This guest post is contributed by Tom Hickey, a PhD candidate at the Law school, NUI Galway, under the supervision of  Prof. Gerry Quinn.  He attended Princeton University on a Visiting Student Research Collaborative Scheme in 2009, under the supervision of Prof. Philip Pettit, at the University Center for Human Values.

The current management of schools is working exceptionally well. The patron is in place in terms of ethos but has nothing to do with the overall management of schools. That is the responsibility of the board of management.”

Minister for Education, Batt O‘Keeffe T.D., Dáil Éireann, December 2009.

The recently published Ryan and Murphy reports have suddenly brought the issue of the extent of religious patronage in the Irish primary school system into very sharp focus. Most of us involved in public discourse in Ireland are by now familiar with a statistic we may not have been familiar with six months ago: 92% of our primary schools are run by Catholic institutions. And despite the Minister’s assertion in the Dáil in early December, there seems a growing consensus that this is neither appropriate nor sustainable. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has even suggested that the Church divest itself of control of at least some of the schools, and has described the current level of control a “near monopoly,” “untenable,” and a “historical hangover.” Indeed, the Archbishop went further and suggested that the present situation is “in many ways detrimental to the possibility of maintaining a true Catholic identity in Catholic schools,” a thought that should interest the many families across the state who still want this kind of education for their children.

A notable feature of the contributions to this national conversation is the emphasis on republicanism, and this is the aspect that I want to focus on in this contribution. In an article in the Irish Times on December 8th 2009 (entitled “Agents of foreign state should not control our schools”) Fintan O’Toole called this entanglement of church and state an “affront to a republican democracy,” and suggested that it invites the accusation that ours is merely a “so-called republic.” Most progressives will agree intuitively with O’Toole’s approach here. There is something about the situation that seems at odds with our ostensible commitment to republicanism. But why? Is there some kind of natural tension between authentic republicanism and religion? Or is there something in “republicanism” that prohibits church influence in education? More broadly, what does our commitment to the idea of a republic mean, and what implications might it have in this context?

A little reflection on Minster O’Keeffe’s Dáil contribution should shed some light on these questions. The Minister was essentially adopting the following logic: “Look. The bishops might theoretically be in control of our primary schools, but they have little or no real input. The boards of management manage the schools on a weekly and yearly basis. Therefore the church’s involvement in education is merely symbolic and not a cause for concern.”  This might be a rough interpretation of the Minister’s remarks, but where, we might ask, is the link with the republican tradition of Cicero, Machiavelli and Wolfe Tone; the tradition defined by its objection to monarchy, its attraction to checks and balances, and its concern with civic virtue and the common good?

The link between the Minister’s assertion and republicanism becomes clear when we consider the central idea that defines this tradition more than any of these other themes. That, as the Irish philosopher Philip Pettit has pointed out, is the commitment to a particular conception of liberty: liberty as non-domination. Where power is arbitrary – or unchecked – there is domination. Power is unchecked when the power-wielder is unconstrained, or insufficiently constrained, by anything other than his own personal tastes and whims. He may not use his power; he may not even intend to ever use it, but he holds that power and so influences or determines the choices of the persons over whom the power is held. The thought is that the person under domination will act according to the dominators tastes, on the understanding that the dominator will continue to abstain from exercising his capacity to interfere so long as everything runs according to the dominator’s wishes. Everything will run smoothly, that is, so long as everything runs according to the wishes and whims of the powerful.

And so we can see the difficulty with the Minister’s argument, when looked at on republican lights. Essentially he is arguing that there is no problem in the Irish schooling system because although the Catholic bishops may have the capacity to control primary schools, they never exercise this power. As Fintan O’Toole suggested in his article, the idea is that “anti-democratic powers are okay so long as they are not used.”

A look at some of the relevant legislation reveals the extent of this domination.  Section 15 of the Education Act 1998 provides that the board of management “manages the school on behalf of the patron.” This provision plainly contradicts the Minister’s claim. The patron is in the saddle, so to speak, but allowing free rein to the board of management. He will not interfere so long as the board of management continues to act according to his wishes. The Act also provides for how the school patron can remove a member of the board of management or the entire board “if satisfied that the functions of the board are not being effectively discharged.” And perhaps more troublingly, section 7 of the Equal Status Acts 2000-2004 provides an exemption allowing for these schools to exclude or otherwise discriminate against children of a different religious denomination (non-Catholic children, effectively) if to do so is deemed essential to “maintain the ethos of the school.”

So the point is nothing at all to do with any natural hostility between authentic republicanism and religion; it has to do with hostility between republicanism and arbitrary power. Whether church-run or “sectarian” schools are acceptable at all in a republic is a different matter. On the whole, such schools probably are acceptable on republican lights, but only if they are carefully regulated to ensure that essential democratic and civic values are being taught to child-citizens. We might say that a “common” school is preferable, on a republican analysis. That is, a school within which child-citizens from the different religious and cultural perspectives in the community are educated together in a shared environment is more likely to “create” citizens with an awareness of the fact of reasonable pluralism, an awareness of the interdependency of citizens holding different worldviews, a capacity for political deliberation in the context of religious and cultural heterogeneity and so on. But while common schooling might accordingly be preferable in a republic, to prohibit religious schooling altogether is probably a step too far.

But that is another matter. The present point is that the extent of the control over schooling of the Catholic bishops (rather than the boards of management or the community) conflicts with republicanism. The Minister’s statement to the Dáil last month points to a lack of concern about the republican conception of liberty. The sentiment seems to be that the Church continues to enjoy control of the schooling system, but there is more or less no interference against non-Catholic families, nor exclusion of non-Catholic children, and so everything moves along fairly smoothly. But as Fintan O’Toole suggested in his article in the Irish Times, this attitude is “typical of the slithery sleveenism that still infects Irish politics.” These days, the bishops might be thought of as a “kindly masters,” in the republican vernacular – masters that hold the power, but who tend not to interfere. But Wolfe Tone passionately objected to this notion of a “kindly master,” in the context of the Dublin parliament managing Irish affairs only cum permissu, or at the grace, of a foreign power.

We needn’t wonder for too long as to what that great Irish republican would think of Minster O’Keeffe’s comment in the Dáil in December.

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Written by Eoin Daly

Eoin Daly is a lecturer in the School of Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His main interests lie in constitutional studies, political theory, religious freedom, the separation of church and state, republicanism, Rousseau and Rawls. You may contact Eoin at Eoin.Daly[at]nuigalway.ie.