Last Tuesday, I was part of the Atheist Ireland delegation who met the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and the Minister for Education as part of the structured dialogue with churches, faith communities and non-confessional bodies that was set up in 2007. This was the first time an atheist organisation was included in the dialogue process. The bulk of the work for the meeting was done by Atheist Ireland’s Chairperson Michael Nugent, Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly and Blasphemy Campaign Co-ordinator John Hamill. I was there in my role as a parent, and we were joined by an atheist primary school teacher and an atheist secondary school student, who have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.
I had been a little nervous about the prospect of meeting the Taoiseach, but earlier in the day I was interviewed on The Right Hook (listen). Having faced the formidable bulk and probing questions of George Hook, it was hard to be intimidated by the thought of meeting Enda Kenny. And indeed, he was friendly and approachable, and after a bumpy start, appeared to be genuinely interested in what we had to say.
My speech, which I was unable to pare down to the requested two minutes, is below:
My son Leo is five years old and currently in Junior Infants. When my partner and I applied to schools in our area, we found that each school had its own enrolment policy, but the one thing they all had in common was that they considered our son to be less worthy of a place in school than other children. I recently had occasion to talk to the principal of one of these schools, and he explained to me that Leo – as a non-Catholic – was a “Category 2 boy”, to only be considered if there were any places left over after all the “Category 1” applicants had been considered.
Taoiseach, my son is not a “Category 2” child. He is a creative and energetic boy. He can count to ten in five languages. He is obsessed with tall buildings. His favourite food is pizza. He can be cheeky or charming, but never boring. He has an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Any school would be lucky to have him. And he is a citizen of this republic and has the right to be given the same opportunities as any other child.
Instead, he was rejected from school after school because the philosophical convictions of his parents did not match the ethos of the school. These schools purport to celebrate diversity, but they systematically weed it out. They claim to be inclusive, but they exclude those who are different.
Eventually we found a school that was willing to accept our child without a certificate of baptism. And while it’s a fine school with caring dedicated teachers, every day – every day for thirty minutes – he is marginalised while Catholicism is taught to his classmates. That time, and the extent of the exclusion, will increase dramatically in a couple of years when Leo’s class begins preparation for First Communion.
We can only hope that we are lucky and that the school we found will be accommodating and the teachers understanding.
But we shouldn’t have to be lucky.
We shouldn’t have to be accommodated. Or tolerated.
We shouldn’t have to hope that teachers will be understanding.
Our freedom of conscience should be respected. Our choice as parents should be respected. Our son’s right to a neutral education should be respected.
And right now, none of that happens.
The way this state treats Leo, and thousands of other children is wrong.
Taoiseach, Minister: you have the power and the opportunity to right that wrong. Please use it.
The response seemed positive and the Taoiseach acknowledged that no child should be considered “Category 2” based on their parents’ philosophical convictions. The Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan advised us that she is in the process of drafting an amendment to Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act (which currently allows for such discrimination) It was not clear, at least to me, whether this amendment will prevent such discrimination in the future, but at least the Minister has had the opportunity to hear from people who have been unfairly treated due to the current law.
This is, hopefully, the beginning of a process that will eventually put an end to the systematic discrimination against the non-religious and members of minority religions. How long that process will take remains to be seen. Regardless, I was glad to have had the opportunity to look the leader of my country dead in the eye and tell him that what his government does to my child is wrong.
- Atheist Ireland begins ongoing dialogue with Government at historic first meeting with Taoiseach (atheist.ie)
- Ireland Education : Opt out of school religion classes (teachdontpreach.ie)
- Dawkins among atheists urging Irish PM to hold blasphemy law referendum (The Guardian)
- This photo of Atheist Ireland meeting the Taoiseach is significant for who it does not include (atheist.ie)