Return to Irish politics menu
Irish Education in Crisis

“it might be a skin-colour issue but it’s not necessarily a race issue.”

Joe Craig

9 September 2007

One of the motors of economic growth in recent years has been a massive construction boom fuelled by house building.  Estates have been constructed with woefully inadequate or even non-existent social facilities such as shops, community centres or schools.  Like the health service private provision has boomed while state backed provision has failed to keep pace with demand.

In North County Dublin, in Balbriggan, yet another example of this crisis seemed in evidence as a new school year was commencing.  The Department of Education organised a meeting for almost 70 parents whose children had failed to find places in a local primary school.  When the room began to fill up it became apparent that all the parents who had failed to find a place for their children were black.  Bringing back memories of the back of the bus where black people were compelled to sit in America it appeared that black people were at the back of the queue for education and would end up virtually segregated from the white Irish.

But Ireland being Ireland this was not a simple result of racist prejudice but also of religious sectarianism.  Also being Ireland we had the requisite official denial of the bleeding obvious.  Two days after the meeting the minister for Education announced that ‘it might be a skin-colour issue but it’s not necessarily a race issue.’


Blame has been laid squarely at the feet of the government, composed of politicians bankrolled by property developers and builders who have raked in profits building houses and paying minimal taxes.  This has in turn fed into inadequate provision of a state infrastructure.

But this doesn’t explain why all the casualties in the Balbriggan case, and more generally, have been the children of black migrants.  This is because 98% of primary school provision, while funded by the State, is controlled by the Catholic Church and the Church has stated that it ‘must stick to our enrolment policy of providing an education for Catholic children and siblings first.’  Since religion is closely aligned to ethnicity this turns into discrimination against those with a darker skin.  Such discrimination is perfectly lawful under the ironically named Equal Status Act 2000 which has come under criticism from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination.  These objections have been dismissed by the government who have claimed that there is no need for any change.

While 98% of primary schools are Catholic 14% of the population of the Southern State is foreign-born.  The number of native Irish choosing a civil as opposed to a church wedding has also increased to 22.5% in 2005.  In order to get their children into the nearest school, or any school, parents are having to produce baptismal certificates to prove the religion of their chid.   Enquiries into the genuineness of the parents’ Catholicism have gone further in some cases, checking that they are regular attenders at mass.

Church & State

In West Dublin, where there are similar problems of educational provision particularly effecting non-Catholic children, the Education Minister asked the Catholic Archdiocese to become patron of a new emergency school that had just been created.  This was agreed to ‘reluctantly’ by the Church and the usual apologists for that institution have made much of this good deed.  They have also pointed to the new statement by the Archbishop of Dublin in which he says that he ‘would be very happy to see a plurality of patronage and providers of education.  I have no ambition to run the entire education system in Dublin.’

At one level this is a simple admission of the obvious and inevitable: the Catholic Church has no interest in devoting resources to educating the increasing number of children it has no potential to influence or convert.  What matters to it is strengthening its grip on those it already has and solidifying religious control over education in general by invoking the concept of pluralism – every religious body can control its own schools.  The Church can have no concern that it will not have the lion’s share of the State’s resources for this purpose.

A second reason lies behind this shift by the Church.  The obvious alternative to religious control is education provision that is blind to religious belief and excludes religious control, but for obvious reasons the Church rejects this.  The problem however is that the alignment of colour and religion will see apartheid type education provision develop where white Catholic (and non-Catholics who pretend to be Catholic) will be in one set of schools and black and immigrant children will be in others.  Any claim that the schools will be of equal standard will simply reinforce the parallel with apartheid South Africa where the official definition of apartheid was ‘separate but equal.’  Much better to hide such a policy under progressive sounding phrases such as pluralism and wishing to share sponsorship.

The Church has little to worry about.  As the request in west Dublin shows the State will continue to protect and advance the power and prerogatives of the Church.  An alternative potential sponsor of schools is the group ‘Educate Together’ which has specifically and very definitely absolved the Catholic Church of any responsibility for the disaster in Balbriggan.  This is because their project fits in nicely with that of the Church itself.  It will supply one of the elements in plural provision.  It offers not secular education but multicultural education where religious bodies still retain educational responsibilities but not exclusively over a whole school.  It can thus hope for continued support and funding from a State determined to defend religious education and specifically that of the Catholic Church.

This general policy was vehemently stated by Bertie Ahern in February: ‘There is a form of aggressive secularism which would have the State and State institutions ignore the importance of this religious dimension. They argue that the State and public policy should become intolerant of religious belief and preference, and confine it, at best, to the purely private and personal, without rights or a role within the public domain.  Such illiberal voices would diminish our democracy.’

What Ahern has done is regurgitate the same old erroneous accusation that secularism is somehow the name for a crude materialist and consumerist culture that seeks to attack and restrict the freedom of religious believers to exercise their religious beliefs.  What it is is the complete separation of Church and State so that, for example, all Churches and religious bodies are excluded from control of educational provision and religious instruction becomes a purely private matter to be chosen by parents and provided by churches out of their own resources.  In this there would be no interference by the State but it would also not fund such instruction.  Secularism is the equality of believers and non-believers.

The alternative in Ireland has been a history of religious separation of children from each other, a strengthening of sectarianism, and a school system often characterised by the brutal treatment of children by religious orders which have had their misdeeds covered up and indemnified by the State.  The child sexual abuse scandals of recent years have provided irrefutable proof, if such where necessary, that this institution cannot be considered a suitable provider of services to children.  In its modern justification we now see that it is a policy which may lead to a virtual apartheid style education structure.  Those who think this is an accidental and unintended consequence of Church policy display a degree of naivety that is scarcely credible and is certainly not believable when applied to Catholic Church thinking itself. ‘Forgive them, for they no not what they do’ does not apply.

Sectarianism has been a scourge of Irish society.  No surprise then that the same forces are facilitating the new scourge of racism. 


Return to top of page