We are delighted to welcome another guest post from Dr Tom Hickey of the School of Law, NUI Galway. In this essay, Tom critiques the recently-published report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.

The Report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism: A Human Rights Critique

Consider the following thought experiment.

You and your partner are parents of three young children, the eldest of whom is due to start school in the coming months. You are both committed Catholics, and you fervently believe in raising your children in this value-system. Now let us suppose that you have a choice between two scenarios. We will consider Scenario I at this juncture, leaving Scenario II for those who persevere to the end.

In Scenario I, you will live in a state in which the primary schools fall into three categories: some are dedicated to the promotion of atheism, some to the promotion of Islam, and some to the promotion of Catholicism. Let us suppose that, because of factors such as Islamic or atheistic predominance, an uneven spread of schools, over-subscription, difficulties relating to transport/school commute etc., there is statistically an 20% chance that you will manage to get places for each of your children in a Catholic school.

How would you feel about Scenario I? The likelihood is that you would not fare so well. You would probably have to settle for a school dedicated to the promotion of either atheism or of Islam. You’d have to just grin and bear it. But if the cards fell for you, you’d have your ideal scenario. Are you an all-or-nothing kind of person? Would you risk it? Let’s call Scenario I “The Gambler’s Choice,” and abandon it for the time being.

Let’s move instead to one of the central proposals of the recently published Report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, chaired by Professor John Coolahan.

The Advisory Group considers a particular problem arising from the predominance of Catholic patrons. The problem pertains to catchment areas across Ireland where there is a stable population (and therefore no justification, particularly in view of the public finances, for the building of new schools) but where only one category of school patronage is available. The Report cites forty-seven areas, including the likes of Wicklow Town, Roscommon Town, Thurles, Malahide/Portmarnock and Cobh.

These are the kinds of areas, the Report suggests, where a transfer of patronage from one of the perhaps four or five local Catholic schools to a non-Catholic patron may be justified, should there be a sufficient level of demand amongst parents. The Report outlines how the views of parents may be identified and collated in the form of a “register of parental preferences,” with a view to “determining the ‘ideal’ range and distribution of patronage categories.” This register would then inform a Ministerial decision regarding transfer of patronage, with the decision to be made by September of 2013.

Surely only a crank could find fault with these recommendations? Is it not utterly irrefutable, in a democratic society, that the wishes of parents should determine the distribution of patronage categories?

There is, however, a grave human rights problem here. And, I would carefully suggest, there is a human rights solution, albeit that it would require a great deal of political courage.

Suppose, for the sake of argument (and please overlook the simplicity of it), that in Wicklow Town, the outcome of the preference register is something like as follows: 50% want a Catholic school; 20%, a non-denominational school; and 10% each for a school dedicated to the promotion of atheism, for an Islamic school, and a Church of Ireland school, respectively.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the outcome in Roscommon is closer to the following: 80% prefer a Catholic school, with the remaining 20% divided across the other categories, in roughly the same proportion.

Let us assume that the Catholic patrons in Wicklow Town (in this imaginary scenario, of course) would be happy to divest the patronage of one of its schools. The Catholic Church has, after all, repeatedly emphasized its willingness to divest in some circumstances. The Minister would presumably support the idea, and so the process would be in motion. Let us suppose that an Educate Together school would follow in Wicklow Town.

Although there may seem to be something of an imbalance remaining after such reform (i.e. it is as if the State is suggesting “Let the Catholics have their school, and the rest of you can share a school”), there is, I would suggest, no obvious human rights grievance. That is, non-Catholics will have the option of a school that does not promote a religious or non-religious doctrine that conflicts with their own, and so can enjoy their education in an environment that does not violate their religious freedom and their right to freedom of conscience.

(It is worth noting, parenthetically, that this belies the frequently-aired claim that the right to religious freedom requires the State to provide an educational environment promoting one’s particular religious beliefs. How on earth could such a burden be discharged by the State, given the diversity of religious beliefs in every catchment area all across the State? With this in mind, how can the extreme amongst the Catholic Right, amongst others, persist in making the argument in support of retaining the current arrangements? The right to religious freedom is indeed a most imperative moral claim. But it is a right to be enjoyed on an equal basis with all citizens of a republic. It is utterly incoherent to claim it in a way that actually causes religious discrimination).

