Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Ceisteanna (4, 5, 6, 7)

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

4. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new covenant between church and State. [16388/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new covenant between church and State. [18732/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new relationship between church and State. [20546/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans for a new covenant between church and State. [21783/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.

As I mentioned during the papal visit last year, I feel it is now time for us to build a new relationship between church and State in Ireland, one in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society but in which it can still play an important part.

However, while I say things need to change, I would not like to see a separation of church and State that is so strict and rigid that all the good work done by faith-based bodies, charities, and churches is lost. I am open to suggestions as to how a new covenant or relationship might work.

In terms of the progress being made on structured dialogue between church and faith bodies and the State, in July I will hold a plenary meeting with representatives of churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations in Ireland.

The plenary will serve as a platform to discuss issues of importance to the participants and the communities they represent. Planning is under way for this to be held on Thursday, 4 July in Dublin Castle. Invitations are being issued to a wide range of churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations in Ireland. We are aiming to be as inclusive as possible in terms of representation by religious communities at the event. I will chair the meeting, but Ministers will also attend to respond to any issues arising in policy areas under their remits. Once invites have issued, we will request Ministers to hold the date in their diaries, and we will confirm which Ministers are attending at a later date. Discussions at the meeting will draw from the questions submitted in advance by the participants.

I welcome the broad approach the Taoiseach seems to be taking to this. It is important that we give it time and get it right. It is not just important for religious communities, which are in a state of real change at the moment. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin asked the right question at the time of the Pope's visit last year, that is, "Where are our young people and where are they going?" They are not going to church, by and large, but they are finding their own way and we need to give them space for that. We need to help our institutions and the Catholic Church in their evolution. It is also important that the political system is not seen as completely disinterested in, or dismissive of, those communities as they are an important part of the overall community. We have seen what can happen in other countries when one creates a sense in certain communities being ignored or left behind. The session being held in July to discuss a new covenant is a good idea, for the political system as well as members of faith communities and, indeed, people who are not members of any faith.

There was a book on this subject entitled, A Dialogue of Hope, by a collection of authors including Gerry O'Hanlon SJ, David Begg, Dermot McCarthy, Dermot A. Lane and Iseult Honohan, who all have experience of community life and public service. Their contribution frames the broad outline of what is happening in the State and suggests where a dialogue with faith communities might fit in. I suggest some of these authors, who are not from any one community but who have been thinking about this matter, be included at the event the Taoiseach is holding in July. We should all support a dialogue so that the divestment of our education patronage can proceed and so that we can have diversity in our hospitals and care systems, while not dismissing or undervaluing the benefits that come from faith communities and other communities.

The Taoiseach repeated the comments he made at the time of Pope Francis's visit that he believed the time had come for us to build a new relationship between church and State in Ireland and a new covenant for the 21st century. That could be a good idea if it is done in the right way and involves all faith communities and religious in a dialogue that lays out the clear division between church and State, which is required in most areas. We should also acknowledge what the religious and faith communities have to offer the State in other areas. Speaking a few weeks ago, however, the Archbishop of Dublin said no progress had been made by the Government in this regard. What exactly does the Taoiseach mean by a new covenant between church and State? He said he hoped discussions would take place in July. Can he confirm that he will be there in person?

It is important to understand the relationship between the Catholic Church and the State. It is complicated and one probably has to go back to the 16th century Tudor conquest of Ireland to understand its origins, and then to the penal laws and Catholic emancipation. This would partly explain why, when the country gained its independence, there was such a bias in favour of the Catholic Church. Prior to that, there had been significant discrimination against the majority Catholics. Today, however, a significant number of people in the country are not members of the Catholic faith and do not profess any religion but find themselves suffocated by the involvement of religion in their lives. This is sometimes overstated but in the area of education, if a parent is an atheist and does not wish to bring a child up within a religion but the religion is imposed by the only available national school, that is a problem. It is imperative that we seek to recognise a new covenant, which will understand the significant and unique role played by the Catholic Church in education in Ireland. We have to remember that there was a time when no one else in the country provided an education for the majority poor population. In the 21st century, we need to recognise that parents who do not want their children brought up in a faith-based school should be given the opportunity to exercise that wish. Similarly, the significant number of parents who want their children educated in a Catholic school, a Church of Ireland school, a Jewish school or an Islamic school should also be facilitated, as diversity works both ways.

