Taoiseach reports to Parliament on his meeting with Atheist Ireland
Five TDs, including three Party Leaders, today asked the Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dail to report on his recent meeting with Atheist Ireland – Socialists and independents Ruth Coppinger, Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett; Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail; and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein.
Here are the relevant extracts about the Taoiseach’s meeting with Atheist Ireland, and about matters discussed at that meeting, including follow-up questions from Deputies Coppinger, Martin and Adams about school patronage, the blasphemy referendum, Mother and Baby Homes, and the Angelus.
Atheist Ireland thanks the Deputies who raised these questions, and we will continue to communicate with the Taoiseach to clarify some of the issues in his responses. For comparison, here is Atheist Ireland’s report of the meeting with the Taoiseach.
On the meeting with Atheist Ireland
The Taoiseach: The discussion with Atheist Ireland focused on the philosophy and aims of the organisation, a secular constitution, laws and practices, matters concerning the education system, and the constitutional and human rights of atheists in Ireland.
With regard to the holding of a referendum on blasphemy, I pointed out that the Government had decided to put two referendums before the people in May 2015 and that a referendum on blasphemy would not be held in the lifetime of the current Government.
Deputy Martin also mentioned Atheist Ireland. It discussed a secular Constitution, laws and practices, a secular education system, the constitutional and human rights of atheists and the philosophy and aims of Atheist Ireland.
Ruth Coppinger: I also wish to ask about I believe the Taoiseach’s one and only meeting with Atheist Ireland. Will he recognise that we now live in a very diverse society, a society in which there are many religions and faiths but also people of no faith? When will this fact be reflected by the Government and the State? We recently had a fantastic referendum result which provided for affirmation of LGBTQ rights, but it was much more than that. It was a statement of intent by the majority of people in the country that they wanted a tolerant and diverse society and that they also believed there should be a separation of Church and State. I firmly believe this. Ordinary people are way ahead of the political establishment in these matters.
In health, education and other aspects of life we need to start deconstructing the symbiotic relationship between Church and State. Do we really need to have an archbishop sitting on the board of the National Maternity Hospital? What gynaecological expertise does he have? In the education sector is it acceptable – the United Nations does not think it is – that atheists like me who, according to the census, actually make up about 8% of the population, as well as people of minority faiths, have nowhere to send their children to school in most areas? The Catholic Church controls 90% of primary schools, while I think the Church of Ireland controls about 6%, which means that there are really very few alternatives for those living in most locations. We heard a lot of platitudes about divesting schools and starting to reflect the demand for more diversity, but it did not happen.
I understand Atheist Ireland raised three issues with the Taoiseach. The first was to recognise that a large number of issues remained to be addressed. The group was concerned, in particular, about the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which is going through the Oireachtas, and section 37, an issue which the House has debated. The Labour Party’s Bill on that issue in the Seanad still allows for discrimination against atheist teachers, for example. A Catholic primary school would be allowed to not employ somebody who did not believe and it seems that this would be okay. That is not acceptable. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has told Ireland to stop breaching the human rights of minorities and atheists. It does not matter if the majority are Catholics; the rights of others have to be respected also. The third issue was the case of Louise O’Keeffe in the European Court of Justice where it had to be proved that the State was responsible for protecting her rights. The State has not as yet owned up to this.
The Taoiseach: When I met Atheist Ireland, it referred to Article 42 of the Constitution, which states: “The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”
Atheist Ireland stated that, in accordance with the wording of Article 42, atheists sought the moral as opposed to the religious education of their children. In its view, the moral aspect of the obligation contained in the provision was not being fulfilled by the State. It pointed out that religious and moral education was referred to and that the perceived failure to vindicate the moral aspect constituted discrimination. It made that point forcefully.
Deputy Ruth Coppinger made a point about minority faiths. This was part of the process that the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, had put in place to deal with these issues which became very real to me when they pointed out what they have to do every day in respect of their children. Obviously, there is an issue for further discussion here. I take the Deputy’s point about the minority faiths.
