I thank everybody for coming in and sharing their experiences and views on this matter with the committee. I apologise for arriving somewhat late but I was speaking in the Dáil earlier. My approach to this is governed by my experience on the ground so I will not concentrate on constitutional issues per se except to say that we went to a lot of trouble to get legal advice, as we have done over a long period of years, in respect of the difficult question of how we have a primary and secondary school system that is welcoming to every child but which follows the constitutional requirements regarding parents' choices in respect of children and parents and children having religious affiliations, which we respect, and also takes note of the development of communities and an integrated, if very diverse, society. I represent Dublin West, which is the area around Blanchardstown, Castleknock and Mulhuddart. According to the last census, it is probably the most diverse part of Ireland. Over 30% of the population were not born in Ireland or have parents who were not born in Ireland. When we talk about areas where there may be competition for school places, that competition may also mean that parents from different countries around the world are applying on behalf of their children because they have come to live in Ireland. Like many outer suburbs of our big cities, Dublin 15 ranges from being quite diverse to being very diverse. This extends into the commuter belts around the big cities. I am sure the Chairman will be familiar with that.
There are three issues at play here. One is the constitutional requirement regarding freedom of religion and freedom of expression of religion and the Constitution's recognition that parents are the educators of their child. Our Bill seeks to accommodate and recognise that fully. The second issue is how one avoids discrimination against children where people of a particular religion apply in sufficient numbers yet in the general area, there is a more diverse population. The second question is how you accommodate and recognise diversity. In a situation where there is no pressure on school places, I would be the first to say that by and large, it is not a huge issue for people. It may well be that, ultimately, parents find practices in schools that they do not particularly like or they are at odds with some of their views but by and large, I would be the first to acknowledge that this is significantly tied up with the issue of pressure on school places and the pressure of population growth in certain areas. The third issue that arises is geography. If people are in a recognised geographical area, which could be a school enrolment district or, as was traditionally identified in Ireland, a parish or townland area, how do you give all of the children living in that area access to their local national school even though that school may have a particular denominational affiliation and patronage?
I have been dealing with this issue with all of the different communities in Dublin West for at least 15 years. I pay tribute to almost all of the patron bodies. I would not have dealt with everybody here but I would have dealt with many patron bodies, as would other public representatives in the area. By and large, patrons in Ireland, boards of management and teachers have sought to ensure that every child is welcome; that as far as possible, there is an accommodation of diversity; and that where there is rationing of places because of enormous increases in population, which is where the difficulties arise, it is done in a fair way that is not discriminatory. I appreciate that for religious denominations like the Church of Ireland, the issue is the balance between ethos, diversity, welcome and openness, particularly for small schools. We said this in our submission. I thank Dr. Fennelly for acknowledging that. We are very aware of it because much of what we expressed in the Bill is the expression of experience in dealing with the front line of these issues for modern Ireland.
I have been very influenced by the approaches of different members of the clergy from different denominations I have encountered. In that context, I will digress briefly. Before Christmas, an outstanding Catholic priest, Fr. Martin Murnaghan, died. Over a long period of time, Fr. Murnaghan was the parish priest in St. Mochta's parish in Porterstown. This is an immensely diverse area with three different schools that, ultimately, established a practice whereby they would have different kinds of quotas notwithstanding the fact that two of the schools were Catholic schools while the other - Scoil Choilm community national school - was a late formation school that was under the patronage of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin for a number of years and then became one of the first ETB-based community national schools. The other schools were St. Patrick's national school and St. Mochta's national school. One of the schools was in Diswellstown while the other covered the broader area. Fr. Murnaghan and his successor, Fr. John Daly, came up with something like a 30% quota allocation based on all the normal considerations of application, the dates, identifying the school of choice, filling in the application form, attending at the school and the parents applying. That model has been applied in a number of different areas but if I am correct, it has been adopted by a school board and perhaps the patron by agreement. I am not sure if it applies everywhere or whether there is any guarantee that this model can apply because even within that model, there is quite a heightened consciousness among numbers of parents that the baptismal requirement is also required. I do not know whether any scientific study has been carried out but it is certainly an issue of concern to parents. Increasingly, as pressure on places has increased in recent years, this issue has come more to the fore. Other members of the committee might have more experience of how this has been applied in other parts of the country.
In fact, if the Department of Education and Skills has more information on what the composition of the student population in different schools has been, that might be quite helpful because there are parts of the country which are not so diverse and there are other parts which are very diverse. If, for example, one takes 1992 to 1994, the Bosnian community first came to Ireland in significant numbers arising from the consequences of the war. That resulted in several hundred families settling in Dublin West. I would think that almost all of those children experienced their education in schools of different religious denominations. That community could speak for itself, but I think every effort was made to be inclusive. Nonetheless, our Bill reflects the fact that we have now moved on in time and there are points where there are difficulties, notwithstanding very good practices which are there which I would like to acknowledge and the very caring approach by so many of the patrons, boards of management and teachers. Our Bill seeks to provide a balance between the constitutional rights regarding religion and the recognition of non-discrimination in respect of children. We have set out an explanatory memorandum to the Bill which sets out many of the legal arguments in some detail.
Way back in 1996, when Ireland was really not what one might call a very diverse society - I think the Vikings were among the most recent people to have arrived to come and live in Ireland - the Constitution Review Group said:
...suppose that there is one small national school (and therefore in receipt of public funds) which is run by a Catholic religious order and where the school population heretofore consisted exclusively of Catholic pupils. Members of the Islamic community move into the area and have no realistic alternative but to send their children to the local national school. The parents of these children not only insist on withdrawing their children from formal religious instruction but also object to the Roman Catholic ethos which permeates instruction in other subjects in the school-----
Now this is 1996 so we are talking about a rather different situation in a lot of schools then. The quote continues:
-----and is also reflected in, for example, religious pictures and school holidays for religious feast days. Must a school which is in receipt of public moneys accede to these objections, or may it give preference to the wishes of the majority of parents who wish the school to retain its Catholic ethos?
When one thinks that was 1996 it was a very far-sighted judge who wrote that. It does still reflect some of the delicate issues and our legislation seeks to address those issues while maintaining the capacity for religious preference. The law has moved on in practice and practice has moved on. This is illustrated by the development of a whole sector of multi-denominational schools and by the fact that An Foras Patrúnachta now recognises Gaelscoileanna which may have a Catholic ethos, those which may have a multi-denominational ethos and, I think, those which may have a non-denominational ethos. We have moved on a great deal in our practice but there is still an issue to address and I welcome the opportunity to address it. If people would like to ask me any further questions I am happy to respond.
Considering that we now have a significant population of teenagers and children coming into the teenage years who have settled in Ireland, who have been born in Ireland or whose parents have settled in Ireland, it is absolutely vital for us as a society that they get the best education possible and that they have an extremely positive educational experience that respects them, as well as them respecting the people among whom they are now living. In that way we may avoid some of the mistakes that other societies have made and can strive to be an inclusive and welcoming society.