Under the shadow of Section 37

The saddest thing about watching the David Norris interview released by RTÉ Archives this week is that while it was broadcast before I was born, it took until I became an adult for what he was campaigning for to become a reality. The simple acknowledgement that two people may love and live with each other, regardless of gender was a criminal act until 1993. I look to those generations before me and wonder how and why they were so complicit. Why did no-one say stop?

Of course even Norris acknowedged in that interview that the actual punishments for homosexual activity were rarely handed out. The paternalistic State didn’t mind if you were gay and broke the law; once you did so quietly. Stay in the shadows. Don’t ask, and don’t tell. Be grateful that you are not being locked up in asylums with several thousand volts to hand.

A similar logic is used by those who argue that Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act should remain a law of this State. Section 37 is particularly insidious, as it expresses the act of discrimination in the form of religious freedom. Consider the following extract:

A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes… shall not be taken to discriminate against a person… if it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution… [Statute Book]

The fact that the legislature of our Republic includes the possibility for discrimination against any citizen on any grounds is a stain on our society. More than twenty years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the State still refuses to acknowledge the equality of all of its citizens. And this generation – our generation – is complicit in accepting it.

One might argue, much like the illegality of homosexuality in the 1980s, we don’t really mean it. The Iona Institute considers this to be the case:

Currently, religious organisations including schools do in fact employ many individuals who are gay or lesbian, divorced or remarried as well as those who are cohabiting. These organisations have little difficult accommodating such individuals because they respect the private lives of their employees and the employees respect the ethos of their employer.

The Iona Institute considers that keeping the offending clause in the Act is not discrimination:

Would this be discrimination? It would certainly not be unjust discrimination because employers are permitted to take into account characteristics of their employees or prospective employees that are relevant to their employment.

The key aspect here is relevance to employment. Quite how the private life of any teacher is relevant to their employment is unclear. The primary consideration in employing a teacher, one would assume, is their knowledge of their discipline as determined by academic qualifications and their ability to teach, as measured by previous references or scores from teacher training.

The repercussions are both local and societal. At a local level, schools are like microcosms with complex and intense relationships within class groups and between class groups and their teachers. Breda O’Brien became quite emotional during her interview with Hugh Linehan on the Irish Times podcast this week when she spoke of how her pupils had lost confidence in her. How must teachers feel when they come back every Monday after a weekend of being free and open with family and friends, and suddenly have to lock up those emotions for fear of threat to their employment and career. I have seen teachers writing about how they “change the gender” when they are talking about their partners in staff rooms. How can these teachers enjoy the confidence of their students when they can’t risk the confidence of their colleagues? This lack of acknowledgement of the very existence of gay people in the profession in turn means there is an absence of role models to demonstrate that homosexual people exist and can lead full or dull lives like any other person. I honestly can’t understand how a teacher like O’Brien cannot emphatise with these very real experiences some of her colleagues must endure.

On a societal level, we haven’t come much further from that Norris interview of 1975. The direct power of the Church over the state may be gone, but like a teenager moving away from strict parents, the state lacks the confidence to take control of its own destiny. It has never developed its own moral compass, and is forever looking back for its moral guidance. Therefore we are subjected to national “debates” where we decide where we want to go as a society. But as we look at the Archive video with embarrassment at the length of time needed to decriminalise homosexuality, how can we justify to ourselves that it is still okay to discriminate in any way against any of our citizens in this year, 2014. The oppressed are becoming the oppressors, O’Brien said this week. I disagree. The oppressed want to not be oppressed, and seek only equality.

Teachers may be interested in the INTO LGBT group, who are on Twitter: @INTOLGBT, and both the TUI and the ASTI have support groups. 

Thank You, Iona Institute #TeamPanti

breda o'brienWhen Ireland first started to tackle the issue of immigration two decades ago, there were regular letters to the editor of the Irish Times from “The Immigration Control Platform”, which were an advocacy group against immigration. Their message was simple: you can be whatever race you want, just not in Ireland. It was never clear who or what ICP was beyond Áine Ni Chonaill, its public relations officer, and to be honest, you couldn’t help feel that it was a fairly small platform that probably fitted easily into a corner of Áine’s front room.

But she was from “somewhere”. Irish news media producers seem to be automatically programmed into needing to fill a byline when someone’s name appears on screen. Therefore advocacy groups like the ICP or Iona Institute are ideal, as the byline looks offical, and instead of “Michael Seery / Some random bloke off the street with an opinion”, it can look much more professional with “Michael Seery / Serious Issue Society”. Recently Vincent Browne, struggling to introduce “Random Bloke off the Street”, eventually spat out “Blogger” by way of explaining why he was on the television in our sitting rooms. The same person had become part of “Preserve Marriage” or some such by the time of his appearance on Prime Time a few days later. A label looks much more impressive.

