Tuesday, 28 June 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 to 26, inclusive, together.
Like public representatives generally, I meet church leaders informally from time to time in the course of attending official functions. The most recent formal meeting I had took place on 15 April 2021, when I met the leaders of the all-island Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Irish Council of Churches. We discussed the ongoing contribution to peace building and the work churches undertake on an ongoing and daily basis at community level in Northern Ireland.
The church leaders and I recognised the remaining years of the decade of centenaries as profoundly important and sensitive moments in engaging with the shared history of these islands and agreed it is important to promote a sensitive, inclusive and respectful approach in the marking of those centenaries still to come. I briefed the church leaders on the Government's Shared Island initiative. Both the church leaders and I recognise the importance of dialogue, engagement and respect for all communities and traditions on these islands.
The Church leaders and I agreed the pandemic has posed challenges for all of our citizens in terms of their mental health and well-being and recognised the importance of faith to the spiritual and mental well-being of many people and communities. Thankfully, restrictions have been lifted and places of worship are now fully open.
An agreement with the Catholic Church on patronage was reached in March to cover five towns that currently have no multidenominational primary school provision and to cover the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway and encourage greater levels of divestment in keeping with parents' wishes. The proof, however, will be in how many schools change their status, given the Catholic Church remains the patron of 90% of primary schools in this country. We in Labour have consistently called for a citizens' assembly to address directly the role of religious institutions as patrons in our education and our health systems. Will the assembly on the future of education specifically address the question of religious patronage?
Given the wealth of church authorities - I am conscious of the massive wealth of the Carmelite order that owns the site at Terenure College, which is currently up for sale, for example - has the Government engaged with the church authorities on the provision of special classes and appropriate places for children with autism and additional needs? There is a huge need in the Dublin 6, Dublin 6W and Dublin 12 areas in this regard and there are immense amounts of wealth in church authorities and religious orders. Is there a way the Taoiseach and his Government can engage directly with them to see if some of those resources can be harnessed to provide the necessary places for children with autism?
A huge number of people came out on the streets of Dublin at the weekend to participate in Pride. It was a real celebration but it was also a protest against those who try to limit the progress of this community, including the progress of our transgender community. I put it to the Taoiseach that a society whose capital can host an event like that, a society that repealed the eighth amendment, a society that wants progress for women and a society whose young people want to see all these changes sped up is in contradiction with a society where so many of our schools and hospitals are controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, other churches and religious groups.
For example, how can meaningful and objective sex education for our young people be put in place properly when information can be vetoed on grounds of religious ethos? Is it not time for the Taoiseach to stop using the money message process to block our sex education Bill? Moreover, is it not time that the Government realised we are now in the third decade of the 21st century and we must move to separate church and State?
In November last year, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, wrote to six religious congregations to inform them of the Government's intention to establish the mother and baby institutions payment scheme. Individual meetings with orders to discuss their contribution to this scheme took place over the past few months. Will the Taoiseach confirm if similar discussions have been had with church leaders, and if so, has the State Claims Agency also attended these meetings? How hard is the Government pushing to ensure the orders contribute to the redress scheme and that the contribution adequately matches their ability to pay?
We know from testimony and State records that the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland were deeply involved in the operation of these institutions, all under the watchful eye of the State. The Taoiseach was a member of the Cabinet that signed off the controversial residential institutions redress scheme deal that resulted in religious congregations contributing just a fraction of overall costs of redress. That simply cannot happen again.
Some years ago, to my understanding there was considerable engagement at official and political level between the Government and church leaders of all denominations on the advancement of the peace process and the need to deal with the ongoing concerns of some communities. My understanding was that at the time, church leaders, who have an all-Ireland remit, were an important conduit on issues of concern to some communities, particularly communities with small numbers. In some cases those communities with relatively small numbers might not have had as much political engagement with Governments here, the Executive in Northern Ireland or the political parties as would have been desirable throughout the entire island.
Apart from the current protocol difficulties in Northern Ireland, there are also many areas where we need to see much more progress. I think specifically of educational attainment and the large numbers of people still without basic skills who have not been able to go to gainful employment. When dealing with questions of general deprivation and lack of educational attainment, it is important that every conduit be used to get the views and concerns of the communities that may be small in numbers but whose needs and concerns need to be addressed. Often, those communities are not as politically involved as they should be.
The overwhelming votes for marriage equality and repeal of the eighth amendment were a statement that people do not believe the Catholic Church should decide about people's sexual lives, their identities or women's right to control their own bodies, yet the Government continues to defer to the Catholic Church by allowing it to control much of our health service and most of our education system.
One of the most egregious failures to fully remove the power of the church over the people of this country is in the area of access to abortion for people with pregnancies where there are fatal foetal abnormalities. It is really shameful that because we introduced limits around 12 weeks and a requirement for two doctors to sign off on a foetus not being viable, many people struck with the tragedy of a wanted pregnancy that is not viable because of fatal foetal abnormality must continue to travel to Britain for abortions. That is the case.
Religious fundamentalists in the US have dealt a major blow to the rights of women and all oppressed groups through the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The opinion of one of the judges, Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment, indicates that contraception, same-sex marriage and even same-sex relationships are next to be targeted by the religious right. Transgender rights are also under attack, not only in the US but, increasingly, from the media in this country, despite the very widespread public support for trans rights.
