Labour: 'Next major constitutional question' must be religious involvement in schools

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Irish Examiner Political Correspondent

A referendum banning religious involvement in schools should take place as soon as next year because it is no longer "tenable" for the Catholic church to have a "disproportionate influence" on young people, according to the Labour Party.

Labour senators Aodhan O Riordain, Ged Nash and Ivana Bacik insisted the move is needed immediately, saying "the time is right in Irish history", as they called on the Citizens' Assembly to be reconvened in the autumn to address the matter.

Speaking to reporters at Leinster House, the Labour senators said in the aftermath of May's eighth amendment and the 2015 same-sex marriage referenda, the "next major constitutional question" must be religious involvement in schools.

While saying there is no need for the move to be "overly adversarial", Mr O Riordain said the issue needs to be discussed and that a referendum on removing religious involvement in the education system could potentially take place as soon as next year.

We are calling on the Government to reconvene the Citizens' Assembly to deal with religious control over education in Ireland. We feel the next major constitutional question to be asked of the Irish people is church control of the education system.

"It [Catholic church involvement in schools] is disproportionate, it's not reflective of a modern Ireland, and the only way we can deal with this is a constitutional referendum.

"It's time to break the link," he said.

Mr O Riordain said in the aftermath of the eighth amendment and same-sex marriage referenda "I'm quite sure the time is right now in Irish history" to seek a referendum on removing religious involvement in schools.

He said the best way to do this is for people to firstly sign a petition on the Labour website for a referendum to take place, before the Government asks the citizens assembly to examine the move with a view to a potential referendum next year.

"In terms of the timeline, we would like the Citizens' Assembly ideally to be reconvened after the summer months and in a short number of months to come to a conclusions, and then hopefully for a referendum to be held after that.

"2019 seems realistic to me. If the Government is serious about this, there is no reason why not," Mr O Riordain said.

Asked if such a referendum should also include a ban on religious involvement in the training of new teachers due to the fact primary school teachers must currently agree to uphold the "ethos" of their school, the Labour senator said this should be removed.

While a referendum would in theory be a straightforward vote, it has been noted the legal details of un-stitching religious involvement in schools would be difficult due to the fact the church owns the vast majority of school buildings nationwide.

There have also been repeated difficulties in divesting school patronage from the church to non-denominational organisations in recent years.

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