Now compare the case of Roscommon, and the 80/20 outcome on the register of parental preferences? There would not seem to be, in the words of the Report, a “very significant demand for a new type of school,” certainly not by comparison with the overwhelming claim in Wicklow Town. The local Catholic patrons would likely resist any pressure to divest patronage of one of their schools, while the Minister would not seem, at least not on the rationale of the Report, to have grounds to force a transfer through.

So where does this leave non-Catholic parents in catchment areas such as Roscommon? These parents, whether they are atheist, or Islamic or whatever, are in the position that our committed Catholic parents would be in “The Gambler’s Choice” had those Catholic parents actually opted to gamble, and lost. Except, of course, the non-Catholic parents in places like Roscommon never had a choice, and they never gambled. They simply lost, in the happenstance of geographical location, political power and history.

And so, the Roscommon atheist parents must simply grin and bear it, by sending their child to the local Catholic school, while the Wicklow atheist parents can look forward to the Educate Together school opening in the coming years.

Now if this were a matter of ordinary political disagreement – if it were a dispute concerning whether to build a ring road around the town, for instance – we might say: “tough luck – political morality requires that the majority preference be respected.” But this is not an ordinary political disagreement of that kind. This concerns fundamental human rights. And if we, in this republic, are happy with an outcome that happens to vindicate the right to freedom of conscience of the atheist or the Islamic citizen who lives in Wicklow Town, but that tramples on the same right for such a citizen who happens to live in Roscommon Town, well then we must really concede that ours is indeed a bogus republic.

Cherish all the children equally? Right. Especially if they are Catholic, or if they happen to live in a town along with enough fellow non-Catholics.

I return, finally, to my original thought experiment, and to our committed Catholic couple with the three young children. I suggested that they had an option between “The Gambler’s Choice” and something else. So what is Scenario II?

In Scenario II, the backbone of the schooling system is “the common school.” It is a school that does not promote any particular religious or non-religious belief system, although it certainly exposes all children to rudimentary ethics, civic virtue, and an understanding of the various histories, traditions and cultures of the communities within their republic. It teaches children about world religions and about non-religious ethical views. And so on. (Incidentally, the argument that such a school is hostile to religion is absurd. It is analogous to arguing that Iran would be hostile to Islam if it stepped back from outrightly promoting it).

The State, in this Scenario II – just for fun, let’s call it “The-Every-Citizen-Counts-Equally-Option” – ensures that these common schools are available to every child in the country. This State certainly does not prohibit sectarian schools (atheist, Catholic etc.). Indeed, because there is no reason that sectarian schools cannot educate children to live in a diverse world, the State is happy to facilitate and even fund such schools. Let us suppose that our committed Catholic parents reckon that, for various reasons, the statistical possibility of a Catholic school being available for their children in Scenario II is 10%. That is, they have only half the chance of the ideal result as they would have in “The Gambler’s Choice”. The availability of the so-called “common school,” on the other hand, is 100%, as against 0% in “The Gambler’s Choice.”

If you were the committed Catholic parents, would you opt for Scenario I or Scenario II? Would you gamble if your right to religious freedom were at stake?

The Report of the Advisory Group, for all its sophistication and clarity, was doomed from the beginning. It was doomed because, as Eoin Daly in particular has argued, it was set up to “cater for diversity” when it should have been concerned with protecting the equal right to religious freedom of all citizens. It was set up to “respect parental preferences,” as if the State could ever provide whatever number of different primary schools would be required in each community to cater for the particular belief system of every set of parents within each community.

In a republic worthy of the name, the vindication of a citizen’s fundamental right to religious freedom has nothing to do with political power, or with the happenstance of geographical location. Until the “common school” is available to every child in the country, the State will continue to violate the human rights of its own citizens. The “common school” must form the backbone of our primary schooling system.

Come on Ruairi. When a structure is flawed in a foundational way, does it not call for a “big bang?”


 

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