Here we go again. Just when Labour begin recovering in the polls and could do with whatever votes it can get, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn declares that he wants to see religious teaching removed from schools to make way for instruction on subjects, which presumably more practical. Of course, there are unlikely to be many votes for Labour among the religiously devout and some might assume that Quinn is, in fact playing, to the Labour core, especially after the party was perceived to have surrendered on the reopening of the Irish Embassy in the Vatican.

Conservative detractors like to paint Ruairi as the original smoked salmon socialist, living in a Dublin 4 bubble, and he is certainly not a man you can imagine ‘ateing the cloth at the rails’, as they say in Galway about those first to the altar, but there is serious strategy to his well-timed pronouncements in this area, and those of his party. With the intense public focus on the ongoing controversies about Irish Water, CRC top-ups and Garda penalty points, there is a tendency to overlook the quiet battleground between those who are seeking the further secularisation of Irish life, and those whose seek to confront it. We see it with the ongoing and rather ridiculous row between the Iona Institute and parts of the gay community over comments made on RTE’s Saturday Night show, and we see it with the determinedly secular stance of President Higgins, who has refused to say whether he is an atheist despite having taken an oath to God to assume the public office. Years ago, no-one would have bothered questioning this. But now that ‘faith versus secular’ is a political background, such questions are being pointedly asked.

But it is education that is the real battleground in this, as the country goes from an overwhelmingly faith-based system to one that is mainly multicultural, State administered and generally secular – an extraordinary turnaround which in size and scope is too easily overlooked. And indeed it is a great credit to our teachers for handling this, as our society is transformed by immigration and a church implosion. The religious institutions, mainly Catholic, have been rolled back. But the question now is: just how much of a religious element should remain?

Ruairi Quinn believes very little, and the Church should do its teaching in its own time, not education time. This is consistent with a call last year by Labour TD Aodhan O’Riordain’s to have school chaplains abolished, on the basis that guidance counsellors had already been abolished, and savings could be made. Interestingly, his proposal was attacked by Donegal Fianna Fail TD Charlie McConalogue who accused O’Riordain and Labour of waging a ‘a Culture war’ against religion.

Now FF leader Michael Martin has attacked Quinn’s latest proposal, saying it was ‘insensitive and oblivious’ to schools with a religious ethos, including Protestant schools. So is FF now showing the way in defending religious beliefs in the public sphere and filling that particular niche in public opinion? It would be a clever move if it was, as the formerly conservative Fine Gael is certainly not doing so, and nor amazingly (so far) is the new Reform Alliance, despite their much vaunted support for ‘family values.’


O’Riordain (above, right) wasn’t buying Martin’s line, however, and in a robust response he accused him of ‘playing the man’ and dismissing the Minister’s proposals with risible one-liners, stressing that Quinn has been highly ‘proactive in working with all religious groups through the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in a partnership arrangement, which has, as its central guiding principle, parental choice and empowerment.’ He went on to accuse Martin of traditional FF cronyism and reminded how they put the State on the hook for a clerical abuse bill of almost 1.6 billion in 2002.

Fighting words, and an indication of the unholy row such an issue can engender. O’Riordain, a former inner city school teacher, is clearly passionate about education and has the very valid opinion that too often it is the interests of the teachers, the parents and department which come first, rather those of the child. He and Quinn hope to correct this. But the rest of us watching this cultural war, might wonder why the space once occupied by traditional religion and faith in schools cannot be replaced by something no less spiritual, but modern and varied. After all, most religious teaching, is, at this stage, really a civics class giving the kids some spiritual distraction and reflective time-out, from their daily grind of maths and languages. Offering them an imaginative and non-materialist perspective is one that would put the child first and could be embraced by both secular Labour and religious FF alike.