VICTORIA WHITE: Siege mentality on schools will only harm Protestant children

In tendering her resignation this week as principal of St Patrick’s National School in Greystones, Co Wicklow, Eileen Jackson has stood up for Christianity in the face of tribalism.

In her email to parents, she said the board of the school seemed to be making admission to the State-funded school “a collateral benefit of parochial engagement”.

She said this ran counter to the Church of Ireland’s mission to “embrace diversity in the furtherance of the Church of Ireland’s core values of freedom of conscience, tolerance and inclusivity.”

Plainly put, what that means is that parents felt they had to turn up at Church to get their kids into the school because admissions policy said priority would be given to “accustomed members” of the parish who had to be “signed off on” by the rector. It appears that some children of parishioners have already been prioritised over other children.

This is nothing new.

I am an “accustomed” member of the Church of Ireland but I didn’t send my kids to the local C of I school when it was suggested I should “make myself known” to the former rector.

I was not only to go to church, I was to be seen to go.

Just a couple of years ago, a friend was refused a place for her child in another Protestant school in Co Wicklow on the grounds that her commitment to the women’s prayer group was suspect.

She’d been getting out of bed on Sunday mornings and going to church especially to get her kid into this nearby school. Her article of faith was that her kid could walk to school on her own.

Let’s remember for a moment that it’s the kids who go to school and yet it is the Sunday habits of their parents which are under scrutiny. This is absolutely bonkers.

The Government says its School Admissions Bill, which will be law next year, will disallow discrimination on the basis of church attendance and involvement. Overall, however, the bill merely adds a few nice balconies and useful fire escapes to the mad edifice we have built around school admissions in this country. In some ways, the renovations makes it slightly better and in others, slightly worse.

It is galling that Minister Richard Bruton has removed the so-called baptism barrier for entrance to over-subscribed Catholic schools so non-Catholics” feel no pressure” to have their children baptised while leaving it in place for the schools of minority faiths — the vast majority of them Church of Ireland.

I still can’t believe that I have seen the people of Ireland take lying down the diktat that over-subscribed Catholic schools can’t discriminate on the basis of a child’s religion, but schools run by minority faiths can.

The act says that such schools can refuse to admit a child if “it is proved that the refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school”.

Well, you wouldn’t want too many of those Catholic kids in your local C of I school, would you? They might destroy the “ethos”.

Quite what is the difference in ethos between Catholic and C of I kids is in today’s Ireland is beyond me.

Would the C of I kids have more home-made chutney on their sandwiches? Would the Catholic kids say “toilet” instead of “lavatory”?

They are slightly different branches of the same Christian faith.

As for excluding a Muslim child, now that’s different. Can’t have a girl running around with a tea towel on her head, can you? Or a boy shouting “Allahu akbar” in the playground?

The Protestant Churches’ determination to keep a majority of Protestants in Protestant schools is based on an ancient instinct to preserve the tribe. It is increasingly out of step with contemporary Ireland and increasingly fake.

This was the unspoken truth behind the attempt of the board of management of St Patrick’s, Greystones, to prioritise “accustomed members” of the Church of Ireland congregation over the vast majority of baptised Protestants, some of whom probably couldn’t say the ‘Apostles’ Creed’ if you gave them a set of flash cards.

I have seen the kids of confirmed atheists who were baptised in South Africa, or the UK, or Australia, or Zambia or somewhere else because it was the done thing and have not been in church since, getting priority access to Irish Protestant schools.

I’ve also known lapsed Catholics who fancied the “tone” of the local Church of Ireland school over the RC school and did a quickie C of I baptism purely to get their kids in.

You can argue that the strategies of such people make a case for schools to prioritise “accustomed members” in giving out places. But then you get what’s worse: people turning up to church just to get their kids into school.

Who wants those people in their Church? I don’t.

Had the education system been organised according to the famous letter by Edward Stanley in 1831, which allowed for multi-denominational schools with separate denominational religious instruction — much like today’s Community National Schools — we would not be in this mess.

It was the Protestant churches who rebelled first, saying their communities would be over run with Catholics. That siege mentality has held ever since, with Protestant schools becoming, as congregations struggle, the churches’ biggest power base.

Siege mentality on the part of Protestants during the early years of this State was not surprising.

I hope, as we turn to commemorating the centenary of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Treaty, we will once take an honest look at the sectarian murder of Protestants during this period, including the 13 Protestant men who were shot dead in Dunmanway and Ballygroman, Co Cork, in April 1922.

This massacre sparked a refugee crisis in Co Cork, part of the 33% reduction in the population of Protestants in the 26 counties between 1911 and 1926. The historian Peter Hart has called this exodus “the only example of the mass displacement of a native ethnic group within the British Isles since the 17th century”.

This is a history which has been “disremembered” by Irish Protestants, even within affected families, some of which I have contacted. There is too much to lose by remembering.

What there is, instead, is a determined clinging to the last few power bases, facilitated by a State which somewhere in its soul feels guilty about the historic treatment of some Protestants.

It also wants to avoid giving any ammunition to Northern Unionists. More than anything else, however, it thinks there are too few Protestants to bother annoying.

Discrimination on the basis of church attendance has been taken off the table, following Eileen Jackson’s brave and principled stand. But we are still left with Protestant schools which will be more and more tribal by comparison with other schools and while that’s not fair on anyone, it’s particularly unfair on Protestant children.


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