A meeting in January, hosted by People Before Profit representatives Lola Hynes (Blackrock, Dublin) and Rachael Prendergast Spollen (Stillorgan, Dublin), discussed the issue of separating church and state.
People gathered in Dublin recently and heard from two activists well versed in campaigning against the Catholic Church’s detrimental influence in Irish society; journalist Una Mullaly and Convenor of Together4Yes Ailbhe Smyth.
Una highlighted the outstanding work of Dr Maeve O’Rourke and her involvement with Justice for Magdalenes and her efforts to unveil the Church’s influence over the “functions and infrastructure of the State”, while Ailbhe highlighted the growing appreciation of religion as a private matter and discussed the heavy reliance on Catholic organisations such as Accord to provide Sex education in schools. This influence means unscientific and incomplete information for boys and girls who have the right to factual, informative education in all subjects, Sex Ed included.
In addition to campaigning for marriage equality and to repeal the 8th Amendment, both women have been vital voices in discourse around the denial of rights and against the extent to which the Irish state has been impacted by and impregnated with Catholic doctrine. The overwhelming success of both referendums and the massive popular support both campaigns invoked shows clearly that the Irish society has changed and that Irish people are no longer willing to accept the damaging impact of Catholic Church ethos in our laws, healthcare or education.
Growing demand for the removal of religious influence from our schools and hospitals was clear from the active audience participation on the night. These are the two areas in which the legacy relationship of Church and State collides with ordinary people on a daily basis. Here, we look at the damage done by this relationship and the possibilities that exist for a different kind of Irish society, where patient need and best practice is what controls state services, not the Church.
No private profiteering from health
Our healthcare system is rarely out of the news these days as it groans under the weight of its dysfunctionality. The pattern of outsourcing health care and social care to religious orders and charities continues unabated, moving seamlessly into the neoliberal agenda of privatising key parts of the service. Much of the Disability Services, Elderly Care Services, palliative care and more is provided by charities and supposedly-not-for-profit organisations. This results in a reliance on charities to provide services and healthcare that citizens are entitled to under law and leads to almost total reliance on the religious orders of the Catholic Church to dispense medical and social care. Inevitably, this is delivered based on the religious orders own teachings, and not the law or best medical practice.
From the multitude of inquiries into abuses in Industrial Schools, Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries as well as the endemic instances of clerical abuse that the Church try to quash to this day, Irish society is well aware of the tightly control that the Catholic church was afforded here. With the State’s complicity, the Church inflicted brutal treatment on those in the institutions which served as social care provision, but were little more than the machinery of incarceration for people who showed any disregard for the stringent moral code espoused from the pulpit. The legacy of the Magdalene Laundries is still felt to this day. On a number of moneths ago, a group of women who survived the laundries travelled to the Dail to raise the issue of the hangover legacy and calling for it never to be allowed to happen again.
But state reliance on incarceration as a solution to societal challenges continues to this day with the abusive system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers and institutionalising our homeless in hubs.
Those responsible for running Direct provision centres are paid a pretty penny to imprison asylum seekers in conditions which the State Ministers who run the partnership should be jailed for.
And that says nothing of the ever-increasing levels of care provided by private companies for profit; the care of our elderly citizens is beginning to look like a bonanza for these companies. Recently former health minister Mary Harney was appointed as a director on the board of Brindley, one of the largest privately-owned operators of nursing homes in Ireland. Profiteering in an already strained healthcare citizen with the support of former government ministers should not surprise any of us, but it is to be railed against nonetheless. Just look at the victims of the cervical scandal whose results were entrusted to a for profit company – the results of which are headline news and heart breaking injustice.
National Maternity Hospital
The ongoing debacle surrounding the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) is a perfect example of how our medical services are still interfered with by religious orders. The St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, of which the Sisters of Charity are the majority shareholders and their reputation needs no introduction to those who suffered in the laundries, is set to be the de facto owners of the new NMH, despite the State coughing up the entire building budget, fit out and the ongoing staffing costs of the hospital from the public purse. This ludicrous scenario, is one which is informed by the historic and toxic comorbidity of Church and State.
