Which Irish political parties have the most secular policies?

How do the political parties in this Friday’s General Election stand on separation of Church and State, with a particular focus on secular education and blasphemy?

Atheist Ireland is not asking people to vote for any particular party or candidate. Atheists and secularists are typically independently-minded people who each value our own personal analysis of political issues. We also recognise that people will vote by balancing many different personal priorities, both economic and social, and that separation of Church and State is only one of these personal priorities.

That said, if you are choosing between two or more candidates, and everything else other than secularism is equal from your own personal perspective, then the grouping with the most comprehensive secular policies is the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit group. In the outgoing Dail, the AAA published an Equal Participation in Schools Bill that would, if passed, bring about a truly secular education system that respects equally the human rights of religious and nonreligious families.

Several independent TDs also have strong records on secular policies, including Joan Collins, Clare Daly, John Halligan, Catherine Murphy and Thomas Pringle.

The outgoing Government parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have a policy of seeking to divest some denominational schools to other patronage, but in practice that policy has effectively ground to a halt. In December 2015, Fine Gael and Labour voted against a proposal to remove religious discrimination in access to schools, and reneged on the commitment in the Programme for Government to protect teachers who are atheists or of minority faiths from religious discrimination. They did this based on an unpublished legal opinion that the State is Constitutionally obliged to buttress religious discrimination.

Here are the party positions on the four areas of reform in the Schools Equality PACT (Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching) and on repealing the law against blasphemy.

PATRONAGE

  • Irish primary schools are State-funded but run by private patrons. 90% of patrons are the local Catholic Bishop, and most of the rest are other religious bodies. These State-funded schools operate on the basis of the religious ethos of the patron.
  • Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit is the only grouping that supports amending the Education Act to replace the characteristic spirit (religious ethos) of schools with protecting the constitutional and human rights of all concerned.
  • All of the other parties in the outgoing Dail focus on parental choice, which sounds reasonable in theory, but in practice means that your human right to a religiously neutral education is dependent on the wishes of your neighbours.
  • Fine Gael is the only major party to mention the need for non-denominational schools. Also mentions the need for multi-denominational schools, and to safeguard denominational schools that offer a distinct religious ethos.
  • Labour respects equally the wishes of those who want denominational and multi-denominational schools, but does not mention non-denominational schools, despite repeated reports by UN human rights bodies about the need for non-denominational schools.
  • Fianna Fail will extend the Community National Schools model in order to increase plurality, and seek a consensual approach to roll out further divestment of schools in line with assessed community demand.
  • Sinn Fein will support increased diversification of patronage, but says nothing about how it will do that.
    Social Democrats say patronage of new schools must represent local parental need, with the State providing a building within three years of local need being demonstrated.
  • Renua supports more diversity, with right of access to schools with and without a religious ethos. Will reignite abandoned divestment process, and plan new school building based on demand and need.
  • The Green Party says nothing about school patronage or ethos.
  • The Workers Party supports a public system of schools, paid for through taxation and taken out of the control of the churches and religious bodies.
  • Direct Democracy says nothing about school patronage or ethos.
  • Divestment and/or new school targets: Fine Gael total of 300 non-d or multi-d schools by 2030. Labour 100 more multi-d by 2021, no non-d. Other parties no targets.

ACCESS

  • State-funded Irish primary schools have an exemption from our equality laws. Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act allows them to discriminate in access on the ground of religion.
  • In December 2015 Fine Gael and Labour opposed an amendment that would have repealed Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act, based on an unpublished legal opinion that the State is Constitutionally obliged to buttress religious discrimination in schools.
  • Fine Gael says nothing about ending the right of denominational schools to discriminate against children in access on the ground of religion.
  • Labour will amend the Equal Status Act, to prioritise local children rather than focus on religion. Schools will still be able to prioritise on the grounds of religion where the ethos of the school might otherwise be diminished, such as minority faith schools.
  • Fianna Fail will prioritise (1) siblings, (2) children of same denomination within catchment area, (3) other children within catchment area, (4) children outside catchment area. Catchment Areas could vary in sized, with minority faith schools having extremely wide catchment areas.
  • Sinn Fein will end the laws that allow for religious discrimination against children in school admissions.
  • Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit will delete Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act so that children cannot be refused admission on the basis of their religious beliefs.
  • Social Democrats will repeal Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act so that children cannot be refused admission on the basis of their religious beliefs.
  • Renua says nothing about ending the right of denominational schools to discriminate against children in access on the ground of religion.
  • Green Party will end any discrimination at school entry on the basis of religion. Will prioritise access based on (1) catchment area, (2) older siblings, and (3) lottery.
  • The Workers Party says all schools receiving state funding must have open access to all children regardless of religious beliefs.
  • Direct Democracy says nothing about ending the right of denominational schools to discriminate against children in access on the ground of religion.

CURRICULUM

  • State-funded Irish primary schools integrate religion throughout the entire curriculum. In January 2016 the Minister for Education repealed the rule that obliged schools to do this, but did not amend the Education Act in order to prevent them from doing so.
  • Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit is the only grouping that will require all schools to provide knowledge and information in the State-prescribed curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner that avoids indoctrination.
  • The Workers Party wants all schools paid for through taxation taken out of the control of the churches and religious bodies, which would imply ending the integrated religious curriculum.
  • Labour will make the constitutional right to opt out of religious education a reality, by issuing new instructions to schools on accommodating religious and nonreligious minorities. They do not mention ending the integrated religious curriculum.
  • None of the other parties say anything about ending the right of denominational schools to integrate religion throughout the entire curriculum.

TEACHING

  • State-funded Irish primary schools have an exemption from our employment equality laws. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act allows them to discriminate against teachers and prospective teachers on the ground of religion.
  • In December 2015 Fine Gael and Labour passed a law that amended Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, in order to protect teachers who are LGBT from discrimination, but retained the right of denominational schools to discriminate on the ground of religion against teachers who are atheists. This went against a commitment in the Programme for Government to protect both atheist and LGBT teachers from religious discrimination.
  • In June 2015 the Anti-Austerity Alliance proposed a Bill that would have ended the right of schools to discriminate against teachers who are atheist on the ground of religion.
  • The Workers Party wants all schools paid for through taxation taken out of the control of the churches and religious bodies, which would imply removing Section 37.
  • None of the other parties say anything about ending the right of denominational schools to discriminate against teachers on the ground of religion.

BLASPHEMY

  • In October 2014, the outgoing Government parties, Fine Gael and Labour, committed to holding a referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, but then put it off for the incoming Government to deal with.
  • Fine Gael, the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit group and the Green party have committed to holding a referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy.
  • Labour Party Conference has previously agreed to hold such a referendum.
  • None of the other parties say anything about ending the law against blasphemy.
Atheist Ireland

2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jonathan Victory February 23, 2016

    Actually, the Green Party Manifesto does support a referendum on blasphemy. Disappointing that internal divisions in their party held them back from being stronger on reforming school patronage.

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