On School Patronage
Michael Martin: Let me move quickly to the issue concerning our schools, and school patronage in particular. The Taoiseach will recall that in the early days of Deputy Ruairí Quinn’s time as Minister for Education and Skills, he said he wanted 50% of schools to change patronage or to change to other models during the lifetime of the Government. I remember questioning the Taoiseach at the time and he deferred to the Minister.
There are approximately 3,000 primary schools. If 50% were to change status, it would have involved approximately 1,500 schools. Out of the more than 1,500 primary schools that were supposed to have been involved, exactly five changed status and another four are to change status in September. If ever there was a case of spin trumping substance, this is one. The Taoiseach must accept that.
On the fundamental issue of school patronage, resources comprise the key issue in primary schools today. Sometimes this does not get said enough. I visit many primary schools – Educate Together, Catholic and Church of Ireland schools. It needs to be said that there are people of many faiths and none on the campuses of denominational schools which cater for them in a very harmonious and effective way. There are many different nationalities and people of different religions and none in many of our primary schools who get along fine. We need to acknowledge that in terms of the development of primary and secondary school settings.
Critical mass is important. We are now constructing three or four schools in very close proximity to each other and that also needs to be thought through as well in terms of the proper use of resources, a bit of common sense and an understanding of where various people are coming from. Resources at primary level are a major issue in terms of the capitation grant, pupil-teacher ratio and a range of other supports that have been taken from primary schools in recent times. Many teachers and principals are fed up with the phoney debate on patronage entered into by the previous Minister for Education and Skills. It is a load of bluster and spin with no substance behind it yet it distracts from core issues facing teachers.
The Taoiseach: I met with the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, a couple of years back. He was the first person to mention the question of patronage and the fact that the Catholic Church had so many schools that it wished to divest itself of a number of them. He said that it would be more than appropriate for the Catholic Church to have schools that reflected its ethos. The former Minister for Education and Skills recognises that a 50% transfer to other patrons will never be achieved within the period in question.
Rural schools are of great interest to an enormous number of people. There has been a growth in the population in city areas and a corresponding reduction with smaller families, planning permission problems and a drop in the population in any event. The Government made two changes recently. Small schools form a critical part of the social infrastructure of rural Ireland, particularly isolated communities.
In recognition of that and in order to support the sustainability of small school communities, the Government decided that there should be a development of a voluntary protocol for amalgamation of the smallest schools that are close to each other with other schools of similar patronage and language of instruction. It was to be completely voluntary. The other policy consists of an improvement of the staffing schedule for the smallest schools. It was becoming an issue in quite a number of locations around the country.
The HAI referred to the number of instances in the education system where parents said they had their children baptised solely for the purpose of obtaining a baptismal certificate to increase their chances of securing school places. The former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, pointed to all of these matters in the move towards having a more disparate patronage of schools. At the meeting the Minister for Education and Skills explained that the Equal Status Acts, 2000 and 2004, allowed for schools to be selective in their admissions policies when they were oversubscribed. The requirement to produce a baptismal certificate was one of the criteria that schools could adapt.
On the Blasphemy Referendum
Michael Martin: Can the Taoiseach outline why he decided not to proceed with the blasphemy referendum? I never heard a proper explanation as to why he decided not to proceed with it. Most people were nonplussed or could not understand why we were having a referendum on the age at which one could become President. No one saw that as a pressing, urgent matter of public interest. The blasphemy referendum proposal had substance to it.
Why did the Taoiseach not proceed with it, especially because he was going forward with two referenda, one on marriage equality and the other on the age of the President? One could argue that a blasphemy referendum or, alternatively, a referendum on the nomination process concerning how one becomes President were more pressing. On blasphemy, commitments had been given. I would like an explanation as to why the Taoiseach did not proceed with that referendum.
