Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Report Stage (Resumed)

Debate resumed on amendment No. 2:
In page 3, line 16, after “school,” to insert the following:
“to amend section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000 in relation to its application to recognised primary schools, to further amend that Act to provide for the application for admission to recognised primary schools by students of minority religions;”.
-(Minister for Education and Skills)

As I was saying earlier, putting somebody’s religious or moral view into the Constitution, into the law or allowing it to dictate the behaviour and ethos of what should be a public service is not acceptable any longer in 21st century Ireland. I do not think it ever was. The “Yes” vote we saw at the weekend was part of a tide of public opinion welling up, an earthquake as some described it, against that sort of Ireland, which has not served us well. It has not served women well and, in this case, it has not and is not serving the education of our children well. We have had some significant evidence of this. The “Yes” vote was about people saying that they did not want to be dictated to by the church or the State, having a particular moral view imposed on them. We think people should be allowed to make up their own minds about those things, when it comes to women, pregnancy and so on.

One sees further evidence of the need to make this shift, even with the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Zappone, today, about allowing what should be a State agency to be controlled by religious institutions, in this case St. Patrick’s Guild and the Sisters of Charity. I just heard the announcement today. Fair play to the Minister, Deputy Zappone, for contacting Deputies but I do not know if I am one of those children because St. Patrick’s Guild was the adoption agency that adopted me and I was adopted during those years. I do not know whether I was properly registered. I am lucky because my biological parent found me but had difficulty in doing so. There are people who may not know that they are adopted. This is unbelievable. That is all because we allowed things that should have been public services to be outsourced to particular religious bodies with a particular ethos and attitude. That very seriously impacted on the lives of real people and it is still impacting on them.

This cannot go on. It is still going on the area of education and the Minister intends, notwithstanding some moves to improve matters in this Bill, to allow that discrimination against people who do not share a particular religious ethos – the Catholic ethos in most cases – to be discriminated against if it impacts on the ethos of the school. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle should not get me wrong, as I think people are entitled to their religious views. They are entitled to express them and to associate with regard to those ideas. I would fight to the death for people’s right to have freedom of religious expression but we are talking about schools, publicly funded for the most part, although it does not matter what sort of school it is. Any school that is delivering the curriculum should not have a particular morality or religious view which is imposed on people who do not share that view. It should not be allowed to persist. The school should not decide to have any right to discriminate on admission to that school on the basis of people sharing or not sharing that religious ethos. It is just not acceptable. We have had a clear statement over the weekend and have evidence all the time that that should not continue and people do not want it to continue. It is in that spirit that these amendments are proposed.

Whatever one may have thought last week, the week before, or the week before that, something has changed over the weekend and the Government should reconsider. To my mind, it is just a no-brainer. The baptism barrier has to go and that means removing the ridiculous situation where the Equal Status Act says one will not be guilty of discrimination if one is discriminating. How Irish is that? We are not discriminating when we are discriminating because we are in a school that has a particular ethos. It is Orwellian doublethink and the consequence is that it allows that discrimination to persist. In many cases where schools are not oversubscribed, it is not an issue, and I fully accept that it is not an issue. When there are places, most schools will take kids from whatever background. It can still persist if the school is oversubscribed and says that, by not allowing in a child of the same ethos as the ethos of the school and not discriminating in favour of that child, it would impact on the school’s right to maintain that ethos.

That is still discrimination and I do not think it is acceptable.

I have another amendment on religious instruction in schools which I will come to later and the same point pertains there. I have no problem with schools being used after school hours for religious instruction for people who share a particular religious view but I do not believe it is right that during school hours we have a particular religious view, which children have to either sit through even though they may not share it or they have to leave and are therefore made to feel different from everybody else. That is not right. For the school to have to say, following this legislation, that it will make other arrangements and state what they are is still not good enough. A distinction should not be made for children whereby a child is made to feel different because we have a particular set of values and ethos and because someone does not share it therefore he or she will be treated differently. That is discrimination. It is not right. It is not fair on children and it should not be allowed to persist. For those reasons, the Government should take my amendments seriously.

