Ireland is no cold house but influence of Church is overbearing
The story of a protestant schoolboy in the Republic who was punished for not attending Catholic first communion sparked outrage here but barely registered in the South. Michael Wolsey wonders why.
Bibi Baskin, an Irish-speaking broadcaster from Donegal, stirred up some controversy a few years back with a documentary for RTE television called Sheep May Safely Graze. The sheep in question were her fellow Protestants in the Republic.
Ms Baskin's argument was that southern Protestants had bought a quiet life with their own silence. In return for tolerant acceptance from the state and their neighbours, they kept their heads down, made no fuss, took little part in public life.
Their representatives have lobbied, with great success, on behalf of Protestant schools and for the funding of other Protestant institutions, such as orphanages, hospitals and teacher-training colleges.
They have thus maintained their own privileges, but have done nothing to encourage the extension of Protestant values to the wider society.
Important legal changes which ran contrary to Catholic teaching – on contraception, divorce and abortion – were spearheaded by Catholics, or former Catholics, with little contribution from the Protestant minority.
Ms Baskin's 'sheep' came to mind this week with the extraordinary report of a Protestant boy at a primary school in the Republic, who was punished by the principal for not attending a First Communion ceremony in the local Catholic church. He was ordered to stand against a wall and made to do homework when his classmates were excused.
The award of €750 (£617) in compensation by an equality tribunal was so small as to add insult to injury.
For many people in Northern Ireland, the incident recalled a decidedly darker event, the rumpus which split the Co Wexford community of Fethard-on-Sea in 1957 and exercised the entire country, north and south.
It began when Sheila Cloney, a Protestant married to a Catholic, took her children away to escape pressure to send them to a Catholic school. Her actions lead to a boycott of Protestant businesses in the town, organised by the parish priest and backed by at least one bishop.
It caused huge bitterness and was only ended by the personal intervention of the-then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera.
The sorry saga was the subject of the 1999 film, A Love Divided, with Orla Brady playing the role of the unfortunate Mrs Cloney.
It was obviously in the thoughts of many Belfast Telegraph readers, who turned to this newspaper's website to comment on the story of the First Communion boy.
Nothing has changed, was the line that ran through the responses.
"A pathetic, sectarian state,'' said one. "The story gets straight to heart of the reason why non-Catholics in Northern Ireland do not want to be part of the Republic,'' said another. Yet, in the south, the story attracted very little attention and no Protestants seemed upset.
There are a number of reasons for the muted reaction. The incident was a one-off event in a school with an unusual principal, who has now been put on leave. And what, to northern eyes, looks like blatant sectarianism appears rather different in the south, where there is no political divide between Catholics and Protestants.
The school in question was a gaelscoil, so we may assume that the boy and his family were Irish speakers. This was not a case of one community ganging up against the other, in the northern sense. And it was not Fethard: The Sequel.
Nevertheless, the incident raises questions about education in the Republic which Protestants, in particular, really should be asking.
In many parts of the country, Protestant children have no alternative but to attend Catholic schools, because there are no others.
Should the state, which provides almost all the funding for all the schools, tolerate that position? And should it allow teachers to devote their time to religious education, which could as easily take place outside the classroom?
That issue has been taken up by the Republic's education minister, Ruairi Quinn, who recently stated that more time should be given to the three Rs and less to the fourth, religion.
Mr Quinn has also begun a process to transfer control of some schools away from religious patronage and over to the supervision of secular organisations, such as the non-denominational Educate Together.
In this, he has the support of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who has pointed to the anomaly that he is patron of 93% of primary schools in Dublin, where Catholics compose only 85% of the population.
The real gap is greater. Dr Martin has conceded that, in some parishes, Sunday Mass attendance is only 5% of the Catholic population and in a few it is as low as 2%. So a lot of the pupils at Catholic schools are not practising Catholics themselves.
A growing number are Muslims, some are Protestants from African non-conformist faiths, a few are Hindus, many are from families which would describe themselves as atheist, or agnostic. All these voices have joined the debate, but little has been heard from the main Protestant churches, of which the Church of Ireland is by far the biggest in the Republic.
So long as their flocks can safely graze, there is not a bleat out of them.