The Taoiseach: In respect of the decision to hold the referenda on presidential age and marriage equality, I originally thought that it might be possible to hold five or six referenda on the same day. I learned from the first occasion where two referenda were held on the same day that it is not that simple. People inevitably say “I don’t know enough about this. I’m confused by all the explanations that are out there. Therefore, I might vote or I might not vote.” In hindsight, it was overly enthusiastic to consider holding half a dozen referenda on the same day called Constitution Day. For that reason, we made a choice.
Michael Martin: Why not the one on blasphemy?
The Taoiseach: The one on blasphemy was considered along with a number of others. It was a choice. It could have been the one on blasphemy. As the Deputy said, there is a deal of substance in this. It might have added greatly to confusion and all the interest that was found in the referendum on marriage equality. It might be right or it might be wrong. We held two referenda, one of which was accepted and the other not accepted. Obviously, blasphemy is one for the next Government to consider.
Gerry Adams: The Taoiseach has made it clear that he will not act on the recommendation of the sixth report of the Convention on the Constitution, although the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, told the Dáil that this recommendation was accepted and that a referendum would be held to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. The law defines blasphemy as publishing or saying something that is grossly abusive or insulting in respect of matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion. There is an exception where literary, artistic or academic merit can be proved.
This, arguably, might not be such a huge issue, given that no one has been convicted of blasphemy in Ireland since 1855. However, the acts of violence by ISIS, the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the attack in North Carolina, the huge atrocities committed in north Africa and which are ongoing in parts of the Middle East and the recent attack in Tunisia in which three Irish citizens and 38 other folks were slaughtered all underline the role fundamentalism, political sectarianism and race hatred continue to play in the world.
The State has a ban on incitement to hatred, including on religious grounds, but the removal of the blasphemy clause from the Constitution would send a very powerful message across the world that the Irish people were opposed to sectarianism, which is still prevalent in Irish society today, in particular, in the North, as well as to intolerance, injustice and racial hatred.
The Taoiseach: Deputy Gerry Adams raised the question of blasphemy. The Government made a decision that there should be a referendum on the issue. I am glad to note the support of the Opposition parties, which is different from what applied in the past. The issue can be carried forward by way of agreement. Whatever Government the people select in the future can decide to follow through on that decision and hold a referendum on the issue.
On Mother and Baby Homes
The Taoiseach: I refer briefly to the issue of mother and baby homes that was raised. The commission was established on 19 February under section 32 of the Commissions of Investigation Act and it is working away. The terms of reference include clarifying that the intended focus is on single women and children being accommodated for the purpose of receiving extended and supervised maternity and infant care services in mother and baby homes; defining the specific issues of public concern as discrete matters to be investigated; and specifying a list of mother and baby homes; and defining the relevant period as being from 1922 to 1998, while allowing the commission to reduce the relevant period in respect of any component part or institution if it considers it appropriate to do so.
The two modules under way are scheduled to be completed by August 2016 and the commission will complete its final report not later than February 2018. Deputies will appreciate that the range of years from 1922 to 1998 is enormous and the timescale to do that is appropriate.
On the Angelus
Micheal Martin: Did the Atheist Association, on which I have a question, raise the issue of the Angelus? It made very strong representations to RTE. I believe it is overdoing it in this regard. One cannot just excise out of existence Christian beliefs and the need for reflection. I would have believed that what now stands for the Angelus, the moment of reflection before the “Six One News”, is not exactly injurious or offensive to anyone. One runs the risk of becoming offensive and intolerant of the various manifestations of spirituality and religion in the country. There is a need for balance in the public debate. I would accept the bona fides expressed in the debate on the more substantive issues but when the debate focuses on such micro elements, it offends many people.
Ruth Coppinger: The leader of Fianna Fáil referred to the Angelus. We need to start separating civil society from a person’s private religious faith. For instance, in this House each morning when it begins its business, we have a prayer, but it is a Catholic prayer. As a lot of people are not Catholics, why do we do this? We need to separate the civic space from the religious space. I am fully in favour of protecting people’s religious rights to worship but not of inflicting it on the rest of society.