South Must Separate Church and State

While in the North partition resulted in the creation of a profoundly sectarian Orange state, in the South the victors in the civil war created a state that was reactionary, Catholic and deeply conservative.

Despite the passage of time, much of the architecture of that conservative catholic state remains, including the 1937 constitution which was in the words of Professor Dermot Keogh “suffused with Catholic thinking and ideals”.

The Catholic hierarchy had stood staunchly behind the pro-treaty side in 1922 and 1923. The first government of the Free State was not short of reactionaries and in the years that followed it was to forge a conservative alliance with the Catholic Church.

The Free State, with its entanglement with the Catholic Church armed the opponents of Irish Unity and reinforced prejudices against governance of Ireland by the Irish people – the fear that an Irish run government would be a Catholic government.

The access of members of the Catholic Church hierarchy to members of government at the time that the Constitution was formulated and in the years that followed is well known.

An explicit statement of the then Government’s commitment to the Catholic Church and to Pope Pius XII was made by John A. Costello Taoiseach of the inter-party Government in 1948 committing to “strive for the attainment of a social order in Ireland based on Christian principles”.

It has been argued that the special relationship between the Irish state and the Catholic Church ended in the mid 1980’s at the time of Garrett Fitzgerald’s tenure as Taoiseach – around the time the first divorce referendum took place.

However we are a long way from a full separation of church and state. Today health and education systems in particular remain a confused mess of church and state and as such are an anathema to those of us who want a secular republic.

We are still dealing with the legacy of the prominence of a catholic ethos in our hospitals.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the practice of symphysiotomy where religion and conservatism triumphed over the rights of women. This was almost uniquely practiced in Ireland up until the 1980’s. And even within Ireland it was most commonly carried out in Catholic run hospitals.

In line with Catholic thinking, symphysiotomy was carried out in place of a caesarean section because caesarean sections would limit the number of children a woman could have.

Symphysiotomy, the sawing of a woman’s pelvis in half, created misery, lifelong pain and hardship for those who were brutalised in this way. Today the victims of symphysiotomy continue to fight for justice.

Despite vast social and demographic changes in Irish society since the drafting of the 1937 constitution little progress has been made in separating church and state particularly in regard to the education system.

For those of us living in rural Ireland there is little or no choice in terms of the types of schools to which we can send our children. While the state funds primary education, 96% of primary schools are owned and under the patronage of religious denominations with approximately 90% of these under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

Many primary schools which are oversubscribed give preference to baptised children.

Given that 90% of schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church this is a hugely discriminatory practice and it is well recognised that many parents feel compelled to baptise children just in order to ensure they can secure a school place.

Regardless of my religious views or none, the local Catholic priest will have a greater say in my child’s education than I will – he will be guaranteed a place on the school’s board of management. The local bishop will make a decision on a potential amalgamation of my child’s school.

While citizen’s taxes fund the education system, the outdated patronage system ensures that the Catholic Church still makes important day to day decisions in the vast majority of primary schools.

The government has initiated a study of ‘Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector’ which includes a parental survey in a small number of areas but this is limited and far from satisfactory.

Various government ministers have suggested that there is an element of parental choice with the growth of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools but in reality these are only a tiny minority of schools and are generally confined to larger cities and urban areas.

The Constitutional Convention has recommended a number of changes to the 1937 Constitution which seek to mitigate some sections most suffused with Catholic thinking.

They recommended changes to the articles dealing with women’s place in the home, enshrining marriage equality and removing the requirement to criminalise blasphemy. While a referendum on marriage equality will take place on the 22nd of May, no indication has been given by government regarding if and when it will act on the other recommendations.

It is time to deliver a genuine separation of church and state. In particular it is time to act in those areas which practically impact on citizens and which in effect deny the rights of those of us who are neither Catholic nor religious to equality– in particular in education and health.