continue to act as patron of so many primary schools?"

Yet the Government pretends it can manage this major change with minor measures. The official aspiration right now is to have 400 multidenominational primary schools by 2030. Even if that target is reached (and this is highly doubtful), it will still amount to a small fraction of the 2,750 Catholic schools.

This is a human rights issue. Discrimination on the grounds of religion is supposedly outlawed under the Constitution. Yet it is still permissible for a school to refuse to admit a child on religious grounds if the refusal is deemed essential to the maintenance of its own ethos. This is not a hangover from the dark past – it is a specific provision of the Education Act of 2018.

Taking primary education into the 20th century, let alone the 21st, would be hard work

And what continues to happen inside schools – especially in rural areas where parents have no real choice about where to send their children – is that non-Catholic children have to be segregated from their classmates for significant amounts of time during the day when religious instruction is in progress. (In the developed world, only Israel devotes more time to religion in primary school than Ireland does.)

Dire failure

Very often, alternative educational provision for these children is inadequate and the kids themselves are made to feel like nuisances.

Apart altogether from this abuse of basic rights, the dire failure of official policy in this area exemplifies a culture of governmental inertia. Ten years ago, it might have taken some political courage for Ruairí Quinn to try to deal with the problem, however timidly and inadequately.

Now, everyone knows that this way of organising education is indefensible. Even the church doesn’t really defend it in principle – it merely sits on what it has.

And yet, it goes on. Why? Because, I suspect, the creation of a genuinely republican system of primary education, in which children are valued equally regardless of religion, would force the State to actually take responsibility for schools – and fund them properly.

Or perhaps the explanation is even simpler: it’s all just too much bother. Taking primary education into the 20th century, let alone the 21st, would be hard work. It’s easier to leave bad enough alone.

It’s an avoidance strategy even primary school kids grow out of: cover your eyes and pretend it’s not happening.