- 17 Apr 19
In the midst of the Brexit frenzy, you'd be forgiven for missing the news that schools in north County Dublin are resisting divestment of Catholic patronage.
Clearly, while we’ve progressed a great deal in recent years, the growing dispute over divestment of Catholic patronage in north Dublin schools, shows that the open and pluralist society we like to think Ireland is becoming is still a work in progress.
The story is simple. Primary schools in Ireland have “patrons”. Historically these have been parish priests or similar and the schools have been denominational. But recent decades have seen falling numbers of Catholics in Ireland and an increase in demand for multi-denominational or non-religious education in many parts of the country. And building a school is a lengthy and expensive process.
The solution seems straightforward: divest some schools of Catholic patronage and convert them to multi-D. But all is not what it seems…
There are eight primary schools in the Malahide/Portmarnock/Kinsealy area. The Department of Education has asked that one of them change patronage to a multi-denominational model. But any change in patronage must “reflect the wishes of parents and the school community” – and there’s the rub.
Change is being resisted. The view seems to be: by all means provide an alternative, but we hold what we have. At the time of writing, three schools have sent letters to their pupils’ parents. More may well follow. As reported on the RTÉ and Irish Times websites, the letters wrongly allege that a change of patronage will result in an end to the celebration of Christmas, among other dreadful deprivations.
Whether this resistance is coordinated is unclear. School managements, teachers and parents might be involved, or not. The parents to whom the letters are sent might be church attenders or not.
But there are two bottom lines. The first is that the right of children whose parents want them to be educated in a school that has a multi-denominational or secular ethos is being denied. The second is that the opponents are resorting to Trumpian disinformation tactics, creating fear and confusion in order to frustrate the Department’s intentions.
Interestingly, similar Trumpian tactics are being deployed in what looks like a very significant dispute in the UK. This is centred on the Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, where Muslim activists have made what have been described as “outlandish and unproven” claims against teachers, focusing on compulsory Relationship and Sex Education.
The school has twice been judged as outstanding by the UK’s Inspectorate (Ofsted). In general, relationships with parents, 98% of whom are Muslim, have been excellent and the school has won accolades for its teaching on equality and diversity.
But now, parents, apparently backed by activists from outside the area, have been picketing the school and keeping children from lessons, alleging that teachers are encouraging the children to be gay. Particular concern has been expressed over one booklet which is about a child with two mothers.
In fact, all the school is doing is teaching about “different family relationships” and “the right to equality under the law for people who are LGBT”, as per instructions from the UK’s Department of Education. The school’s assistant headteacher Andrew Moffat, who is himself gay, has been targeted by the protestors. There have been homophobic incidents as well. He has been withdrawn by the school from taking equalities assemblies, and lessons are suspended.
Protestors say they aim to have the teaching abolished in every school in the UK. Professor Colin Diamond from the local university commented to The Guardian last week that this is “terrifying” and that it sends out a message “that the curriculum is negotiable according to mob rule.”
He’s right, but combating such regressive behaviour isn’t just a matter of standing up to bullies and bigots. It’s more complex than that.
When we in Ireland talk loftily of equality and respect in schools and colleges, as often as not we are thinking of how the white Irish can better treat and integrate all the ethnicities and religions. But how do we deal with one minority turning on another? Or where the belief system is itself fundamentally discriminatory, for example as regards fellow citizens who happen to be LGBTQI? And where any confrontation with that illiberal belief system and associated behaviours is going to be called out as itself discriminatory?
Dealing with this is a complex task. The easy option, kowtowing to the protestors, actually creates far greater and more threatening situations down the line.
This development in Birmingham is far more sinister than the letters sent to parents in north Dublin, but they share certain characteristics, in particular the resort to wild and unsustainable allegations to frighten, rally and, where necessary bully, the various parties involved. It’s a page taken from the modern far-right playbook even if, in the case of the Birmingham protestors, they themselves are a key target for the far right.
The two cases exemplify how modern politics, increasingly shaped as it is by the internet, social media and their associated algorithms, continue to degrade from national consensuses to very localised and particular issues and processes, towards echo chambers and away from debate and from a basis of agreement to one of grievance.
And let’s be clear: while both the cases mentioned above feature religious affiliations and education, the same is as likely to hold true for groups at any point and in any sphere on the political continuum. Nowadays, everyone gets offended, everybody gets angry, everybody thinks that their entitlement trumps everyone else’s, society included.
Furthermore, it’s getting worse. Our Citizens’ Assembly proved both effective and an example to others – but what about those who don’t accept the outcomes, for example on the repeal of the 8th, and who are already out there working hard to frustrate the wishes of the majority?
Over the last two years, we have come to understand how search engines and social media have corrupted politics and threaten democracy. But other forces are also in the field. We’re all going to have to up our game to hold the line for democratic values, tolerance and equality.