Atheist Ireland submission to Programme for Government negotiating teams

Atheist Ireland has sent the following submission to the members of the Fine Gael and Labour Party negotiating teams for the Programme for Government.

As you begin setting out an agreed Programme for Government for the incoming administration, Atheist Ireland wants to congratulate your parties on your recent successes. We suggest that you will be taking office at a time when the Irish people are more liberal, secular and multicultural than ever before.

Atheist Ireland respectfully requests that you consider addressing the following four important issues and reach accommodations on their delivery:

1. Education
2. Constitutional Reform
3. Blasphemy
4. Employment and Equality Legislation

1. Education:

The Fine Gael manifesto made a clear commitment to examining the schools patronage system (p. 34): “Fine Gael will give parents a real say in how schools are governed. We believe the current situation with over 90% of primary schools under Church patronage is not reflective of the needs of a modern Irish school system. We will hold a National Forum on Education to allow all stakeholders, including parents to engage in an open debate on a change of patronage in communities where it is appropriate and necessary.”

Similarly, in the Labour Party manifesto there is a detailed statement on the question of primary school patronage: “Labour wants to reform our education system so that it is more democratic, and recognises the diversity of ethos within modern Irish society. Labour will initiate a time-limited Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector. This national Forum would be open to participation from all the stakeholders in the education sector. The Forum will have concise terms of reference and sit for a maximum of 12 months. The recommendations of the Forum will be drawn up into a White Paper for consideration and implementation by the Government to ensure that our education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number of schools which cater for all religions and none. As part of this process, parents and the local community should also have a say in the patronage of existing and future schools, for example by direct ballot. Labour in government will ensure Educate Together is recognized as a patron at second level by the Department of Education and Skills” (pp. 61-62).

Given that both your parties have pledged the establishment of a forum to deal with school patronage, Atheist Ireland very much hopes that any Programme for Government will provide a definitive statement of the terms of reference, composition and workload of such a body.

Other intentions included in the Labour Party manifesto are of tremendous interest to us, and we hope that your negotiations will result in their inclusion in an agreed document:

  • The document refers to schools which will move from religious to public ownership (p. 63): “Labour in government will negotiate the transfer of school infrastructure currently owned by the 18 religious orders cited in the Ryan Report, at no extra cost, to the State. The existing patronage and activities of these schools will remain unchanged.”
  • As part of its Fairness agenda, the Labour Party makes a commitment to: “ensure the five teaching colleges introduce a Freedom of Conscience clause so that trainee teachers no longer are obliged to undergo compulsory religious education” (p. 78).

2. Constitutional Reform:

Both parties have clearly recognized the pressing need for substantial political reform, as part of which a package of constitutional reform will be necessary. While the Fine Gael manifesto asserts that the ‘Constitution Day’ referendum “will not address the articles dealing with rights/social policy as we want the focus to stay on political reform” (p. 62), nevertheless in the statement which Fine Gael provided to Atheist Ireland recently (see http://www.atheist.ie/information/2011-general-election/fine-gael-response/), the party said that: “if elected to Government, Fine Gael will consider the continued relevance of religious references in the Constitution as part of our programme of Constitutional review.”

Given that – and the importance which the Labour Party has placed on an open and comprehensive review of the Constitution – Atheist Ireland asks that a Programme for Government will give a clear commitment to holding such a review within the term of the next Dáil. We hope in particular to see a detailed timetable and mandate for a Constitutional Convention encompassing the participation of NGOs representing the full spectrum of public opinion and empowered to consider the reframing of our Constitution in secular rather than religious terms.

3. Blasphemy:

Both parties are extremely clear on the need for reform in this area. The relevant statements given to Atheist Ireland during the election campaign were:

  • “Fine Gael does not believe that blasphemy should be a criminal offence and made this point repeatedly during the debate on the Defamation Act 2009.”
  • The Labour Party “Conference has previously agreed to hold a referendum proposing to delete the word ‘blasphemous’ from Article 4.1.6 of the Constitution and to repeal any legislation that made reference to blasphemy as a form of defamation.”

We remind you that the Islamic states at the United Nations have adopted the wording of the Irish blasphemy law as part of what they want implemented internationally.

Since your parties already have such similar positions here, Atheist Ireland hopes that a Programme for Government will provide a firm commitment to legislate within the lifetime of the new Dáil, after (if required) either holding a referendum on this issue or else incorporating the issue with other proposed constitutional changes in a multiple referendum.

4. Equality and Employment Legislation:

Here again, there is already a measure of agreement between your parties. When Atheist Ireland asked during the election campaign if you would vote to ensure that religious bodies are treated the same as other organisations under equality and employment legislation, Fine Gael’s reply was emphatic – “Yes.” The Labour Party was equally clear: “We believe that all organizations, religious or secular, should be treated equally. We acknowledge the enormous amount of work that many organizations undertake in this society. In relation to employment legislation we simply believe this should apply equally to all.”

Atheist Ireland requests that a Programme for Government makes a concrete pledge to repeal those sections of equality and employment legislation under which religious organizations are currently exempt from the standards expected of all other bodies.

In particular, we refer to Section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000, which allows schools to discriminate on religious grounds; and Sections 12 and 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998, which allow teacher training colleges, schools and hospitals to discriminate on religious grounds. Also, the Charities Act 2009 includes the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose but does not include the advancement of nonreligious philosophical lifestances. We believe neither should be charitable purposes, and certainly not one but not the other.

If you would like any further information, please do not hesitate to get in touch. Many thanks for your consideration – and best wishes for the vital task you are engaged in of producing a programme of action for a stable and effective government.

Michael Nugent

3 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Feardorcha March 04, 2011

    This is a great piece of work and clearly puts our position on the major issues.

  2. Avatar
    Jim Lineen March 04, 2011

    Well said.

  3. Avatar
    Peter Jones June 02, 2011

    so what is true definition of an atheist? Not sure if i would have enough faith to be one