Richard Bruton’s school plans could give immigrants an Irish welcome

Religion, as a form of social organisation, has taught us to equate progress with welcoming strangers, writes Victoria White.
Richard Bruton’s school plans could give immigrants an Irish welcome

Photo caption: Third-class students Alicia Ledden (left) and Jamie Carroll with Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, in the Central Model School on the campus of the Department of Education and Skills, as the minister announced plans to accelerate the provision of multi-denominational schools. Pic: Leah Farrell/

HAVE asked Syrians waiting patiently in Greece for their passage to Ireland what made them put this country high on their wish list. “Because we will have the freedom to practise our religion,” they said.

Clearly suspicion and even fear of Muslims exists here, as studies such as that of the University of Limerick sociologist Dr James Carr attest. But we are listed as being among the least Islamophobic countries in Europe. We are among very few countries in Europe with no ‘far right’ in our politics.

This is great news and we have to ask why? True we have common cause with refugees because we have been economic refugees throughout our history. We never had an empire, instead we fought one, and we empathise with Arab nationalism.

But I think the most important element in our relative lack of Islamophobia is our Catholicism. True, there is deep racism in the Catholic countries of the former Eastern Bloc — on the so-called frontier of Christendom and recovering from Soviet communism — so clearly Catholicism in itself is no panacea.

But I think the way Catholicism has pervaded our cultural traditions makes us receptive to other people of religion. I say this in the knowledge that nowadays Catholicism is loudly despised by all so-called progressive people in Ireland. But I think it behoves us to unpick the elements which make Ireland relatively Muslim-friendly, by comparison, for example, with secular France which seems poised to elect Marine le Pen of the National Front as its next President.

I’m neither Muslim nor Catholic — I’m Church of Ireland — and as an outsider I see a marked commonality between Islam and Catholicism. By comparison with Judaism and Protestant denominations, they are both religions which appeal through the senses to the heart. Though neither has a good record in promoting women, both include imagery of the feminine which you don’t find in Judaism or Protestant faiths.

They are both despised by the voice of the Enlightenment, and often placed together in the same bracket. In his novel about the anti-Catholic riots in London in the 1740s Charles Dickens has the “staunch Protestant” Mrs Varden equate being a Catholic with being “a Mussulman or a wild islander.” All religions can be used by fundamentalists and people of all religions can be refugees. Indeed, some of my mother’s family came to Ireland as Protestant refugees from France. But the voice of fundamentalist Protestantism holds sway now in the US while in France it is the latest Protestant denomination: fundamentalist secularism.

It is important that we keep this fundamentalism out of the structures of our State. The idea behind it — an enforced secular republic sounds good — the creation of a neutral space in which all are cherished equally but look how it has worked out. Strictly secular republics such as France and pre-Erdogan Turkey have managed to alienate Muslims, fomenting racism and terrorism.

The Muslim veil is such a stupid issue on which to divide a society but banning it had that effect in both countries. Dr James Carr’s study of Islamophobia in Ireland makes very clear that when Muslims have been attacked in Ireland it has been for their religion, not their race, and documents episodes of Muslim women’s hijabs being threatened and torn off.

We humans have a natural and understandable fear of strangers from the time when we lived exposed to the elements and guarded our few possessions. Religion, as a form of social organisation, has taught us to equate progress with welcoming strangers because people who welcome strangers learn new things. They trade new things. They get new additions to the gene pool. They begin to believe that they, in turn, can venture forth in safety.

The Bible is loud and clear on the subject of refugees. The mighty King James Old Testament (Exodus 23.9) says: “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger for ye know the heart of a stranger for ye also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” God is addressing the Jews, of course, who along with Christians and Muslims are “People of the Book”. Christians are enjoined under Vatican 11 to respect Muslims’ faith in our one God.

If Donald Trump and his administration were genuinely adhering to the word of “Gawd” so mawkishly implored in his inauguration they could not ban new refugees from coming to their shores. Six of the nine charities which resettle Muslim refugees in the US are faith-based, whether Jewish or Christian, and they have been loud in their condemnation of the ban.

Muslims do not fear other religions as much as they fear radical secularism. The tedious campaign for the removal of the Angelus in Ireland, for instance, is waged by atheists while Muslims and those of other religions value the space for faith. Muslims in Ireland tend to like Catholic schools — though they can face well-documented problems getting into them.

That’s why I think the ETBs’ Community National Schools which are favoured by Minister Richard Bruton in his new plan to create 400 new multi-denominational schools in the next 15 years, are such a good idea. They allow faith formation during the school day, according to the religions and ethical backgrounds present in the school, so they don’t run the risk of promoting fundamentalist secularism as the State religion.

I am not saying, in any shape of form, that our excellent Educate Together schools, opened in the absence of any provision at all for non-Christians, ever did that. But they were always offered as a choice along with other choices. If we scale our multi-denominational provision — and we are going to have to do that for practical as well as ethical reasons — I want the State to run the schools and I want them to reflect Irish culture by allowing diverse faith formation.

This represents a new model for integration and we are well-set to pioneer it. So far, integration of religious minorities has gone relatively well in Ireland by comparison with the experience of some of our near neighbours. We could build on that to provide a unique Irish welcome to newcomers of all faiths.

This would be the logical development of our Christian tradition. But one part of Bruton’s “reconfiguration” plan for our schools gives me heart-burn: the idea that the Department would lease the schools from the churches. Catholic and Protestant churches would wholly fail their Christian tradition if they took one cent piece from Minister Bruton’s department by way of a lease, let alone an annual rent of €10,000 or €20,000 as has been suggested.

Those schools may have been built and staffed through the efforts of denominations but they’ve been increasingly funded by the taxpayer since the foundation of the State. The churches should channel their Christianity and walk away from schools where parents want another patron as their gesture to those strangers to their religion who are strangers no more.

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