There are other aspects to the separation of church and State in education. In passing I will again mention Clonkeen College, but the issue does not only concern Clonkeen College where the Christian Brothers are flogging off school facilities to pay their historical debts over child abuse. I got a lengthy email from Waterford today where people are saying exactly the same thing. The Sisters of Charity are flogging off real estate on school lands essentially to look after their religious order. The writer of the email asks why the hell the State does not step in and take over the schools and that from now on schools will be non-religious as they are being divested from religious control and that we will have a fair system which does not discriminate on the basis of religious ethos. We would then have a system where anyone who is in a catchment area would be taken by a school on a first-come, first-served basis regardless of his or her religious views or background or lack thereof or if he or she is of a minority religion. The time has come for change. There is no defence for fudging on this and for half-hearted measures.

At this stage in the country's development it is time to get rid of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act. It is impossible to justify the retention of that discriminatory legislation on any grounds. We talked about this over a long period last year. It is almost a year since we had Committee Stage and there was a very strong view right across the committee that this measure needed to go. There is no way one can support a fully State funded education system that is empowered to refuse a child access to a school solely on the basis of his or her religion. That is what section 7(3)(c) allows us to do at the moment.

Our schools should be inclusive places. They should recognise the importance of diversity and ensure equal respect for all children, irrespective of their background or their parents' religious persuasion, but that is not what schools do. It is what a very small number of schools do. I refer to those schools in the multidenominational sector, specifically the Educate Together schools. From the point of view of the majority of schools, namely, the 95% of schools which are church controlled in terms of patronage, the law, as it stands, allows them to discriminate between four and five-year olds on the basis of their parents' stated religion. It allows schools that are fully State funded, the local school that is paid for by the parents and community in general, to refuse to take a child on the basis of him or her not being baptised. There is no justification for that. It is a shameful provision in our legislation and it should have been abolished long ago.

Schools are allowed to discriminate, which results in an outrageous situation where parents feel that they have no choice other than to get their children baptised into a religion to which they may not subscribe and in which they do not want their child to be brought up. They have to go through this sham purely for the sake of getting a place in their local school. At this stage, that should be utterly intolerable to everybody in the country.

Many of us have felt for a long time that this requirement is fundamentally unacceptable and should have been abolished. It is undoubtedly anti-child, anti-education and blatant discrimination. At the time the Social Democrats proposed a Bill to abolish section 7(3)(c), I made the point that if we saw a law like this being proposed by Donald Trump, for example, or Marine Le Pen, we would be rightly appalled at the notion. I do not think any one of us here would do anything but condemn such an approach by another jurisdiction, yet we allow it to continue in our country.

We need to move on this. Notwithstanding the fact that 11 months have elapsed since Committee Stage, I acknowledge that the Minister has moved very substantially on this issue but he has still not gone far enough. I have concerns about the approach he proposes to take. Most of us would agree that section 7(3)(c), which allows discrimination against young children is abhorrent, and should not be allowed. What the Minister is proposing is that in the vast majority of schools it would not be allowed but it would still be allowed in some schools, namely, minority faith schools. Either discrimination is wrong or it is not, and in this case most people would regard it as completely wrong. On that basis, we need to remove section 7(3)(c).

To a large extent, the Minister is proposing an Irish solution to an Irish problem. We should tackle this problem head on and deal with it in a comprehensive way, not in a particular way that deals with certain schools but not all schools. Discrimination against children on religious grounds is wrong and it is wrong when carried out by any religious group or any type of denominational school. For that reason, it should go completely.

I am concerned that if the Minister proceeds in the way he has suggested, he might leave the State open to legal challenge. He might inform us of his legal advice in that regard. It is hard to see how we can have one rule for one religion and another rule for other religions. I would welcome clarification in that regard.

In terms of the three amendments I am proposing here, and which are listed, amendment No. 39 proposes to delete those particular lines that refer to what a school must do in its admission statement if section 7(3)(c) of the 2000 Act applies to it. I propose, and a later amendment refers to, deleting section 7(3)(c). If we were to do that it would make the section referred to by amendment No. 39 redundant.

The part of the Bill referred to in amendment No. 52 deals with admission policies. It sets down what a board can and cannot do when preparing an admission policy statement. Included in this part of the Bill is a provision to allow a school the right to refuse admission to a child who is not of the same denomination of that promoted by the school. This amendment would remove that right.

Amendment No. 138 mirrors the Private Members’ Bill which the Social Democrats introduced last year. It would provide for the non-application of section 7(3)(c) in respect of publicly funded schools. It would in effect end the baptism barrier completely. It would stop almost all schools, bar the small the number of private schools, from discriminating against children on the basis of religion in school enrolment policies.

