Increasing attention has focused, in recent years, on the role of religion in public education in Ireland, and on its implications for equality and human rights. Rather than providing public education directly, the Irish state has historically “provided for” free education, at primary and secondary levels, by recognising and funding schools under the ownership and management of religious denominations. Therefore, even today, more than 90% of primary schools in the Republic are operated according to a Roman Catholic ethos – the consequence of this being, for families in many areas of the State, that there may effectively me little choice but to attend a school committed to the inculcation of Catholic beliefs. This is problematic notwithstanding the explicit constitutional right to withdraw from formally-timetabled religious instruction classes. Yet the paradox of this state of affairs lies in the fact that formally and constitutionally, the Ireland is (arguably, or at least for most purposes) a non-sectarian state; religious discrimination and the “endowment” of religion are constitutionally prohibited, and the democratic principle of freedom of parental choice in matters of religious education, although riven with ambiguity, is consensually regarded as the cardinal constitutional precept.
Thus, while the public education system is overwhelmingly denominational in reality, the State is formally neutral towards religion, and State support for religious education is constitutionally legitimated only through the idea that it supports and buttresses the “choice” of parents – however this might be ascertained – rather than on the basis of any intrinsic good in religion itself. This rationale is reflected in the terms of the Education Act 1998, which accords no privileged status to religion per se. The denominational model assumes a somewhat optimistic and crude conjecture – that the educational and religious freedom can be safeguarded by devolving the public education function to private bodies, usually churches, that can given specific expression and recognition to the determinate religious identities in society. Historically, this was assumed to be preferable to what is still, sometimes derided as a “one size fits all” model of unitary, secular public education. But beyond the ostensible emphasis on parental sovereignty and “choice” which prevails today, there are, in any case, competing philosophical and political justifications for the denominational model. On one view, it recognises and protects the religious identity of the Irish people; on another, it promotes the secular goods of “diversity” and “choice”. These competing historical justifications mirror the broader, competing narratives of Irish national identity, Christian and republican – a tension best encapsulated, perhaps, in the constitutional affirmation that “all powers of government … derive, under God, from the people”.
In her recent École et religion: Hiérarchies identitaires et égalité citoyenne en République d’Irlande (Presses Universitaires de Caen), Karin Fischer, of the University of Orléans, approaches both the historical and ideological context of the denominational model, as well as its recent evolution in response to social and demographic change. She describes the current system: “characterised as confessional and founded on religious segregation … experienced by some as a form of cultural imperialism.” Moreover, Fischer conveys a sensitive and nuanced awareness of the competing narratives of Irish nationalism that underpin the somewhat contradictory rhetorical and constitutional buttresses of the denominational system. The romantic-nationalist narrative, ascendant in postrevolutionary Ireland, posits an essentially religious, Christian, and at points, explicitly Catholic conception of national identity – a conception which represented the legitimation of the denominational model in the early independent state, approximating to what Fischer terms a “triumphalist” Catholic nationalism. She explains the essentially post-colonial phenomenon of reliance on public education as an instrument for cementing and re-enforcing national identity – while recognising the historical opposition of certain nationalist figures to clerical control over education. She documents how while the hybrid public-private structure of national education was left unchanged upon independence, its function changed – to that of the reproduction and assertion of the “Gaelic-Catholic” character of the Irish ethnos, in order to “secure the legitimacy of the state”. Yet the emphasis was primarily on Gaelic cultural identity, with the new state resisting a full-blown sectarian-Catholic definition of the polity. Ostensibly, secular instruction was informed by a conception of religion as Christianity as salient in Irish identity and history. Consequently, the policy of “integrating” religious ethos within the whole school curriculum, formally adopted in 1965, threatened to undermine the freedom of conscience of non-coreligionists. While the explicit religious basis of national education has disappeared from official documentation, particularly since the revised primary curriculum in 1999, Fischer documents a residual, latent assumption of a common Christian heritage and identity, although the formal structure of national education, with its distinct “patronage” model, is officially neutral towards citizens’ comprehensive worldviews. All of this has taken place against a vaguely anti-ideological leaning in curricular matters, in which the Christian and Gaelic basis of Irish identity is seen to go without saying.
She also acknowledges the competing, alternative tradition of secular, republican nationalism, the nationalism of the United Irishmen, which resisted any sectarian definition of national identity – which sought to establish a civic, rather than ethnic or religious identity for the State. Fischer intelligently acknowledges how the formal pluralism of the denominational model – no constitutional privilege is accorded to Catholic or Christian schools – allowed for an implicit reconciliation with the republican mores that has constituted a competing narrative of Irish nationalism, more civic and inclusive. Yet as Fischer points out, while references to the essential importance of religion per se have disappeared from policy documents, it continues to be latent in the very conception and structure of the denominational system. The legitimacy of the Catholic Church as an educator and school “patron” is increasingly accepted as resting, contingently, on its capacity to still represent parental “choice” (however this might be ascertained). Yet this official pluralism is incongruous with the continuing, de facto hegemony of the majority Church in the control and management of the “national” schools. This contradiction is salient within the current discourse on school “choice”, and the notion of “choice” itself, begging critical attention.
