Despite TUI claims, the Directive on alternatives to religious education did not come out of the blue

Today on RTE, in a debate with Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent, the General Secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland said his Union would refuse to even try to implement the new Directive allowing students to choose another subject instead of religion in ETB schools.

The TUI’s John MacGabhann gave two arguments in support of his position, arguments which the TUI has been making since their conference at the weekend. Neither of those arguments stand up to scrutiny.

In this article, we address the TUI’s claim that the Directive came out of the blue. In a later article, we will address the TUI’s claim that there are not enough resources to implement the Directive.

Despite the repeated denials made by the TUI, the Department of Education has publicly announced this coming change two years ago, and the announcement is still online on the Department’s website. Significant developments before and after this announcement have been covered by the national media.

Atheist Ireland has been campaigning on this issue for many years. We have consistently raised it at the United Nations Human Rights Committee under the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the right to freedom from discrimation. In February 2015 we raised it with the then Taoiseach and Minister for Education, when we met them under the dialogue process between the government and religious and philosophical groups.

In November 2015, Atheist Ireland assisted a parent to highlight the refusal of an ETB Community College in Castletroy to allow their son to opt out of religion class. RTE’s Emma O’Kelly reported on the story, which resulted in the extraordinary situation of the school holding a board of management meeting in order to allow the family to exercise their constitutional right to opt out of religion. You can read that report here.

In response to this, in documents later obtained by Atheist Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act, the CEO of Kildare and Wicklow ETB wrote to all of the Principals of schools in its area, saying that he did not believe that the current position regarding religious instruction in their schools was tenable, even in schools deemed to be ‘Designated Colleges’ under deeds of trust. You can read that email here.

It was this that finally triggered the Department’s decision to address the issue. On 18 May 2016, Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education & Skills, made a speech at the 2016 Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools Forum about partnership in the education system. You can read that speech here.

Under the heading: ‘Catholic involvement at second level’ the speech includes the following :

“For a long time the religious profile of the population meant that de facto the schools could operate in a manner comparable to a Catholic voluntary school. Effectively the interests of Catholic trustees in community schools were symbiotic with the mandate of the school to serve the student body.

The rapid change brought about by the new Irish in terms of religious denomination and different faiths traditions, allied to a decrease in religious belief and practice, challenges community schools and community colleges to reflect on how the operation of the school needs to change as the composition of the student body renders the school de facto multi-denominational not just multi-denominational de jure.

This does not mean the schools cannot continue to serve the needs of its Catholic students, rather it means that they must consult  parents and students about such matters as religious education and worship and assess demand rather than continue to assume that all students should participate. The schools need to prepare for situations where a majority of students may wish to withdraw and where religious instruction and worship may be required by a minority, if at all.”

In July 2016, Atheist Ireland published a comprehensive report, based on hundreds of documents that we obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, highlighting how the Second Level religion course in ETB schools breaches the constitutional rights of parents and children. You can read that report here. 

Among other recommendations, we asked the Minister for Education to issue a Circular Letter informing schools at second-level that: (a) the State Religious Education Course is not compulsory and students can choose another subject, and (b) schools should actively inform students and parents about this.

In July 2016, Emma O’Kelly, RTE’s education correspondent, reported on our request to the Minister to issue instructions to schools to ensure that Religious Education is timetabled in such a way as to give students real choice. You can read the RTE report here.

In August 2016, Atheist Ireland wrote about this problem to all sixteen ETBs, including the CEO and all the County Councillors on the various Boards, outlining their legal and constitutional obligations to facilitate opt-outs. You can read that letter here.

In September 2016, the start of the ETB review was revealed in minutes of a meeting of the Principals Network of Kildare and Wicklow ETB, which were later obtained by Atheist Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act. Those minutes stated: ‘ETBI reviewing their position on religious education in response to correspondence from Atheist Ireland.’ You can read the extract from those minutes here.

This timing is consistent with emails between ETBI and the Department of Education in 2017, which we also got under the Freedom of Information Act, in response to communications with a parent who is a member of Atheist Ireland. In these emails the Chief Executive of ETBI said that the current situation on religion was most difficult to defend. You can read these emails here.

It is also consistent with discussions that Atheist Ireland had in December 2017 with the Department of Education, about the development of the proposed new circular letter from the Minister for Education about religion in ETB schools and colleges. We met with the Department along with our secular colleagues in the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland.

In October 2017 Carl O’Brien of the Irish Times reported that the Department was finalising the new Directive. His article quoted Michael Moriarty, general secretary of ETBI, as welcoming the new proposals. Mr. Moriarty said: ‘You were either in or out. Now, the challenge in a multibelief context is to ensure that all children are engaged in something constructive which might be curriculum-based.’ You can read that report here.

It is stretching credibility to suggest that, while all of this was happening, involving bodies that include TUI members, being published on the website of the Department of Education, and being covered by the national media, the TUI was unaware of this significant development. If they have not engaged with the Department on the issue until now, we are baffled as to why they have not done so.

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