It is simply wrong that children are turned away from their local school on the basis of their religious beliefs. Under the system the Minister is now proposing - while it is an improvement on the current regime - this will still be allowed to happen. Children’s rights should not be secondary to the rights of religious organisations. The amendment also favours the option most favoured by several civil society groups in last year’s public consultation. That is an important point to make. The amendment also mirrors wording that was used in the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015 in respect of publicly funded bodies which was passed unanimously without a vote by the Dáil, so it should be fully constitutional.

On that basis, while I recognise the progress the Minister has made, I believe that it is really important that we go further and eliminate all forms of discrimination, especially on religious grounds, against children in our State funded schools. There is no justification for that to continue. There are no grounds on which the Minister can say that it is acceptable. It is wrong and we need to move on it. There is a very strong sentiment within the country which has been growing over recent years. In recent times and recent months in particular our country has come of age to a large extent. People are facing up to the fact that they want to live in a republic, they want to be in a position to think things through for themselves, they want to have diversity and respect for diversity within our institutions and they want to move away from the past when the State and the Catholic Church were hand in hand in controlling our schools and hospitals. People now reject that approach. We are, or should be, a modern republic. We need to ensure that our institutions reflect that ethos of general respect and diversity within our country. Now is the time to take that step.

This whole group of amendments is really the crux of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 and it is where the pressure has been coming on legislators to act. There is a difficulty. I acknowledge that and always have. I have come across constituents who have been refused admission to schools because they were not baptised Catholic. I saw one particularly egregious example where somebody had been baptised in a Protestant faith and was told that, under church rules, they cannot be re-baptised into the Catholic faith despite the fact that they go to Mass every Sunday. Still this constituent was not able to be admitted into a local Catholic school because there were not enough places.

I have seen every aspect of this. It is a real problem. Some people dismiss it but it is a real problem in certain parts of the country where there is a lack of availability of places. As I am told by my colleagues in north Dublin, that lack of availability of places in certain towns in north Dublin applies not just to Catholic schools, but to all schools across the board. Along with this, we need to make sure that we focus on resources. The ideological battles and the issue of discrimination are very important but the most important issue in education is that people want a good school to go to. We cannot lose sight of the resource question. We must fund our schools, provide the resources and actually build the schools which we say are needed in particular areas. The Minister needs to keep a razor sharp focus on this as well as dealing with this particular issue.

In our manifesto Fianna Fáil put forward a proposal, which is reflected in the amendments which have been tabled, in terms of providing catchment areas for schools. That proposal would have dealt with this problem to a large degree. It certainly would have helped the minority faith schools, which was our main objective as expressed in this debate before now, however I acknowledge that there are difficulties with the catchment area approach, primarily that the act of drawing up catchment areas would be exceedingly difficult.

On the basis that the Minister’s approach seems to be the best possible approach he can come up with that removes the baptism barrier but protects the minority faith schools, we will support the Minister’s amendments on this issue and I will not be moving my amendments. However, in a republic such as ours, where we have had a relationship between Catholic, Protestant and dissenter for better and for worse at different points in our history, it is important that we protect our minority religions. In allowing the primary schools of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Jewish and Muslim faiths to ensure that adherents of their faiths can access their schools in preference to other people if they are oversubscribed we are actually helping those communities to sustain themselves, to maintain themselves in the country and to practise their faith. It is essential that we allow them to do that because, in truth, the Protestant communities have historically been treated pretty poorly and pretty appallingly by this State, particularly post-Independence. We at least owe it to them to allow them to have their schools if that is what they want to have. It is open to Church of Ireland schools to divest if that is their wish but we have to protect them if that is what is required to allow them to practise their faith.

This baptism barrier will go in Catholic schools. That does not present any difficulties for Catholics who wish to practise their faith because invariably they will be able to find another Catholic school if their local one is oversubscribed. We are happy to support the Minister’s amendments on this.

However, there are a few other issues in this area. One concerns the surveys on ethos the Minister is carrying out at the moment. They are a complete waste of administrative time. No school that the Minister proposes to open in the future should be a religious-run school. It just should not be. We have enough. Some 90% are under Catholic patronage at the moment. I do not see where the demand for more religious-run schools could possibly be. We do not need them at second level either. We have excellent Catholic and Protestant schools already. I presume that in opening up schools we are looking to diversify. I do not see why we need the surveys.

