Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]

 

11:52 am

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)

I thank all the contributors. It has been worthwhile and interesting to hear the various perspectives across the Chamber. I am going to use my time to respond to some of the issues raised in the debate. The first concerns the Government amendment that requires nine months of additional time. On the surface, I accept that it seems perfectly reasonable to give the NCCA nine months to conclude its work but it began its work in 2018. In 2019, it produced a report that stated:

[B]y and large, young people view the RSE they are receiving as inadequate or at best partially meeting their needs. Overall, students expressed frustration about disparities in the content and quality of provision and the absence of a consistent and comprehensive approach to teaching RSE ...

The work on the report, which began in 2018, has spanned the terms of three Ministers. Each one seems to have had a different interpretation of how the report's recommendations would be enacted. Former Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, held the view that the ethos would be removed, former Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, seemed to suggest the ethos would be protected, and the current Minister, Deputy Foley, said the ethos will not dictate how RSE will be taught in schools. This is why it is essential that we standardise RSE in legislation to complement the work of the NCCA. I fully appreciate that the work is ongoing, but it has taken too long. It does not matter what a further nine months means to me but to a teacher of the LGBTQI+ persuasion, it will mean having to continue to teach that the manner in which they love is subordinate. A student in the same school who may be struggling with his or her sexuality or come from a family that is different from the traditional nuclear family subscribed to in some of the church teachings that are being offered will still be told he or she is somehow different or lesser. Nine months is another school year. It will mean another group of students will have to be told the manner in which they love or understand love is lesser. This is before the legislation even proceeds to Committee Stage. Therefore, let us not act as if the process will be expedited after nine months. It will not.

We already have a majority in this House who believe that what we put into this Bill is appropriate and suited to meeting the relevant needs and that the Bill could be progressed, yet we are kicking the can further down the road. I fully appreciate what was done by People Before Profit and the former Socialist Party when Ruth Coppinger introduced a similar, albeit slightly different, Bill in 2019. The outcome was the same as today: the Bill's sponsors were told their Bill would be delayed and that there would be a review. Then there was a money message. Four years later, we are in the same ridiculous scenario. In a modern republic, we have religious influence in the teaching of RSE to young people in our schools. It is abhorrent, and that is why there needs to be a degree of urgency. In the absence of urgency, we just get the same old, same old, which means people are told they are lesser because of the manner in which they love. Fundamentally, that is what it comes down to.

I have heard some suggest that legislation should not dictate the curriculum. I fully agree. We in the Social Democrats, through our Bill, are not dictating the curriculum. We are asking for the curriculum to be standardised so every student in a publicly funded school will have access to the same information, dictated by science and health considerations. That is all we are asking for. If Second Stage is completed today, all that will happen is that the Bill will proceed to Committee Stage. The committee will scrutinise it. Very worthwhile suggestions, such as those made on consent and what constitutes healthy and unhealthy relationships, would be made on Committee Stage. It would take time to scrutinise the Bill and for it to be regarded not as a Social Democrats Bill but as a Bill subject to engagement from across the political spectrum. Most people, with a couple of exceptions, seem to believe that what we have at present is entirely unfit for purpose in a modern republic.

I strongly encourage the Minister and the Department to advance the Bill to Committee Stage. That Stage will take considerable time, and it will mean the Bill will be scrutinised and teased out. It will complement the work of the NCCA. It will not distort it in any shape or form.

One reason we introduced this Bill last week and are taking Second Stage now is that there is urgency. When we introduced the Bill last week, I was inundated with communications, by email, social media and telephone, raising the absence of appropriate RSE in schools and how this has affected them and their children in various ways, and how it means they must exclude their children from classrooms in which they are told puberty is a gift from God. In programmes such as Flourish, every session ends with a prayer of reflection. We wonder how that is suitable. That is why there is urgency. I regard the Bill as urgent because this is happening in our classrooms already and will continue to happen. Advancing the Bill to Committee Stage will not in any way distract from the work of the NCCA. It would complement that work substantially.

I have always believed, and surely we have to believe, that our young people have a right to facts. That is a simple statement, and I will repeat it: our young people have a right to facts that are health and science led. To anyone with a different view, particularly Deputy Tóibín, I say that facts do not have an ethos. Science does not have an ethos. Our children, our young people, have a right to facts and to be given an evidence-led, facts-based education that does not discriminate against them and their families, or the manner in which they love.

There have been some suggestions in this Chamber that my party, the Social Democrats, is in some way anti-Catholic. Let me address that head-on. I grew up in an inner-city community where people had faith. Many people still have faith. They have found comfort in churches at times of loss and struggle. I am not anti-Catholic; I am against a system of control and systematic abuse. I am against a system that abused people in this country for decades and that led to the mother and baby homes, the Magdalen laundries, and a scenario in which people were told contraception, divorce and IVF were wrong and that loving a person of the same sex as oneself was wrong. That is what I am opposed to. The same people who inflicted that thinking on Irish society for more than a century have absolutely no right to engage in RSE in schools and to talk to our children, our young people, about the manner in which they love. They lost their legitimacy a long time ago. I fully respect people of faith and abhor the suggestion from across the Chamber that I may not do so. It is not that I do not respect faith; it is that we want science to dictate how our children are given facts. We want their education to be in keeping with compassion and dignity so they will be equipped to enter adulthood, to understand consent and healthy relationships, and to understand that they are special regardless of the manner in which they love. That is why we believe there is urgency and why another nine months of delay and kicking the can down the road will mean another school year gone and another conveyor belt of children who are told they are lesser and teachers who have to feel bad about themselves in the staff room because they must deliver a programme that has made their love feel subordinate. That is abhorrent.

The Social Democrats and others across the Chamber, including the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Independents, have all decided we are going to push this matter to a vote tonight. If the Members on the Government side want to delay, it will be on them for another nine months. They should know, however, that as they delay, it will mean another year of students and teachers being told they are lesser. All we are asking for in a modern 21st-century republic is that young people be given access to facts. We should start the process now. The NCCA has had four years to deliver a programme. I understand it is important work that may take time but, in parallel with that, let us bring this Bill to Committee Stage. Let all of us across the Chamber tear it apart, build it up again and make it stronger. Let us bring our values, whatever they may be, to it and advance it at the same time because we cannot delay any longer. People are being hurt and affected, and they are being told they are lesser in our schools. We should not stand for that.

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