There are fewer members of Dáil Éireann today from religious minorities than there were 30 years ago…

It’s a matter of surprise to me that there are fewer members of Dáil Éireann today from religious minorities than there were 30 years ago, despite the Republic being a much more diverse society.

At that time there were three members of the Church of Ireland in the Dáil – Ivan Yates of Fine Gael, Jan O’Sullivan of Labour and the late Johnny Fox, an independent.

There were also three Jews – Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fáil, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and the late Mervyn Taylor of Labour, in addition to one representative each from the Presbyterian community (the late Seymour Crawford of Fine Gael) and the Muslim community (Moosajee Bhamjee of Labour).

By contrast, today, there are no Jews and no Muslims, there is still one Presbyterian (Fine Gael’s Heather Humphreys, Minister for Social Protection and for Rural and Community Development), but there is actually one fewer Teachta Dála (TD) from the Church of Ireland community – Neale Richmond of Fine Gael and Violet-Anne Wynne, now independent but previously Sinn Féin, are the only ones.

With 160 members of the Dáil, you would expect one more from the Church of Ireland community to reflect its share of the national population.

Bear in mind that the Church of Ireland population of the Republic has grown dramatically in the last three decades, from just over 89,000 in 1991 to over 124,000 at the last census.

Presbyterians in the Republic have traditionally been particularly associated with the border counties, and Ms Humphreys continues a tradition of their being elected for Fine Gael in those areas; in addition to her Cavan-Monaghan predecessor, Seymour Crawford, one recalls the late Jim White in Donegal South-West.

Presbyterian numbers in the Republic have also seen significant growth in recent decades, as former moderator David Bruce spoke about in an interview with the Newsletter on February 17, 2020.

While immigration is a factor in this increase, it is far from being the only one – conversions from a RC background include such high profile individuals as Dean Dermot Dunne of Christchurch, a former Catholic priest of the Cloyne diocese, but what is probably more significant is the fact that many more children of ‘mixed’ marriages are now brought up as Protestants, in contrast to the days when Ne Temere ruled.

I don’t believe for a moment there would be any prejudice against Protestants seeking election these days in the much more secular republic, so there are no easy answers as to why there are fewer representatives from the growing Protestant community.

I am aware there are a few Church of Ireland people in the Seanad, such as the Green Party’s Pippa Hackett and the independents David Norris and Victor Boyhan.

There are no figures available for local government, but I recall in my days covering Offaly County Council, there was only one Church of Ireland member among the councillors, Fine Gael’s Percy Clendennen from Kinnitty, in addition to one town councillor in Edenderry, the late Eileen O’Connor.

Now, of course it will be argued that the religious affiliations of deputies should not matter, in the context of a more secular society, but nonetheless, with such an emphasis on being inclusive, it surely is important that such inclusiveness does not neglect the Protestant community.

There are, of course, many deputies who are totally non-religious, most of them from Catholic backgrounds.

As far as the Jewish community is concerned, the information I have been given is that younger Jews are reluctant to get involved in politics as they perceive an increase in antisemitism in the Republic in recent decades, linked to comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which at times conflate Jews in general with Israeli policy.

Historian Yanky Fachler, a prominent member of the Jewish community, writes in his book “Zooming through Covid” (2021) that “I am often asked whether Ireland is likely to see another Jewish lord mayor. I venture to suggest not.

“You only have to look at what is happening to the current Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu, the first Irish-born person of Chinese descent elected to political office on the island of Ireland. She has been subjected to an unprecedented level of racist abuse, both online and in person outside her home.

“Today, Ireland no longer has any Jewish parliamentarians, Jewish judges or Jewish local councillors. The last Jewish parliamentarian, former minister of justice Alan Shatter, was unceremoniously shafted by his party leader and party colleagues 6 years ago.

“In today’s social media free-for-all, I doubt whether any Irish Jew – especially a Jew whose intellectual abilities are head and shoulders above those of his erstwhile parliamentarian colleagues – will ever subject themselves to the kind of anti-Semitic abuse that Shatter was subjected to.”

Undoubtedly, the question of how to achieve a more varied representation will be an increasing issue in the Republic in the context of its greater ethnic diversity, but it’s important that in pursuing this, we do not neglect the Protestant community. It is, of course, quite possible that if, in years to come, we see deputies elected from an African background, they themselves may well be Protestants, either from the main churches or from the Pentecostal churches which are a growing feature of Irish life.

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