We have our education and training boards, ETBs. We have the community national school model. Surely that is the way to go in providing schools for the future. Nobody in their right mind would start a school system from scratch with the patronage model. It really needs to be eliminated from the process of providing future schools. In that process Gaelscoileanna and English-speaking community national schools run by the local ETB can also be provided. The structure is there. It would be better for many schools if they were to be run by ETBs because the resources, the administration, the expertise, the shared services and so on are already there. If Fianna Fáil were in power we would say that, unless there were absolutely compelling reasons otherwise, all schools would be patronised by local education and training boards. It seems to be the sensible thing to do. I am not sure what the survey of preschool students is going to achieve. I suspect most of them will end up in the education and training board sector anyway. In addition it is not just the parents of children who are currently in preschool who should be determining the schools in the community.

It seems that having them with the education and training boards would get the most acceptance from the wide mass of the community. I do not mean to rule out Gaelscoileanna when I say that because they could be provided for as well. Perhaps that would be part of parental choice. That can also be part of the Department's planning, rather than subcontracting it out to parents. That would be more sensible than what the Minister is proposing. Certainly, the schools in my community with which I am familiar and which are run by Louth and Meath Education and Training Board are excellent. I hope this arrangement applies to the primary school that is envisaged for Dunshaughlin and the secondary school that is envisaged for the Laytown and Drogheda school planning district. I have made a strong case to the officials in the Department that this planning area should include Duleek. I have mentioned to them that a site has been made available - presumably not for free - by the Diocese of Meath, which has no interest in patronage. This arrangement would simply involve the sale of land to the Department. That is a matter for the Department. As there is no appetite for church patronage, there is no need for concern.

There is no issue with religious preference in primary schools in the UK because between 30% and 40% of primary schools are in the religious category. There is a selection there. If we ever get to that stage, it will be possible for people to say they need to have their Catholic schools or State schools. It is simply not sustainable to have 90% of schools as Catholic schools, which is what we have at the moment. There is no argument about that at this point.

I have to say I think there are strong arguments for religion to be taught outside school hours, as proposed by some Deputies. There is no doubt about that. It happens very effectively with parental support in multidenominational schools. My own children go to a multidenominational school because that is the model to which we subscribe as Catholics. While I have no difficulty with this proposal, I suggest some type of consultation must happen first. We should not provide for religious instruction to take place outside school hours in one legislative gambit here tonight. It is something that will have to be looked at. It is how things were done when the national schools were first established. There was different religious instruction and things got in the way in the meantime. Although I do not think this would present a threat to faith, I am not sure we should simply up-end the system in a Dáil vote tonight or tomorrow. Instead, there should be some element of consultation. I am informed by my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, that we cannot do anything that would upset the school bus system. While he is right in this respect, I suggest such matters are easily managed.

We are facing into a period of change in education. I do not think we should be too dogmatic or ideological about it one way or the other. We need to get it right. There are issues being raised, but the focus must always be on having good schools that educate our children properly. In general, parents want good schools beside them that they can access. In fairness to the Minister, he has listened. It is probable that two years have passed since the Labour Party or the Green Party proposed a Private Members' motion on this issue. The Bill before the Dáil this evening will have to go before the Seanad. The sooner this gets done, the better. It is obvious that it will not be in place for the school year beginning in September.

I do not intend to delay the legislation for too long, but I would like to make a general point before I conclude. It should be noted that complying with this legislation in general, including the provisions we have been discussing, will place a significant burden on schools over the coming years. They will have to produce admissions policies and make sure everything is right. I wonder whether the Minister for Education and Skills is proposing to give schools a one-off grant or some sort of help or assistance. The shared services of education and training boards can certainly provide assistance to schools, for example when admissions policies that conform with this legislation are being written. Schools will need some help as they seek to comply with their legal obligations.

I welcome the Minister's amendments because they go some way towards addressing the baptism barrier. It is imperative, especially in the new Ireland in which we live, that we adopt a consistent and non-partisan policy response to this difficulty, which has gone on for too long. Like many other Deputies, I have repeatedly called for the inequality of the baptism barrier to be addressed. I have advocated for equality of educational access and opportunity to be secured for all our children. Now, in a changing landscape, is the time to get our policy in this area right so that we do not have to revisit it.

I do not think we should single out any religion because this is about all religions. If other religions do not face enrolment challenges right now, well and good. We need to legislate in a dispassionate way that treats everyone - Catholics and those of other religions or none - the same. This legislation must be applicable to one and all with no exceptions. That is the best way to ensure our children's right to access education is at the heart of this legislation. We must acknowledge, embrace and cater for the changing society we live in by ensuring all children are treated equally when it comes to education.

