Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Why Protestant schools pose a test of the Republic's democracy

When I discuss the position of Protestants south of the border, invariably I receive indignant letters - from southern Protestants - which insinuate "How dare you!"

They remind me that they live in a modern, liberal republic where their brand of religion is not an issue and where they enjoy all the normal freedoms of a Western democratic society. So, "Hands off!" they growl, "we know all about you bigoted types up there, murdering each other. You obviously know nothing about us - at least nothing that has happened in the last 30 years."

This means that when the matter is raised, it becomes a most delicate matter indeed.

This is one such moment. It concerns the decision of Brian Cowen's Minister for Education in the Dail, Batt O'Keefe, arbitrarily to end the grants to 21 fee-paying Protestant-run schools whereby, since the 1960s, they have been regarded as if they were part of the non-fee-paying state system.

This agreement was a recognition of the special difficulties of Protestant parents - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker - wishing their children to attend a Protestant-run school.

Much travel was often involved for the young people. Many had to board. This was expensive.

But the government grants allowed the schools to award bursaries in deserving cases and part of the income from fees was also used for this purpose.

Now, without consultation or negotiation of any kind, a ministerial diktat has destroyed this visionary marriage of state and private provision, devised - characteristically - by the author of the Republic's system of free secondary education and subsidised school transport, Donogh O'Malley, when he was Minister for Education in 1966 in Jack Lynch's first government.

The impact of this unilateral decision could be dire. In one case, Bandon Grammar School in Co Cork stands to lose some £133,000 this year. The result will be a sharp increase in fees which will severely hit many less well-off Protestant families.

Not surprisingly, all this is causing a fine rumpus. When 300 interested educators and parents met in Dublin, the minister's decision was condemned as grossly unfair and discriminatory.

Already, of course, many Protestant families have no choice but to send their children to the local Catholic school, where they are obliged to attend the religious exercises provided. Of course, the economic dilemma in the Republic is extreme. The greedy Tiger was as good at squandering the fruits of the fat years as Gordon Brown has been at Westminster.

The Republic's tax revenue has collapsed as demand on social benefits has soared. You must wait eight months for the colonoscopy which, undergone promptly, could save your life - or pay 900 euro to have it privately. Only 8% of stroke patients have the vital rehabilitation planning against 83% in Northern Ireland.

The European Commission has predicted that the government debt will be among the highest in the EU within 10 years. Drastic measures have been canvassed: cutting the number of Dail deputies to about 100; abolishing the Senate; slashing local government. But this is no excuse for the mean body blow being dealt to the Protestant schools.

There has been much made in recent years of the almost 19% increase in the Church of Ireland population of the Republic between 2002 and the census of 2006, the inference of Protestant apologists being that this is the fruit of the benign and tolerant social climate in which their sort now exists.

The reality is rather different. Church of Ireland families are slowly disappearing from large rural tracts of the state, country churches are being closed and there are now few clergy living outside the towns.

The fact is that, to a large extent, Protestants inhabit the Republic without socially being visibly part of it.

Only a fragment are in the police. The last count I had showed 14 Protestants in a force of 12,000. Two Protestants sit among the 166 deputies in the Dail, four in the Senate's 60 seats.

Southern Protestants generally are not unionists, but the clan of Swift and Sheridan, Goldsmith and Yeats are, indeed, no little people. There might be more of them in the public life of the Republic if, long ago, those Protestants who were unionists had not been bullied into silence.

Keeping heads down politically has become the name of the game; and the nature of the game is epitomised by the hotels which still fear to fly the Union Jack on their forecourts with their other EU flags - even though citizens of the UK provide more of their business than those of any of the others. But the Republic still claims it is the seat of a modern, pluralist society.

Minister O'Keefe now has a chance to prove it.

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