This approach of caring that a contributing commentator is from somewhere more than where that somewhere is appears to be changing. The spotlight is suddenly very much on the Iona Institute itself, a small band of conservative intellectuals, who have for more than a decade had prime position in Irish media. One blogger has found company accounts from 2011, which document Iona’s income that year of over €220,000. Where this comes from, we don’t know, but a good guess is that a significant proportion comes from a wealthy American who wants to keep Ireland pure. Despite the intellectual capacity of its patrons, Iona produce rather poor quality material, which like any lobby group, cherry pick and “interpret” results and data to suit its own message. My favourite, from its many reports, was a report opposing co-habitation (of straight people). Many more cohabiting couples fail, the report proclaimed, than married couples. When the source was explored, it transpired that Iona were characterising “marriage” as one of the failure routes of a cohabiting couple. What a strange world.

Breda O’Brien, one of the Iona Institute’s patrons writes weekly in the Irish Times. On 13th November 2004 she rejected the concept of same-sex marriage:

But should we sanction an even more radical experiment [of same sex marriage], an experiment with children as the subject, by officially declaring gender to be irrelevant?

Almost ten years later, last Saturday, O’Brien complained that the debate was being stifled and those with a view similar to hers were being silenced. While she has held her platform for a decade, the way this debate is conducted has undoubtedly changed over those 10 years, likely to her frustration. Respondents to her views were restricted in 2004 to writing a letter to the editor. In 2014, opponents of O’Brien’s views can take to the stage, literally. Instead of the old media containing and directing the debate, they are now chasing the debate as it happens elsewhere. That this story has run now for almost three weeks demonstrates the length of time it has taken old media to catch up.

In all this negativity, some wonderful things have emerged. Ironically, a debate on the word “homophobia” has led to a much broader awareness of gay life in Irish society, and the ridiculousness of the concept of rejecting same sex marriage. Panti’s speech at The Abbey has given an insight into the slight remove gay people feel in society – a sense of checking to ensure conformity. Holding hands becomes a political message, Rory O’Neill explained to Miriam O’Callaghan, when all you wanted was a private moment. Gay politicians have given eloquent speeches in the Dáil. It’s not all suddenly wonderful in Oz, but we’ve covered a lot of yellow bricks in a month. I doubt any of this was in Iona’s mission for the year, and to be honest, I think the €45,000 isn’t a bad price. The €40,000 to John Waters? Less so; I want that back. I’d imagine most of the “plain people of Ireland”, to use the Iona’s legal representative’s term, want it back too.

O’Brien wrote in her 2004 article:

No one likes to think that they are bigoted or prejudiced, but that is no protection from being either.

Too right. The acknowledgement of the legacy of oppression of homosexuality in our society that has emerged over recent weeks, and how we all need to “check ourselves” in countering that legacy, will go a long way towards challenging remnants of bigotry and prejudice wherever it exists.

Removing Religious Instruction from Schools

It wasn’t meant to be this way. When the National School system was formed in 1831, the rules stated that while the bible could be read in class, no comment was allowed in class time. Any comment from Protestant or Roman Catholic doctrine was to be conducted out of formal class time, in Sunday classes, or at Mass each Sunday. The system itself inherited the principles of the Kildare Place Society, formed in 1811, which advocated secular education, with comment on the bible the job of the clergyman, not the school master. Henry Grattan wrote in 1811:

I should recommend that in those Parish Schools the Christian religion should be taught; but that no particular description of it should form a part of their education.

This principle of keeping schools free of all interference with the particular religious tenets of any of the people in attendance was the basis of every major report on primary education from the formal easing of the Penal Laws in 1785 to the formation of the National System in 1831. The new system was not, as Breda O’Brien commented on RTÉ radio recently, to create “the perfect English child”. In fact, the Roman Catholic church embraced the new National School system, as the demise of the Kildare Place Society was a political victory for the Church. I have studied schools in Wicklow in detail during this period, and the facts counter O’Brien’s contention. Existing schools at the time could apply to come into connection with the board. The first schools in Wicklow to do so included one which was held in the nave of a Roman Catholic church in Englishtown, West Wicklow and Fr James Doyle’s enormous school at Avoca. The first school in Wicklow to receive money for a school building was St Kevin’s School at Glendalough. This was not a system the Roman Catholic church disliked.

Rule 68 of the National School System (Department of Education)

Despite these early desires to have children educated in “one undivided body, under one and the same system and in the same establishments“, the churches slowly but persistently moved education towards a denominational system. Early requirements for having support from both communities for establishing a National School were quietly dropped. The Church of Ireland, then the Established Church of state, was sore to have lost the battle on who controlled schools, and continued with the Kildare Place Society, which became the Church Education Society, until money dried up in the 1860s. By this time many of these schools had joined the National System as well. By 1900, the Catholic Bishops reported that the system was “as denominational almost as we could desire”. If things were this good for the Church under British rule, by the time of independence, they got better again. The Church gained ownership and control of most of the teacher training colleges and primary schools. The supreme importance of religious instruction in primary education was enshrined in the infamous Rule 68, still in existence [See image, from PDF].