People before Profit believe in the complete separation of church and State, particularly in health and education, and we think the Government has failed, even in its own terms, in the school divestment programme. Despite the rhetorical commitment to divestment, 96% of schools continue to be controlled by religious bodies, particularly the Catholic Church. The Taoiseach is always going on about wanting choice for people, but I will give an example of the failure of the Government to deliver for those who want multidenominational, rather than faith-based, education. Last night, there was a big public meeting in Dún Laoghaire attended by hundreds of parents to discuss the Dún Laoghaire Educate Together school. After a rather convoluted voting process two years ago, in which people had to vote for which school patron they wanted, there was an overwhelming preference for an Educate Together school but the kids whose parents voted this way have been in prefabs ever since. One of the parents said, very emotionally, that she had to take her child out of the school she wanted the child to be in, because the child's needs were incompatible with being in prefabs. The parents asked where the permanent site was, which parliamentary questions had indicated would be provided a year ago. It is not on. This is an aspect of how, even at this level, the choice the Government talks about is not being provided. It is completely unacceptable for kids to still be in prefabs. It has been revealed today that €100 million has been spent over the past six years by the Government to keep children in prefabs rather than permanent school buildings. Can the Taoiseach comment on that? Will he look into the issue a permanent school for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together?

This is an important subject and it is not straightforward. I very much welcome the dialogue promised by the Taoiseach but I am not sure what the new covenant means. It sounds good but I do not know what will come out of it. It is an ambition worth exploring. Most of us who have been in the House a long time will recall the two previous referenda on divorce. If we contrast those with the ongoing referendum on the same matter, we will see how transformed society is but it has been transformed in a complicated way. The latest census revealed that nearly one in ten people registered in Ireland has no religion and that an increasingly large number have a variety of faiths, who all have to be accommodated.

As I have, the Taoiseach has talked to senior Catholic Church figures about divestment and these are important matters. We do not want to build a set of parallel education establishments to create individual silos, which has happened in other countries as they became multicultural. We have siloed populations and that causes a difficulty into the future so we have to give some care and some thought to how we are going to structure the new shape of education in Ireland. People need to have a legitimate choice over whether to have a faith-based education but this should not be done in a way that is separated out from different faiths. The consequences of doing so can be seen in Northern Ireland, where the separation of faith schools has made a contribution to the separation of society. We have to think carefully about the future and I would be interested in a structured dialogue in this House first, so that we can share views and see how we can move forward in building a new education system and a new health provision system that are not replicas of what exists.

I very much agree with Deputy Eamon Ryan's initial sentiments on this issue and I will consider whether we should include other thinkers in the dialogue in the meeting that is going to happen in July and whether we should precede that with some sort of debate here in the House as well.

When I talk about a new covenant, I suppose what I mean is what I said at the time - a relationship in which the church and faith-based organisations are no longer at the centre of Irish life but one in which they still have a place. That is what I would like the main topic and the high-level topic of the discussion in July to be about. It is not for me to determine the outcome of that dialogue but to offer my opinion. It is probably a new relationship that is more about pluralism than about absolute secularism. That means, for example, in education greater choice for parents through the availability of more Educate Together schools, community national schools and Gaelscoileanna, and the divestment of some existing religious schools to the community sector should parents want that, while still having a role for State funding of faith-based charities and voluntary organisations, whether those are our hospices like the St. Francis Hospice and Our Lady's Hospice and Care Services. An absolute secularist approach would see their funding taken away or their being taken over and the voluntarism and ethos that exist there removed. I would not agree with that. We see how many faith-based organisations have made a huge contribution to helping us deal with the housing shortage, whether it be Crosscare or Depaul. If we took an absolute secularist approach, we would either defund them or take them over. I am not sure that would be the right approach. In fact, I am sure it would not be.

In terms of school buildings, we have a massive school building programme under way. New schools are being built throughout the country. There are extensions and refurbishments, but there are also a lot of prefabs. They need to be replaced, but as is always the case, we have to prioritise. Due to the demographic bulge that we have had in recent years, we have had to prioritise new schools where there would otherwise have been no school over refurbishments and extensions to remove prefabs. However, as the birth rate falls, and it has been falling for a couple of years, there is an opportunity for us to do more refurbishments and to replace more prefabs in the coming years.

Deputy Boyd Barrett asked specifically about the Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school. This is something that the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, raised with me only today. I am advised that there are multiple school site requirements in the south Dublin city area, including for the Dún Laoghaire Educate Together national school. Several viable site options have been identified and are being progressed with relevant stakeholders, including State bodies. Once all the critical information is to hand, a determination regarding the optimal configuration of school sites will be made. Officials are working to advance matters as quickly as possible so that a permanent location for Dún Laoghaire Educate Together can be confirmed by the third quarter of next year.

Is it next year or this year?

Sorry - 2019, this year. Given the number of parties and sites involved, it is not possible at this stage to give a definitive answer on some of the key issues, but the school board of management and the Minister of State have asked to meet the building unit in the next two weeks. The building unit has confirmed that this meeting will take place.

On the issue of divestment, I am advised that, so far, 11 multidenominational schools have opened under the patronage divesting process and a further multidenominational school is due to be established in September.