Sectarianism in Ireland – still

The debate will probably ease off again in a while since it’s unlikely that any of the main political parties cares enough to try to do anything, but it’s worth noting that the sectarian nature of Ireland’s schools is in the news at the moment. And it’s a national and international scandal.

Whatever you think about schools with an ethos (and most countries have them) the Irish situation is unusual. >90% of all primary schools are run by various arms of the Catholic Church. Another 6% or so by arms of the Church of Ireland. A scattered few are “other” or non-denominational.

For most people in the country the only local school is a Catholic school. Or, at best, there’s a Catholic school and a Protestant one. But mostly it’s Catholic.

So what if you’re not religious? Or a Jew or Muslim?

Well, if there’s space in the local school you only have to put up with a your child being in a Catholic school. You can keep them out of religion class but religious formation – not just education – is a huge part of the school week. Communion, confession, everything. It’s hardly ideal and there’s really no choice. Since Ireland is still heavily Catholic it’s unlikely that there are enough people to form an additional school in the area, and in any case the practicalities of forming a new school are hardly for every family with children. So you’re stuck.

And if there isn’t enough space in the school you’re really screwed.

School admission policies in most religious schools go something like this;

  1. Catholic children from the Parish
  2. Catholic children from outside the Parish
  3. Other Christian children from the Parish
  4. Other Christian children from outside the Parish
  5. Everyone else

So basically if you’re in category 5 you can be a citizen or an immigrant or rich or poor or a taxpayer or not. But you’re at the bottom of the list. You may have been living across the street from the school for generations, but if a Catholic child moves in you’re out. So what do people do?

There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that many Irish people baptize their children as Catholic (or Protestant) merely to get their children into the local school. Otherwise they’re not religious at all. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of non-Christian families being excluded from their local and having to travel miles to get into whatever school has space.

And yet these are state-funded schools. Practically 100% of the costs paid by the state. This is religious discrimination, pure and simple.

And the Irish Parliament doesn’t care. The Department of Education doesn’t care. The Minister of Education doesn’t care. Because if they did it’s easy to fix. And the law that allows all this was introduced in 2000. Yep.

My views on the subject were probably originally captured by Atheist Ireland in 2011. They weren’t radical enough for their tastes, but given Ireland’s situation my ideas would at least be a step forward.

Atheist Ireland

And more recently on the Irish Independent Letters Page (down the page a little).

Here’s the text of the letter, since it’s hard to see on the Indo’s page.


the topic of religious criteria in school admissions has become hot recently. One of the recurring themes from the religious communities seems to be “we made our schools, you can make your own”. It’s common, but hardly charitable. 

I’d like the people who think like that to try a thought experiment.

Imagine you were one of only a few dozen Catholics in an area and living in a largely atheist country….and that admission to the only schools where you live was done with atheists first and anyone religious pushed to the back of the queue. 

What would  you call that? I can tell you. You’d call it religious persecution. 
That’s what’s happening in Ireland. There’s no need to abolish religious schools, but as long as there’s effectively no alternative (and there isn’t) then the current admission rules amount to religious persecution of a minority. It’s a disgrace. 
And for Catholic (and CoI) schools to continue that persecution is impossible to reconcile with the values of the respective religions. Christians love their neighbours. They don’t tell them to get lost. 
Hugh Sheehy





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