In Ireland, the Catholic Church has cast the longest shadow over the human rights of women and LGBTQ+ people, presiding over a denial of contraception, abortion rights, gay and trans rights and same-sex marriage. The best way to defend the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people in this State is by finally separating church and State. Will the Taoiseach support the abolition of the three-day wait, the 12-week limit and the full decriminalisation of abortion? Will he kick the church out of our schools and hospitals? At a very minimum, will he support the passage of our objective sex education Bill through Committee Stage to ensure objective and LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education in all schools?
I thank the Deputies for their questions.
Deputy Bacik raised the issue of the role of the church within education. The situation has evolved significantly. I was one of the original supporters of Educate Together through measures I took with capital expenditure way back in the late 1990s to facilitate the purchase and acquisition of sites much more cost-effectively for Educate Together schools. That was followed through and we have a far more pluralistic and democratic system now. Plebiscites often happen and people vote for the type of school they want. Evolution is changing the very landscape of education as we speak. That will continue and I think we need to see more divestment and greater use of existing resources in terms of existing school buildings, for example. There is a whole issue there.
Some religious orders have also donated to the State without any compulsion. In Carlow, for example, the third level college has been offered to the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for use by Carlow Institute of Technology. Provided it is retained for teaching and education purposes, there are no strings attached. It is a fantastic site in the middle of Carlow. The site of the Presentation Sisters in Cork has been transformed and is home to the Cork Migrant Centre, community groups and a range of activities. Social housing was facilitated on that site a long time ago. Some religious orders donate their land for the use of social housing, for example. That needs to be acknowledged. There are others that do not, it has to be said. I was a bit struck when Dublin City Council recently recommended to councillors not to facilitate the zoning of church lands given the housing crisis we are in. I was not quite sure of the overall reasoning behind that. There needs to be balance. We need more amenity land in Dublin, certainly, but where land is next to services and we can get compact growth housing growth, I would have thought that we should use some lands for housing given the crisis we are in. Again, I will read up on that a bit further and in more detail.
In response to Deputy Barry, I support unequivocally the trans community and I am not sure we can lay all the blame on religion entirely. There are cultural issues afoot. I certainly think within education we need to develop far more sophisticated anti-bullying policies. We need to create a climate of tolerance. We do not need the toxic debates that have happened in the UK and elsewhere on this issue. We need to have a society-wide response, beginning in our schools. There are issues we need to analyse a bit more deeply. It is not all about who owns the school. It is deeper than that, unfortunately, in terms of the groupthink that goes on and the degree to which people are bullied and really have journeys and experiences that are very sad in many respects and that should not happen. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is developing curricula in relationships and sexuality education, RSE, at primary and post-primary level. That is extremely important. I have spoken to the Minister for Education. We need to really get those programmes modernised and updated to deal with LGBT+ issues. RSE needs to be modernised and updated but it is also important that the teachers who deliver the curricula are resourced adequately in terms of continuing professional development and that there is a lead person within the school to lead the programme within schools.
One of the issues historically has been delivery within the schools. Some teachers feel uncomfortable delivering the programme, particularly at post-primary level. I would argue that more work needs to be done in that regard. Legislation needs amendment also but the more critical issue is curriculum, the delivery of the curriculum, the capacity to deliver it and to develop a culture across the schools that is far more tolerant regarding trans issues, sexual orientation, and respect and consent more generally.
The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman has written to the religious orders involved in the mother and baby homes. I am sure he has kept Deputies up to date on any responses he has received. Let us call a spade a spade. The State will fund the payment scheme, largely, in terms of its overall cost. We want contributions towards it but the State is pressing ahead as requested by the Oireachtas.
Deputy Brendan Smith is correct that the last such meeting of the all-island Christian churches was April of last year. I made reference to this in my opening reply. That meeting included discussion of issues pertaining to Northern Ireland, particularly in the context of the decade of centenaries and how best to do that. We will arrange a further meeting.
Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy raised issues in respect of Roe v.Wade. I made the point earlier that Roe v.Wade involves two fundamental issues. In this country we have a referendum process, which is key. We also should not politicise the Judiciary ever. That is what has happened. The separation of powers has broken down to a certain extent in the United States. The degree to which people are appointed on their politics and how far right they are under the Trump Presidency was a factor. We need to be very careful that we need separation of powers. We do not politicise the Judiciary. That is the real lesson from Roe v.Wade. We have a Constitution that is far better in terms of referendum by the people.
Finally, on fatal foetal abnormalities, we need to be careful about that. We need to make sure that what we committed to in the referendum and the legislation is followed through both ways. We need to take proper account and have proper assessment. I know of a case where that went wrong. I am sure Deputy Boyd Barrett must know of it as well. It has been raised. On the face of it, the proper assessments did not take place. There was a baby that was fully healthy and the pregnancy was terminated; that happened. I have met the parents myself. These issues are never clear. Legislation is there for a reason and we should make sure it is followed through, including the need for two doctors to sign. That is very important and I would not be as dismissive of it as the Deputy seems to be.