The Changing Face of Ireland

An influx of immigrants is shaking up Ireland’s educational
system, with consequences for the Church.

Recent census data, which indicates that some 10 percent of the inhabitants of the Irish Republic were born overseas, brings the changing face of Irish society into sharp focus. After decades of mass emigration following Irish independence in 1922, Ireland has become the chosen destination for tens of thousands of migrants fleeing religious and political persecution in their home states, as well as hundreds of thousands of economic migrants coming to Ireland in search of a better life.

The census shows that there are currently 420,000 non-Irish nationals officially resident. But the real figure is thought to be much higher than the official statistics reflect. For example, Census 2006, which represents the most recent data, records that there are 63,000 Polish nationals living in Ireland. Yet Fr. Jaroslaw Maszkiewicz, a coordinator of dozens of Polish priests who have come to Ireland to offer chaplaincy to their compatriots, believes the figure is closer to 250,000.

“There are more than 100,000 Polish people living in Dublin alone. We estimate that there are about 250,000 Polish people living in Ireland, many of whom may have been unable to fill out the census form and so are not part of the data,” he says.

Ireland’s educational system is struggling to cope with the tens of thousands of children who do not speak English as their first language. There are currently 1,500 school teachers designated as fulltime language support teachers for non- Irish children.

The Irish government funds schools entirely but refuses to interfere in their internal management or governance, insisting that local communities ought to be autonomous in the provision of education. This relatively liberal educational regime, free from state control, has its roots in the Irish Constitution (enacted in 1937), which 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.” The constitution further recognizes that “the State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.”

After the need for a primary school is established by a local voluntary group, an application goes to the Department of Education for the approval of a new school. The government will then fund the school, but the responsibility for building the school and hiring teachers belongs to the patron body.

This explains why more than 90 percent of the primary schools in Ireland are Catholic. “The majority of the schools are Catholic because the majority of the people are Catholic,” says Msgr. Dan O’Connor, secretary general of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA).

Msgr. O’Connor says that Churchrun schools have responded well to the ethnic and cultural mix that is now modern Ireland. “We have Catholic schools all over this country with non-Catholic students who are made to feel very welcome,” he insists. “Where Catholic schools are not over-subscribed with Catholic children we are happy to accommodate children from any background.” He points to the example of schools in Dublin where the majority of students are non-Irish and a significant minority of students are from non-Catholic backgrounds.

Catholic primary schools came in for harsh criticism in September 2007 after it was reported that a number of non- Catholic children were turned away from a school in Dublin. The school was over-subscribed with applicants and thereby forced to operate under a “Catholic first” enrollment policy that asked parents to present baptismal certificates for their children.

In an outlandish attack, left-wing Labour opposition party member Eamon Gilmore accused the Church of enacting an apartheid-era enrollment policy that treats non-Catholics as second-class citizens. Said Gilmore: “Did we witness the end of apartheid in Africa, only to see the day when, here in Ireland, a baptismal certificate would become a latterday pass book?”

The fact is, Ireland’s educational system has not kept pace with the changes in Irish society. The Catholic Church is still expected to be the default provider of education in an increasingly diverse atmosphere. While a number of so-called “faith neutral” schools have applied for permission to open, and Ireland’s burgeoning Islamic community is due to open five new schools in 2008, the Catholic Church remains the dominant provider of education.

Bishop Leo O’Reilly, chairman of the Bishops’ Commission on Education, says that “the Catholic Church welcomes choice and diversity within the national education system.” He adds, “We believe that it is important to accommodate the rights of people of different faith backgrounds, and of none, to an education which reflects, as far as possible, their sincerely held convictions and values.”

Though the bishops have promised to dissociate from Catholic schools in non-Catholic areas, Bishop O’Reilly says the “Church will continue its investment in Catholic education and, where there is need, will establish new schools.”

But some commentators are worried that these moves signal the Church’s retreat from the forefront of primary educational provision. David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute for Religion and Society, tells CWR: “The bishops say they are willing to give up control of a certain number of schools. In principle this is a good idea because the supply of Catholic schools exceeds the true level of demand for them.”

“However,” Quinn continues, “they mustn’t be hoodwinked into giving up all the schools because the government offers them what appears to be a good deal. This would serve the Catholic community very badly indeed and would also ill-serve the wider community, because Catholic schools regularly outperform state schools wherever they are.”

Teachers’ unions, long critical of ecclesiastical dominance in education, have welcomed the Church’s divestment plans while at the same time accusing the Church of proposing a “divisive two-tier” educational system. John Carr, leader of the Irish National Teachers Organization (INTO), has been pushing this line and even questioning the right of parents to send their children to publicly funded denominational schools.

Brian Hayes, Fine Gael party’s education spokesman, echoes Carr’s position, casting proponents of parental choice as campaigners for “active prejudice against various groups.” Hayes had previously attacked the Catholic Church for its “privileged position” in the education system.

“There must be a suspicion that some kind of secret deal will be done between the government and the Catholic bishops. We are being kept in the dark but I will oppose any deal made without recourse to the DÁil [national parliament],” says Hayes.

David Quinn of the Iona Institute believes that some in the press are using the charge of segregation to reduce the Church’s influence over education. “The charge that denominational schools are segregationist is incredibly inflammatory as well as wrong-headed. It takes no account of the right of parents to choose the right kind of education for their children.”

“It ignores the fact that people who take their faith seriously are almost always good citizens as well. It also overlooks the fact that in countries where the school system is state-dominated social division still remain,” he says.

Seamus Mulconry, a former director of policy for the Progressive Democrats, one of the smaller parties in the Fianna FÁil-led coalition government, argues that a state takeover of primary education will backfire.

“This approach has been tried in France, and does not seem to have resulted in a society that is noticeably more integrated than its neighbors. Indeed, the riots that ripped through the banlieues would suggest that if anything, France does not provide the ideal model for an integration strategy,” Mulconry says to CWR. “There is no doubt that we need to rebalance the management of our school system to reflect the growing diversity of Irish society. However, that does not mean that faith-based schools should cease to play an active role in education.”

He notes that “approximately 50 percent of Irish people still attend Mass once a week, suggesting that there is a sizeable number of people who wish to see their children educated in Catholic schools,” and that “immigration may well increase the demand for a Catholic education, as Catholics make up the single largest religious grouping amongst the immigrant population.”


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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.