As recently highlighted by Roopesh Panicker, it is outrageous that, in 2015, educational discrimination on the basis of religion is still the norm in Ireland.
An election is looming. So what should we be looking for when we examine the manifestos issued by the various parties that are lining up to plead for your support? Today, let’s talk about education…
On Sunday last, approximately 200 people marched from the Dáil, on Kildare Street in Dublin, to the Department of Education on Marlborough Street. The protest was organised by Roopesh Panicker, whose daughter Eva has been refused a place in a Catholic school in the south of Dublin.
The Panickers are originally from Kerala in India. A Hindu family, they are naturalised Irish citizens. They lived in Limerick and then Kilkenny, before moving to Dublin in 2013. In late 2014, they applied to the local school for a place for Eva, for the term beginning in September 2015.
The nearest local school, which all of Eva’s friends will be attending, turned down her application. She was told that she would be put on a ‘waiting list’ for 2016. But Roopesh Panicker was also told that there was no guarantee that Eva would be given a place one year on. In all, they applied to seven schools. She was finally given a place in a school that is 30 minutes drive away from the Panicker home. As it happens they have a car and can get there. But what if they didn’t?
The original school’s enrolment policy had been spelt out for the Panickers. “The school prioritises applicants in five categories,” Roopesh was informed. “Catholic children of the parish get first priority, followed by siblings of current pupils, then children of staff, then siblings of pupils in a sister school. And finally ‘non-Catholic children of the parish’.”
The implication was obvious: Eva had been last on the list in 2015 and, if she waited, she would surely be last on the list next year too. In fact, she would be permanently last on the list – for no other reason than that she is Hindu and not Roman Catholic. In case the Panickers might have been under any illusion, the Principal wrote to them to reinforce the rejection. “For your information,” Roopesh Panicker was told, bluntly, “under Irish law, Catholic schools are entitled to prioritise enrolment of Catholic children.”
In other words, the blatant discrimination against Eva Panicker was, and is, sanctioned by the Irish State. “Is it her fault,” Roopesh Panicker asked poignantly in response, “if she is born to non-Catholic Irish parents? Is it fair to discriminate children on the basis of religion?”
It is a good question. The answer, of course, is a resounding ’no’.
The Panickers wrote to the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and the Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan to see what they had to say. Their responses may have been camouflaged in diplomatic language, but the Ministers separately explained that discrimination on the basis of religion is permissible under Irish law.
Roopesh also wrote to the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin. Roopesh Panicker says that in response he received a phone call which “really made him explode”. He insists that he was encouraged, by a female caller from the Bishop’s office, to have his child baptised as a Catholic. The diocese claims that it has no record of any such conversation, but they would say that wouldn’t they?
The bottom line is that people attached to minority religions in Ireland, and to none, are blatantly discriminated against in the most callous way by schools – and there is nothing that they can currently do about it.
How did it ever come to this, that Irish children are being discriminated against as a matter of routine in relation to primary and secondary level education? Nor is it only Hindus or Sikhs or other religions with a small number of adherents in Ireland that are victims. Earlier this year, the case of John Stokes, a traveller, came before the Supreme Court. He had been refused admission to the Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel. John was told that he did not meet the criterion set down by the school, of having a father or brother who had studied there – and as a result he had been denied admission.
The Equality Authority supported John Stokes and his mother Mary in taking a case. The Circuit Court found in their favour, agreeing that the parental rule was discriminatory against Travellers, whose fathers were generally unlikely to have attended the school.
That ruling was overturned in the High Court, where Justice Patrick McCarthy disagreed that the parental rule was discriminatory. McCarthy’s decision was duly appealed to the Supreme Court by Mary Stokes on behalf of her son. The highest court in the land issued a judgement that, whether they recognise it or not, is a source of deep shame to everyone in Ireland. The technical basis in law is irrelevant; the effect of the judgement is that traveller children all over Ireland are likely to find it more difficult to gain admission to the most convenient schools, for the simple reason that traveller parents have less of a track record of attending school than their settled counterparts.
It is a classic and brutal example of how discrimination perpetuates itself, while reinforcing both inequality and injustice.
I hardly need to repeat here the appalling circumstances of the deaths of ten members of the travelling community in Carrickmines, Co. Dublin recently. It remains one of the most horrific tragedies in living memory in this country. In the wake of the shocking loss of life involved, attempts were made by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Co. Council to house fifteen members of the bereaved families at Rockville Drive, Glenamuck Road, Carrickmines, on a temporary basis.
