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Ireland’s new coalition government and the secularization of Irish schools

One of the objectives of the drafted Program for Government is the lessening the number of national schools that were Catholic, and introducing a liberal-secular religious and ethics education program to all primary and post-primary schools.

Government buildings in Dublin, Ireland. (Image: Jtdirl/Wikipedia)

There was an extraordinary gap between the last Irish national election on February 8 and the formation of a government on June 27. The gap was caused by the failure of any party to gain either a majority or anything close to a majority to which any small party or group of independents could be linked.

Adding to the problem was the large number of parliamentary (Dail) seats gained by Sinn Fein, the party that was the political wing of the IRA, which was about as large as that gained by the two major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, that historically have governed Ireland since independence.

Those two parties are rooted in the opposing sides in the Irish Civil War (1922-23). The war followed the treaty with Great Britain granting independence to a 26-county Irish Free State, while leaving the northern six counties linked to Britain.

The antecedents of Fine Gael (Cumann na nGaedheal) won the Civil War. Most of their opponents left Sinn Fein, which remained committed to the use of violence in the pursuit of a united Ireland, and formed Fianna Fail. Since then Ireland has been governed by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. Fine Gael governments admittedly were coalition governments, but in the more recent past, Fianna Fail has also had to rely on smaller parties, like Labour, to form governments.

Fine Gael historically had been more conservative and drew its support from propertied and professional classes and larger farmers, while Fianna Fail was more populist, supported by smaller farmers, smaller businesses, and workers. But all that has changed in the past half century with the difference between the parties being mainly the personalities leading them.

Fine Gael has controlled the government since 2011. Despite its historic conservative tradition, it has presided over the advancement of two constitutional amendments that reflected an extraordinary change in Irish attitudes. Both measures gained nearly two-third majorities in the plebiscites that past them. Ordinarily amendments are introduced and passed by the legislature. But in 2015 and again in 2017, the government called ostensibly non-partisan Citizens Assemblies, selected by “objective” public opinion pollsters, to hear expert opinion and be more thoughtful in their recommendations than if it was left exclusively to the “political” legislature. The Dail, or parliament, was generally passively in accepting the amendments to be submitted to the electorate.

The first, passed in 2015, approved “same-sex marriage”. The second, in 2017, repealed the anti-abortion eight amendment that had been passed by a comparable two-thirds of the voters in 1983.

Both votes followed a mid-1990s vote that gave a narrow victory to an amendment allowing divorce. That vote reversed a 1986 plebiscite that had rejected an amendment allowing divorce. The 1986 vote rejecting divorce was comparable to the almost two-thirds majority that had passed the Eight Amendment in 1983 against abortion.

In the mid 1990s, after the commencement of the exposure of clerical, including episcopal, scandals, and exposures of the maltreatment of children in religious order run homes, public sentiment was starting to change and approved by a very narrow margin an amendment allowing divorce.

Now a coalition has been formed of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and also—because the combination of the two major parties still did not form a majority—the Green Party, a champion of environmental causes. The Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin will serve as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) for two years And Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael leader will then take over for another two, and cabinet position divided among all three parties.

The new government has put forward a lengthy Program for Government. Minimal attention has been given to one part of the program dealing with national schooling. Among its objectives were lessening the number of national schools that were Catholic, and introducing a liberal-secular religious and ethics education program to all primary and post-primary schools.

In addition, there is a plan to call (as had been done with the same-sex marriage and the pro-abortion amendments) a Citizen’s Assembly on the future of education at primary and secondary level.

As with the assemblies that proposed the same-sex and anti-eight amendment motions, its members, selected by some private public opinion agency, would hear testimony from various authorities. It probably would recommend a constitutional amendment to change the Irish National Education System where presently most of the schools have religious identity subject to the management of churches, mainly Catholic, but also a smaller number being Protestant, as well as some schools being Jewish and Moslem.

No doubt the proposed secularized education system might allow in schools desirous of such an option to allow religious education as an after-school option for students, but in no way would religion be a component of the regular school day.

But even without an amendment secularizing the schools, one suspects that a secular atmosphere is prevailing in many ostensibly Catholic schools with religious instruction being given by indifferent faculty, with primary emphasis being the preparing for First Communion and later Confirmation ceremonies. Significantly many children scarcely enter church between the reception of both ceremonies, which all too many families have come to regard primarily as coming of age events. What will transpire exactly remains to be seen, of course, but the trajectory and tenor of the past few decades appear both clear and intensifying.

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About John P. McCarthy 5 Articles
John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical, Kevin O'Higgins: Builder of the Irish State, among other books, as well as articles and reviews in Crisis, Modern Age, Intercollegiate Review, and other publications.

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