Irish non-believers reject inequality

Irish non-believers reject inequality

This article was originally published in the 2015 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.

Irish non-believers reject inequality

2015: Ireland’s non-believing minorities are starting to insist on their equality as citizens in their dealings with Ireland’s overwhelmingly Catholic-controlled primary-school system.

An historic first march in Dublin on October 25th was well attended, and ended with speeches outside Ireland’s Department of Education and Science, which is situated directly opposite the Cathedral of the Dublin Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

Paradoxically, the march was organised by a Hindu, Roopesh Panicker. Roopesh is a naturalised Irish citizen, of Indian extraction, and a member of the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI). His daughter Eva was turned away from 6 schools – including her local National School – because she wasn’t baptised as Catholic.

Roopesh was asked to baptise his child in order to gain a school place. Subsequently, Eva was accepted in a more distant school, without religious conversion. The commute to and from the school with his daughter – who is aged 4 – in the morning and evening made it impossible for Roopesh to keep his job.

Ireland’s National School system is viewed as an anachronism in a society that considers itself modern. Not only is the bulk of that system (over 90%) under the control of a foreign power, but the Irish State pays handsomely for this while failing to safeguard the rights of users of the system.

The State goes further, and has legalised the inevitable discrimination. The inappropriately titled ‘Equal Status Act’ contains an opt-out clause (known as section 7.3(c)) for schools that claim a religious ethos, whether privately or publicly funded. This is the basis for exclusion of increasing numbers of children.

A number of different organisations and individuals are becoming increasingly vocal around that issue of access to education. At present the lead is taken by the HAI, who have campaigned on this issue for a number of years, focussing on the ‘baptismal certs’ issue as the key to unlocking the Irish education system.

HAI has only in the last few years been granted the ability to perform legally recognised marriages, but even this was granted with strings, reminding us how slow progress can be in a conservative country.

The education question may also be one that takes some time to resolve.

The process is speeded up by such protests as the one referenced above, and by popular petitions such as that organised by Paddy Monahan ( who has started his campaign 3½ years before his son is due to start school.

All of these actions serve to raise public awareness, which is the first major hurdle to overcome. Many ordinary Irish citizens are unaware that such discrimination is routinely practised in their name.

When they learn this, responses vary from support for the excluded children, to the worryingly ordinary, “this is a Catholic country” response. While this is becoming less common as a response, it was also offered only this week by a Garda (police officer) outside the offices of Ireland’s Taoiseach at a subsequent protest, also organised by Roopesh.

This author was present on that occasion, and can assure you that holding an unblinking stare back at a Garda who’s almost ½ a metre taller (and about 10 wider!) while responding “this is not a Catholic country”, and not shaking isn’t easy. Some days, not being a tall male makes standing up against prejudice more onerous, but having to do so outside Government Buildings will always be a disappointment.

A disappointment, but not a surprise. Ireland has been repeatedly criticised by the EU and the UN for it’s poor record around equality for the non-religious. Progress remains slow despite this. Emigration and poor voter engagement among younger people who remain means that older voters, who tend to be more conservative, rule the roost. This is particularly true outside of Ireland’s 6 cities.

Fortunately, as the March on the 25th was on a Sunday, worshippers at mass in the nearby cathedral had the undoubted pleasure of hearing our speeches over our PA system.

They included a quote from Nelson Mandela, via Roopesh Panicker: “In the end we must remember that no amount of rules or their enforcement will defeat those who struggle with justice on their side.”

To close, for all within earshot, the message from HAI via Fachtna Roe of was: “Congratulations, from today you are no longer a silent minority”. Amen to that!

Fachtna Roe is the Director of Humanist Association of Ireland


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