State-funded schools insisting on baptism certificates should be confronted by Enda Kenny

Next week, the Humanist Association of Ireland meets the Taoiseach to discuss the continued lack of choice in the education system and the implications for those ‘indifferent of sect’

There was some discussion last year of the legacy of Thomas Davis, the Young Irelander, poet and journalist, on the occasion of the bicentenary of his birth, but not enough reflection on his views on education and their ongoing relevance. One of the nastier exchanges of his short life involved a humiliating row with nationalist icon Daniel O’Connell at his bullying worst, shortly before Davis died in 1845.

O’Connell, whom Davis revered, reduced him to tears by labelling him sectarian, a particularly hurtful attack on a man who was anything but; Davis had asserted that Irish nationality needed to be “indifferent of sect and independent of party”. O’Connell was adding to a smear campaign against Davis, who stood up to both O’Connell and John MacHale, the Catholic archbishop of Tuam, by supporting the idea of a state-endowed secular system of third-level education based on national colleges, that opponents suggested would be “Godless” and a threat to the Catholic view on denominational education. Davis insisted on the need for “mixed education” as a vital component of an inclusive form of nationality in Ireland.

Secular plan undermined

Throughout subsequent decades the leaders of the Catholic Church and its champions retained an intense focus on the issue of denominational education, and while some compromises regarding third-level education were necessary – technically the NUI colleges created in 1908 were non-denominational – the church managed to vigorously undermine the original 1831 plan for a secular national school system.

As the towering figure of 19th-century Irish Catholicism, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen – later a cardinal – did his utmost to ensure total clerical dominance over schools where a majority of the pupils were Catholic, and frequently condemned anything that got in the way of that in his aggressive and very successful pursuit to keep Catholics and Protestants apart.

The empire that was built by the Irish Catholic church in its control of education endured; 90 per cent of Irish primary schools today are under the patronage of the Catholic church, a control that is a blatant affront to the idea of an inclusive republic so desired by Davis 200 years ago. Next week, the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) is meeting the Taoiseach to discuss the lack of choice that exists in the education system and the implications for those “indifferent of sect”. While the laudable Educate Together model has expanded, it is nowhere near expansive enough to create enough choice for those who desire it.

Absence of choice

There is a broader context relevant here: the significant rise in the number of those who have no religious affiliation or beliefs; their numbers increased four-fold between 1991 and 2011 to stand at 277,237, more than double the membership of the Church of Ireland. The HAI has never been busier in relation to marriage ceremonies; last year it married more than 900 couples, double the number of Church of Ireland marriages, yet there is a nationwide network of Church of Ireland primary schools to provide for this minority. This raises an obvious question; what are non-religious parents to do in the absence of choice about educating their children? More than half of the State’s 3,200 primary schools are in areas where there is no alternative to a religious, and usually a Catholic, school.

A recent report commissioned by the Equality Authority suggests State-funded schools’ admission policies that are run on a “Catholic First” basis may be in breach of both equality legislation and the Constitution. It is a pity there does not seem to be any appetite to take a test case on this issue; there is surely an obvious contradiction between article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, which asserts that legislation providing State aid for schools should not “affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money”, and section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000 which gives religious-run schools the right to administer admission policies that “protect their ethos”. This issue is also relevant to admission policies of secondary schools.

The HAI recognises that ambitions for greater inclusivity are unlikely to be realised in the short term, but it is surely justified in asking the Taoiseach to address the issue of “pragmatic” baptisms being performed to get children into a school under Catholic management because their parents cannot find alternatives. While some non-religious couples can stomach this, and some are contented hypocrites, for others it is a humiliating sham as they are forced to renege on their principles to find a school for their children, and it creates considerable distress.

Brian Whiteside of the HAI has made the pertinent point that “in a country that has been so badly served over the years by dishonesty and lack of integrity it is simply unacceptable now to ask young couples to do something that is totally against their conscience”. State-funded schools insisting on baptism certificates should be confronted by Enda Kenny, who in his own words “is a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach”.