The solution to the current difficulty is very simple - the Minister needs to remove the baptism barrier from all schools that receive State funding. It is much simpler than the Minister seems to be making it, or wanting to make it. I disagree with his amendments in principle because ending discrimination based on one religion while continuing discrimination based on other religions is another form of inequality. The serious problem with how these amendments have been drafted is that they are creating an overly complicated, convoluted and complex system that seems to leave out secondary schools for some reason I cannot understand.

I ask the Minister to consider the amendments I am proposing. Amendment No. 42 proposes to disapply section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 from the admissions statement of any school that receives public funds. Amendment No. 53 seeks to disapply section 7(3)(c) of the 2000 Act from the admissions policy of any school that receives public funds. Amendment No. 140 seeks to amend section 7(3)(c) to provide that this exemption from discrimination cannot be applied to any school in receipt of public funds from the Department. It is a simple as that. We need to legislate in a dispassionate way that treats everyone the same.

I would like to ask the Minister about amendment No. 2. The Equal Status Act 2000 prohibits discrimination across society on nine grounds, including religion. However, religious-controlled schools were given a derogation to allow them to give priority to children of a certain faith. Does this derogation now apply to secondary schools only?

I think there is a risk that the Minister's amendment No. 137, which is detailed and convoluted, will result in all sorts of unforeseen circumstances. It allows all schools other than Catholic primary schools to discriminate on the basis of religion. Therefore, this proposal discriminates against Catholic schools. Regardless of whether 90% or 10% of schools in this country are Catholic schools, it is still discrimination. It is bordering on sectarian. Secondary schools will still be allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion. This will be a major issue for the children living in the areas surrounding the 20% of secondary schools that are oversubscribed.

It is proposed that primary schools of minority religions will be able to apply for recognition as recognised primary schools under section 10 of the Education Act 1998. Amendment No. 137 defines "minority religion" as:

... a religion other than a religion whose membership comprises in excess of 10 per cent of the total population of the State based on the population as ascertained by the Central Statistics Office in the most recent census report published by that office setting out the final result of a census of population of the State (whether or not that is the most recent such census of population).

When I looked at the most recent census, I learned that 9.6% of the population falls under the category of "no religion". Will "no religion" be considered to be a minority faith? The lengthy, confusing and convoluted definition of "minority faith" that is being proposed in amendment No. 137 suggests that the minority religion of the moment could change with each census. I think it would be more logical and simpler to accept amendments Nos. 53 and 140 as a means of ensuring children have equal access to all schools regardless of religious belief.

We are debating the baptism barrier. There is no doubt that section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 discriminates against young people. State-funded schools that are in receipt of taxpayers' money should not be controlled by religious institutions. They are paid for by the people and they should be controlled by the people.

The State should control the schools and there should be no discrimination against any child on the basis of religion. That is our position.

The argument is advanced that the people are not ready for that, and that in the most recent census, 70% of people polled said they were Catholic. The exact same argumentation was used to say that the Irish people would never vote in favour of the legalisation of abortion when the Government had a proposal waiting in the wings for 12 weeks. What did we see at the weekend? Not only did a majority support it but the majority supported it decisively. The people are way ahead of the politicians and the establishment parties on these issues. The time has come for the separation of the church from the State. Education is central to that.

To see the kind of mess and tangle caused by the intertwining of the church and State, we do not have to look further than the events discussed in the House this afternoon. At least 126 children were registered as being the biological children of their adoptive parents. This was done via the St. Patrick’s Guild, which became an adoptive society at the urging of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, a famous man back in the day. It was run by the Irish Sisters of Charity. I understand that those false registrations were illegal and that this society was also involved in the secret exporting of more than 500 children to the United States. Instead of taking a bold position on this, the Government has dragged its heels down through the years. It excluded them from the mother and baby homes inquiry despite being told that the society had knowledge of several hundred illegal birth registrations. It repeatedly rejected calls by adoption campaigners for an audit of all adoption files in the State. That is a small example of the type of mess that the State gets itself into when it becomes tangled with the church and church institutions. The time has come for the separation of the church from the State. We must end the baptism barrier.

Deputy Fergus O’Dowd

I agree with the principle enunciated by the last speaker, that there must be a complete separation between church and State. It is timely and would be right and proper.