Claiming that they were not adequately consulted, local residents opposed the rehousing of the traveller families, blocking the entrance to the designated site. In the long run the locals’ heartless protests were successful. The council was eventually forced to provide accommodation for the travellers further away from where they had lived, in a car park at Dun Laoghaire Rathdown’s Ballyogan Depot. A spokesperson for the Council admitted that the new site was not ideal, as it does not have access to even the basic facilities available at Rockville Drive. But the travellers are being forced to live there anyway.
There is no point in trying to sugar- coat this particularly disgusting pill. People opposed the rehousing of the travellers in Rockville Drive for no reason other than that they were travellers. If fifteen members of the settled community had required re-housing, would they have been opposed? Not a chance.
The truth is that travellers are treated as second class citizens in Ireland. It is not true of all travellers, but in general, as a result, they are forced to rot in a ghetto of deprivation, poverty and neglect.
There is a viable way to address the issue of equality for travellers. But guess what? It begins with providing education, and with doing everything that is humanly possible to ensure that the maximum number of young travellers can look forward to finishing the Leaving Certificate and going to college. Education is the way out of the ghetto. It is as simple as that.
When slavery was abolished, there were those who believed that black people in America were incapable of holding their own in civilised society. They had, after all, been told what to do for centuries. How could they know what was required of an ordinary, responsible citizen in a democracy? Of course, we all know that this was a hopelessly racist and irredeemably supremacist way of looking at the world. Well, those in Ireland who discriminate against travellers are guilty of the same disgraceful mixture of condescension, hatred and bullying.
There is no point in being naive. There are many problematic issues in traveller culture that need to be addressed – first and foremost by travellers themselves. The extent of alcohol and substance abuse; inter- family feuding; a culture of physical violence; and the involvement of some traveller families in crime – none of these can be blindly wished away. But there is no doubt, either, that these problems are themselves a condition of deprivation. Nor is there any doubt that they result from the reduced access to education suffered by the travelling community in general. That deficit has to be addressed.
Between Hindus, travellers, atheists and people of no particular religion at all, an increasing number of Irish citizens are being discriminated against in the most blatant and disgusting way by the Irish educational system. Paddy Monahan, a barrister and father of a seven month old boy – who was among the protestors at the march in Dublin – said that he believes State-endorsed religious discrimination to be unconstitutional. He is right.
“There is no defensible constitutional basis for this,” he said. “The law which permits discrimination clearly breaches Article 44.2 of the Irish constitution, which says ’the State shall not pose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status’.”
For too long, our politicians have taken a cowardly line in relation to the human rights aspect of education in Ireland. Well, that is no longer even remotely acceptable. Irrespective of the fall-out for politicians at a local level, or indeed any other parochial considerations, we have to finally and definitively end the grotesque discrimination which has been ingrained into the Irish educational system since the foundation of the State.
There are ways of doing this.
The first is to ban the teaching of religion in any school between the hours of, say, 9am and 4pm. Anyone who wants Religious Education for their children is perfectly entitled to arrange for it, outside those core hours – and they should be welcome to do so. But otherwise, the essential principle is that there should be no religious prejudice in any Irish school.
The second is to spell out a set of criteria, in relation to enrolment in schools, which is specifically designed to remove all forms of discrimination, whether on the basis of religion, class or ethnicity from the system. Geographical factors should be afforded primacy at every stage.The most important criterion for parents – and for children – is accessibility. Let that be the deciding factor in who goes where, subject only to considerations in relation to siblings, who should be assisted if they wish to go to the same school.
It is utterly scandalous that religions – and most specifically the Roman Catholic Church – have been allowed to control education in Ireland. Think of the meaning of those words: ‘to control education’. It is the right and the prerogative of the State, acting on behalf of the citizens of this country, to control education – but instead that prerogative has been usurped by religious vested interests.
A hundred years after the 1916 rising, it is nothing more than a sick joke. So when politicians come to your door, and ask for your vote, let them know where you stand on the issue, in no uncertain terms. We must end religious and other forms of discrimination in Irish education, for once and for all. Every citizen is entitled to be treated equally. And the only way to achieve that is to take the steps necessary to remove religion from the day to day curriculum in all schools.The time to do it is now. Let’s go...
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