Advocacy & Media
Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

Ireland once again embarrassed by the UN over discrimination in education

Paul Rowe, CEO, Educate Together

The Irish government has once again been examined by the UN human rights committee in Geneva.  Now a member of the Human Rights Committee, the Irish state places great value on this forum.

The regular questions over lack of choice of schools and religious discrimination in school admissions have come up. The hearing in Geneva is the latest in a series of examinations dating back to 2005, in which successive UN bodies have criticised Ireland for failing to provide families the choice of “multi-denominational or non-denominational schools” and for maintaining legal religious discrimination in access to schools. This criticism started with the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant of Civic and Political Rights, and a number of Universal Periodic Reviews. 

Ireland’s education system is now almost universally seen as an aberration on the world stage. A system in which 96% of all state-funded schools are owned and controlled by religious bodies. A system where 9 out of 10 families have no choice but to send their children to a denominational school and a system where it is legal for state funded schools to discriminate against children on grounds of religion.

At the hearings in Geneva this week, Dr James Reilly, Minister for Children, took the government case to the committee. It is refreshing to hear that this time, Minister Reilly has made none of the usual excuses made by Irish politicians for the lack of equality in the Irish education system. This time around, Minister Reilly, simply stated that the government intended to remove the right of schools to discriminate on religious grounds and that the rate of divestment to create new equality-based schools was "too slow". Much has changed since this issue was first raised by Educate Together at the UN in 2005, when the Minister of the day, Frank Fahy, rushed to the State's defence asserting that in Ireland, "our Catholic schools are public and inclusive".

The Minister's statement of the government's intent is a welcome change. However, observers will be wary of a Minister who is defending his government's record on the international stage. The fact is that the coalition government had many opportunities to remove the exemption clause in Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act that allows religious schools to discriminate on religious grounds in their admissions policies. The government had many opportunities to set in motion legislative change and force an interpretation of the constitutionality of such laws. It is interesting to note that there was no financial reason why this could not have been advanced. The obstacles were all political. The fact that these steps were not be taken and even the minimal legislation proposed in 2015 were abandoned, leaves this issue a key legacy and an important responsibility for any government taking office after this years election. There is no doubt that the provision of schools, national and second-level, where religion is neither a barrier to admission nor faith formation an obligatory part of class time will be an election issue in 2016. Canvassers of all parties would be well-advised to bear this in mind when seeking votes. 

It is also not enough for the government to admit to the UN and the world that the pace of ‘divestment’ of schools has just been "too slow" over the past five years. The speed of change has always been in the government’s hands.  The government has been held back by a determination that this policy must be a ‘no cost’ process. 

Currently, new Educate Together schools in the remaining 19 divestment areas will only be allowed to open if buildings suitable for long-term accommodation are given to the State by the Catholic authorities or if existing State-owned accommodation is available. Making the rights of parents and children dependent on the benevolence of religious authorities or the chance availability of vacant state assets is not an acceptable response. It is rare that equal rights and social progress are advanced on goodwill and fresh air - investment is needed and obstacles will need to be overcome. There is now an urgency for the state to address the issue. Providing all children living in Ireland with schools in which they are equally valued and treated is essential for the future health of our society.

What is abundantly clear, and acknowledged by Minister Reilly’s statements in Geneva, is that the status quo is not an option. Referencing the pluralist and diverse nature of modern Irish society, he states that “The issue is one of concern to us that the patronage of our schools is lagging way behind the actuality of our education system…” For now, we must anticipate another strongly critical recommendation from the UN for the Irish government to rapidly increase the availability of equality-based schools in all areas of the country and to forbid religious discrimination in access to state-funded education. 

Let’s make this an important election issue in the coming weeks and make sure it is written firm and strong in the programme of the next government.  It is high time that the Irish state should be able to report that it is compliant with its UN human rights obligations and at least tick this particular abuse of children’s rights off its report card in Geneva.


Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816