From the 18th to the 20th century, there were schools where Christian Brothers, nuns and religious orders did a fantastic job to educate whole generations of people who would not have been able to have been educated otherwise. I wish to acknowledge the tremendous sacrifice and work, and the good things that many of those people did. Clearly there were very bad things done as well but I think the good outweighed the bad. I very much recognise that.

However, that Ireland is no longer there. Ireland today is represented by multiculturalism. All children, regardless of religion, colour or race, whatever they are, they are entitled to go to the nearest school, provided it has the capacity in terms of space. Children are entitled through their parents to be educated in terms of their religion or belief system. It is very important that this is separated completely and it would be a good and healthy thing for our society.

The changes that have taken place in Ireland have been magnified by the vote this week. It is universally acknowledged that we have to be aware that no child can be made to feel less important or different because of his or her religion, colour or ethnic background. That is greatly important in a modern democracy and a true republic. All children are equal and in education they must be treated as such. I support the views that have been expressed.

I am a bit torn on this one. It is certainly not because I have any love for religious institutions. I see where the Minister has come from and it is a massive step forward but, having listened to the debate, I agree with Deputies Boyd Barrett, Shortall and Catherine Martin on the complete separation of church and State. I understand what the Minister is trying to achieve in terms of minority religions and it is a big step forward. At the end of the day, though, if we are to have equality of access in education, it has to be all or nothing. It is either equal or it is not. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in respect of changing times. I want to put on record that I will be supporting Deputies Martin’s and Boyd Barrett’s amendments on this one.

I thank Deputies for participating in the debate. Clearly, if we were designing an education system today we would not be designing one in which virtually 100% of our primary schools are privately owned and 95% of them are denominational. We are working with the system that is in place and trying to reform it to reflect the new realities in Irish society. That is what I am trying to do here.

I recognise that we need to respond to new diversity and that is why I am removing religion as a criterion from 19 out of every 20 primary schools today. The only circumstance where I am leaving it is in respect of minority religions and allowing parents who are of Protestant, Jewish or Muslim faith to get access to a school of their ethos. I agree with Deputy Thomas Byrne that our society has seen the difficulties of religious difference. However, we should not seek to define equality as removing all religion in the way that is being proposed. That is not equality. I think equality of respect allows us to treat each of the groups in a fair and equal way, but not as absolutely geometrically equal.

We are fair to minority religion children, who have only one in every 20 schools to access. We are protecting those children to get access to that one school out of every 20. We are not affording the same protection to a Catholic child, who has 18 out of every 20 schools to choose from and will not have a difficulty in getting into a school of Catholic ethos. We are protecting children of no faith because we are ensuring that 19 out of every 20 schools will not use religion as a criterion in selection. I think it is a fair and balanced way to deal with what has been a very thorny problem. Everyone has articulated the unfairness of people feeling they are forced to baptise their children to get access.

That is not the only thing we are doing to promote greater diversity, however. In recent years we have opened 61 new schools. All of the primary schools have been multidenominational or non-denominational; none has been denominational. The only denominational new school in recent years has been at second level, where denominational schools represent only about half of all schools.

We are introducing an initiative to facilitate the transfer of patronage from schools of the Catholic ethos to other patrons. The former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, initiated a process in this regard but it was not as successful as he had hoped. I have changed it to introduce a new alternative. They are both running together and I believe they will do much better.

We are strengthening the provision to meet the constitutional right of every child not to have to attend religious instruction. This will be enforced by requiring it to be explicitly stated in the admissions policy of religious schools as to how they propose to honour that. We are introducing a charter for parents and students to ensure that they will have more say over time in all of the dimensions of school policy. In the case of multidenominational ETB schools at second level, we will ensure that religion is treated as an option and not as a compulsory subject. We are making several changes which are going to give rise to a much improved environment.

Unlike others, I do not believe that the response we should offer in the name of equality should be to remove religion from every school and thereby facilitate the demise of Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Jewish schools. I do not believe that is equality. If that is equality, then it is a strange definition of it. We have to respect diversity. Diversity is a value in our school system. We need to ensure that when parents have a desire to see their child educated in a school of their religion, they can do so. I do not see why we should vote for the demise of minority religions. In my area, as there are in other Members’ areas, there are Church of Ireland schools surrounded by large Roman Catholic populations. If there were open admissions, these schools would be filled by Roman Catholic children or children of no faith. They would then cease to be minority schools in any sense. That would not be good for our society. It would certainly not be welcomed in my constituency where those schools are valued and are seen as a respect for people who have those values.