Indeed, if there is any resurgence of secular, civic republicanism in Ireland, it has not given rise to any serious discussion on the possible establishment of a truly “national”, non-sectarian public education system. The Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn – whom while in opposition, suggested the Department he now administers was infiltrated by “obscurantists” – has pressured the Church and congregations to divest patronage and ownership of some schools to the State. However, the terms of the reform debate have not been framed with a view towards the universal provision of non-sectarian public education across the State, as a matter of right, or so as to ensure liberty of conscience for individuals irrespective of the social and demographic clout of their group. Instead, it has focused on the more limited horizon of “diversifying” the provision of different models of religious and non-religious education within the current structure and rationale of the patronage model – in which the State will continue to devolve its educational responsibilities to private agents – albeit with a greater “choice”, for educational consumers, between different models.
In a broader lens, Fischer’s book illustrates how the shift away from an exclusionary national identity based on religion has been substituted by an alternative politics of identity, which seeks to accommodate the plurality citizens’ beliefs through a process of group recognition, rather than the assertion of a common civic identity. “Diversity” is reductively conceived in terms of discrete “communities”. But under this group-oriented approach, the “patronage” strategy, of providing State recognition and funding for schools specifically catering to discrete religious identities, may distribute liberty of conscience unequally, as a function of the relative size and political capital of those groups. Despite formal equality, more peripheral groups will struggle to successfully negotiate the processes of school recognition; therefore, the full measure of educational freedom hinges on demographic clout.
Therefore, Fischer correctly argues that the discourse and structure of national education implicitly exalts the cultural rights of religious groups in preference to the equal basic liberties of individual citizens; with the educational freedom of children often being merely subsumed with the rights of parents. The State’s role is reduced to the impartial administration of the educational prerogatives of sectional groups; Fischer argues that the Fianna Fail governments of the 2000s, in particular, conceived the State as a guarantor of the interests of discrete communities and “particularisms”, rather than of the equal basic liberties of parents and children as citizens.
What is most praiseworthy in Fischer’s work is her effort to illustrate how the constitutional and policy framework for religion and education refracts the competing traditions of constitutional and national identity, Gaelic-Catholic and republican, in modern Ireland. The denominational model and its justifications echo the broader oscillation between civic republicanism and ethnic nationalism. She also discusses how the spectre of large-scale educational segregation – along class and racial, as well as religious lines – has loomed, in tandem with broad recourse by denominational schools to their statutory right to discriminate, on religious grounds, in enrolment – illustrating how the denominational model has facilitated forms of exclusion not directly related to religion per se. In a broader lens, her book raises the question of how the question of religion and education might be approached other than through a managerialist approach, which reductively conceives of pluralism in terms of catching up with the evolving communal landscape, overlooking deeper questions of power, identity, and the respective authority of parents, communities and State in our social and political order.
As Fischer acknowledges, the ongoing public debate on religion and education in Ireland echoes challenges and conflicts experienced in every democratic society – how may the State assume its educational responsibilities while respecting citizens’ liberty of conscience? – yet it also refracts broader issues of national identity and social change in contemporary Irish society. She approaches the denominational model both from within the nativist Gaelic nationalism of the early State as well as the present-day, hesitant re-assertion of the “republican ideal”. Although it is not yet published in English, Aine Hyland remarks in the preface that Irish scholarship owes Fischer a debt of gratitude for her book.
 See generally A. Mawhinney, Freedom of Religion and Schools: the Case of Ireland (Saarbrücken: VDM, 2009); E. Daly, “Religious Freedom as a Function of Power Relations: Dubious Claims on Pluralism in the Denominational Schools Debate” (2009) 28 Irish Educational Studies 235.
 Article 6.1
 École et religion, p. 34
 École et religion, p. 37
 École et religion, p. 51
 École et religion, p. 53
 École et religion, p. 56
 Primary School Curriculum (Dublin: Department of Education and Science, 1999)
 École et religion, Chapter III
 École et religion, p. 19
 “…either officials in your department are members of secret societies such as the Knights of Columbanus and Opus Dei and they have taken it upon themselves to protect the interests of the clerical orders” or “you [the Minister for Education] are politically incompetent and incapable of managing the department of education”. Dáil Eireann, June 11, 2009
 École et religion, p. 26