Time for Change

The legacy of church involvement in primary education manifests itself in many ways. The primacy of religious instruction, on paper at least, means that significant proportions of the school day are given over to religious instruction, and this is accentuated in years where children undertake Communion or Confirmation. This time is meant to be fixed, so that according to Rule 69, children opting for a secular education can be removed. No options are detailed for what happens with such children, and the practicalities of this rule are almost impossible to manage. While the teacher is contractually obliged to give religious instruction, many primary teachers I have spoken to say that there simply isn’t time in the packed school curriculum to afford religious instruction its full time. This was long before Minister Ruairi Quinn’s recent advice to spend more time on maths and literacy and less on religion.

Secondly, and related, is the fact that trainee teachers can spend up to one third of their training time on religious education. This is problematic, because the primary school teacher is already expected to be a polymath, jumping from maths to science to geography to history to languages. Recent work in Mary Immaculate College Limerick shows a very poor understanding of basic scientific principles among primary school teachers in a sample of primary school teachers interviewed. More time on science, maths, history and geography results in an increased confidence in these subjects, and therefore there is likely to be an increased confidence in their delivery.

Thirdly, the religious ethos of a school means that under Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, it is legal for school patrons (Churches) to discriminate against their employees if they act in a way contrary to the ethos of a school. In other words, teachers in a Catholic school can be discriminated against, legally, if they are divorced, separated, homosexual, had an abortion, or didn’t go to confession in the last six months.

How to change?

There was a lot of talk recently on the Church’s willingness to engage in discussions on divesting their school patronage, although to date, nothing concrete has happened. With or without church involvement, the system needs to change. As far back as 1991, the Irish National Teachers Organisation distinguished between religious education and religious instruction; the latter being specific to one church, the former being a broader discussion of religion in our society [PDF]. A similar proposal in 2010 from Prof Michael Cronin argued for incorporation of philosophy into the primary syllabus (Irish Times, Feb 24, 2010), a call echoed by Elaine Byrne later that year. These calls illustrate that it is possible to value the importance of morality in education, without requiring these morals to be focussed through a particular religious lens.

O’Brien often points to Northern Ireland as an exemplar; one that includes religious education and performs well in international tests. By her confusing logic, one leads to the other. According to data available on The Guardian‘s website, almost half of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren are taught in schools where 95% of children are of one religion. In Belfast alone, 180 schools had no Protestant pupils on the books, and 111 schools had no Catholic children. This is institutionalised segregation, and the consequences of this are clear from our recent history. The Northern Irish education system is not a model to emulate. Their performance in international scores is down to investment, not religious education.

Acknowledging the impracticality of religious instruction as it currently exists in our schools under Rules 68 and 69, the Irish Human Rights Commission reported to the The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector in 2012 that at the very least:

where diverse provision of education does not exist in a school’s catchment area, consideration should be given to more formal religion classes at the start or end of the school day. [Report on INTO website]

Taking that first step would at least bring us back to 1831, where we could have a go at building our National School system again, with the state, and not the churches, finally taking responsibility for educating our children.


For more information on Wicklow Schools in the 18th and early 19th centuries, see details of my forthcoming book here.

Letter of Complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

I have written to the BAI and urge you to do so too.


To the members of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland,

I wish to lodge a complaint over the recent apology provided by RTÉ and subsequent compensation paid to Iona Institute and other named individuals, broadcast on The Saturday Night Show this month.

The context of the apology is well documented. However, the ramifications are unclear. In the coming year, RTÉ will be required to provide an important public service as it broadcasts discussions from all sides in the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage. RTÉ has a duty to present a balanced argument, fair to both sides, under its remit as a public service broadcaster and as a consequence of the McKenna Judgement.

In doing so, RTÉ cannot stifle either side in the debate. The opinion expressed on the programme was that the Iona Institute are homophobic. This opinion is a matter of public interest, as the Iona Institute are a very small but quite visible lobby group advocating institutionalised inequality (see for example their submission on the proposed review of Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act to the Equality Authority). It was expressed as an honestly held opinion with consideration of the definition of homophobia as the treatment of homosexual people in a different way to others.

RTÉ acknowledged in their apology that “it is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues.” That these views, honestly held and fairly expressed, led to an apology and payment of compensation marks a low-point for RTÉ. Counter to the intentions expressed in its apology, RTÉ has been complicit in the stifling of the debate around this issue and likely other issues where opinions on either side derive from strong personal convictions. I request that RTÉ are asked to explain their rationale for this apology and the awarding of compensation to the Iona Institute to the Broadcasting Authority as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Seery

Cc: complaints@rte.ie