Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
I congratulate Deputy Gannon and the Social Democrats on bringing forward this Bill. It is quite ironic that the Government thinks that, if we even talk about sex, something new will be born in nine months' time. That is the reason for the delay in moving on to Committee Stage, which would be the obvious step to take if the Government was taking this legislation seriously. It is remarkable that we even need to have this discussion. It is sometimes almost embarrassing to discuss the Irish education system with somebody who is not Irish. If I was to explain to somebody from overseas who is not Irish why we need to have this discussion about sex education in our State-funded schools, I would find myself getting embarrassed and struggling to convince that person that we live in a genuine republic. The words "republic" and "republican" are bounced around these walls and around the airwaves all the time but when it comes to basic State provisions such as education, which is supposed to free minds, the system is anything but republican.
If talking to someone from outside who is not Irish, I would have to say the reason we need to have this conversation about providing for proper sex education and empowerment in our schools is that a great many of them are under religious influence. What the Minister did not speak to in her contribution when she was telling us about the need for a nine-month delay is the supplementary providers who come into the system. These are often encouraged by patron bodies that believe that sex outside of marriage, contraception, abortion and IVF are wrong, that marriage should only be between a man and a woman and that homosexuality is disordered. These supplement the scheme the Minister spoke to with their own ethos and in their own way. They also do not believe that men and women are equal. Again, if talking to a person from outside Ireland, I would have to say that the reality on the ground in our schools is that we need this legislation to ensure we do not have these supplementary providers coming in to push an agenda based on an ideology because we do not have the courage of our convictions, as a republican assembly, to establish a State education system with a State sexual health education programme. By the way, one third of our second level schools are single-gender schools. We love separating children on the basis of religion and gender. We also enjoy separating them on the basis of income.
The point here is that this is not just about whatever scheme is mandated by the Department. It is about what the patron bodies do to supplement that scheme. That is the point of the exercise. That is the point of the legislation. One would think that at this point in the journey of this republic, we would all have come to the conclusion that we need to separate church and State. Why is that such a controversial thing to say? Why do people get nervous about the letters and emails that will come when anybody in politics says that we need to separate church and State? Why is it so outrageous to say that we need to separate church and State, that the incredible influence these unelected and ideological bodies have over young minds in this country must be broken, that the State has to take responsibility for education and health and that we need to have a discussion about how we cannot stand over that system any more because it is not doing any good for our children? I maintain that it is actually doing damage to them because it does not, in any way, reflect their lives. They hear that divorce and IVF are wrong and that, if they have a brother who is gay, he is disordered. They are told that the family they grew up in is not ideal.
In the programme for Government, there is a commitment to establish a citizens' assembly on education. I am blue in the face, as is Deputy Gannon, from asking about the citizens' assembly on drugs but I will ask the Minister about the citizens' assembly on education. We need to finally come down to the constitutional reality that we cannot stand over that system any more. If a citizen's assembly is required to ask these hard constitutional questions, then let us put those questions to the people. As has been said, whenever we have asked the people about the tough constitutional issues that we never thought could be resolved, they have been well ahead of us. They are moving in their droves away from this old, tired view of an Ireland that is disproportionately influenced by men over a certain age who have certain titles and demand that we live in a way that is - I should say "was always" - out of sync with any sort of reality. That Ireland is over. I had to correct myself there as I suggested this is a modern reality. It is an eternal reality.
I ask the Minister to please speak to the fact that this is not just about what is mandated in schools but about what schools can do to supplement that. As Minister of State in the area of equality, I had difficulty in trying to get section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 repealed so that schools could not discriminate against teachers on the basis of their marital status or the fact that they were gay or unmarried parents. However, I could not delete that section because of constitutional impediments. It could only be amended. I remember that. I also remember teachers who were members of the Irish National Teachers Organisation LGBT group going up to Áras an Uachtaráin, where they were encouraged to get into a photograph with President Higgins but stood aside because they believed their employment prospects would be at risk. That is not ancient history.
I have made a few points to the Minister in the time allotted to me. I very much appreciate this initiative by the Social Democrats. I urge the Minister to stop talking about what is being mandated and to talk about how these patron bodies are supplementing that. When are we going to have this citizens' assembly on education? Will the Minister please have the vision and conviction to speak as a politician in a republic about the need to finally separate church and State?