Several Deputies asked how one defends treating Catholic children differently to Church of Ireland children. It is a question of proportionality where one is trying to achieve, in so far as is possible, a situation where parents get the choice they want. One applies proportionate rules. With this legislation, where a child has access to one school out of every 20, I give them protection. Where they have access to 18 out of every 20, however, I do not give protection. They cannot use religious rules to select children. We are completely changing the position for children of no religion where they have a small number of largely Educate Together schools from which to choose. Now they will have 19 out of every 20 schools to choose from because religion will not be a criterion within them. The admissions policy of schools will state how they will cater for children of no religion. To be fair, many schools seek to ensure that they respect this.

Deputy Thomas Byrne indicated that he will not move his amendments. I acknowledge that this was a policy Fianna Fáil espoused. For the reasons the Deputy outlined, the catchments do not exist and religion within the catchment would still be a criterion. The proposal we are offering is a better one, having reflected on the consultations we had. I do not agree that scarcity is the issue. It may be that this is more acute in growing urban areas where there is more diversity. However, there will always be popular and unpopular schools. Choices will have to be made. The important thing is that those choices are made fairly and not in a discriminatory way on the basis of religion.

Deputy Thomas Byrne also referred to patronage. There are two systems whereby we are introducing non-denominational or multidenominational schools. One is in the case of new schools. In that case, for a school to qualify and to win a competition, it has to be promoting diversity within the catchment and meet the needs of parents. There are two tests, not just one. Deputy Thomas Byrne might have thought that it will be the parents’ choice and that the majority schools will dictate the outcome. That is not the case because they will have to deliver diversity as a key criterion in their selection. In the other case where we are seeking transfer from the existing majority patron, the survey is of parents. It is to establish if the parents want an alternative to the majority school. That is the purpose of the survey.

On the point raised by Deputies Catherine Martin and Shortall, I do not believe that this will represent discrimination against Catholics. It is a proportionate way of ensuring that as many parents as possible will get the choice they want. Second level is different because it has a much higher level of diversity. That has not been an issue. The consultation I had was always about primary schools where we have this problem.

Deputies Barry and O’Dowd argued that we should go for a complete separation. That would, for example, exclude Educate Together schools because they are private and not State-run. Irish people like the diversity and these different patrons. The ETBs have a State-sponsored alternative for primary schools. I hope we will see the growth of community national schools. Incidentally, they celebrate all religions and welcome the diversity of religious expression. If one goes into a community national school, one will see The Koran, the Bible and other religious symbols. They celebrate them. The strength of these schools is the diversity of religion which is invited in with all its richness. That is a good model in itself.

I do not think the Minister’s senior officials share that view.

I accept Deputy Funchion feels torn in two directions. Given that our schools are 95% religiously owned and that many people want to raise their children in their faith, we have to respect that diversity and gradually continue to expand diversity. That is what I am seeking to do through the transfer of patronage, through new schools, by changing admissions policies and by having better rules to protect a child who does not want to be involved in religious expression in school. That is the direction of travel. I am of the view that this is a fair and balanced response.

I am surprised that Sinn Féin of all parties cannot support the preference, if oversubscribed, for Church of Ireland or other minority faith schools. Where are these schools? There are 22 Church of Ireland schools in Donegal, eight in Cavan and five in Monaghan. There are only two Presbyterian schools in Dublin, while there are nine in Donegal and three in Monaghan. If we are looking for an agreed united Ireland, it is essential that we just do not go in straight away and take those schools from those faiths. There should be no mistake. If those schools are not allowed to prefer if they are oversubscribed, their communities would end up shattered. Anyone would be allowed to go to the schools and there would be no sense of common identity. If the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian communities told me they do not need it, then so be it. However, they have made a strong case that they need these schools for their communities. This is a republic and we recognise Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter. The Catholic Church, which has so many schools under its patronage, is well able to stand on its own two feet.

For our minority faith communities, it is essential that we maintain their schools in order to show them that they are welcome and that there is no threat to them.

In that way, we can show them that they are welcome in our country, that there is no threat to them, that we value them and their contribution, that we recognise the fact that they are here and that we do all we can to protect them. They represent no threat to equal rights; they are not a cause of discrimination in this country. They are here to serve their communities and Dáil Éireann should recognise that until such time as they tell us that it is not necessary for their communities.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 May 2018.