This is an extremely worrying situation at a time when we are finally supposed to provide healthcare under Irish law that includes rights to gender reassignment, abortion care, IVF treatment and more. Protests mounted by grassroots activists, most of whom had organised together before to win the Repeal campaign, made the Sisters of Charity shrink from declaring outright ownership of the NMH, but we cannot be complacent about their wholly inappropriate involvement in reproductive health care given their stated opposition to contraception, abortion, gender reassignment and fertility assistance.
Public control of Schools
Our State’s provision of education follows a similar pattern of outsourcing and patronage of religious institutions on school boards. This position guarantees a buffer for the state which, despite providing building funds as well as all staffing costs, still resists direct involvement in governing our primary and secondary schools.
There is a growing amount of secular schools under the Educate Together Schools charity, who aim to provide education to all children “irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background”. Overwhelming demand for these school places shows that the people of Ireland increasingly believe that religious ethos, as a private matter, has no place in our schools. A Red C poll carried out in 2012, showed that three out of four parents would send their children to schools run by patrons other than religious bodies, if they had a choice.
Despite this, a total of 96% of state funded primary schools in Ireland remain under the patronage of religious bodies and of these, 92% are owned by the Catholic Church.
The Department of Education’s declared commitment to the ‘patronage divestment process’ has produced only a modest number of Educate Together National Schools across the country between 2014 and 2016, with many of these in unsuitable temporary buildings and/or half stream classes.
The Department’s own solution to multicultural, inclusive schools was the Community National School (CNS), which was a model that was inept from the outset. Catholic bishops were given the opportunity to mould the ethos of CNS, with the following demand: “Religious instruction and formation of the Catholic children in the faith by a qualified teacher, during the school day would be the minimum non-negotiable requirement for a new Multi-Denominational Primary School”. The resulting unwieldy, discriminatory practice of excluding children during Faith Formation instruction meant that CNS schools are now abandoning the original insistence in favour of more equitable methods of education, similar to the Educate Together model of religious instruction being kept outside school hours.
Incidentally, Educate Together is celebrating its 40-year anniversary, so these ideas shouldn’t be thought of as “modern”, and certainly not controversial, but as a proven model of education.
Another education and health system is possible
The Irish state has never been fully committed to demands for diversity in school patronage and it is up to us, to demand the type of secular education we wish to see. State fund, state funded, state managed, without influence of the Church or for-profit organisations, and with input from educators, parents and pupils. Where the needs of children are first and foremost, not whether or not they have been baptised.
Until we break the chain of our children having to be indoctrinated into the Church before they are allowed to be educated, and scrap Church ownership and influence schools, the influence that the Catholic Church clings to over Irish society will remain.
The same is true, if not more urgent, in healthcare. Continued work by activists in the key areas of healthcare, social justice and education is the minimum needed to advance us to a secular, progressive society. The Government will not be moved without the kind of pressure that delivered Repeal.
We as socialists are committed to a separation of Church and State. We believe that the Catholic Church’s control of Irish society has left a legacy which is too heart breaking and too stomach churning top be allowed to continue. The legacy of the Magdalene Laundries, clerical abuse, the Mother and Baby homes; people are no longer willing to accept the control the Catholic Church has exerted on this country.
Our vision includes: Secular education, without discrimination in schools’ admission policies and exclusion during school hours on religious grounds; the establishment of secular healthcare, able to provide full reproductive healthcare and free of judgement, shame, and refusal to provide the basic needs of Irish citizens in the 21st Century; the nationalisation of all of these services, including the National Maternity hospital, which would take them out of the hands of private charity and religious institutions and have more, better oversight to ensure that state funding is being spend in a way that puts our needs first, not profit or religion.
Ultimately, we cannot shirk our collective duty to bring an end to the sickly system of private and exclusionary healthcare services. The dedication of front-line workers in healthcare is undeniable, and the continued delivery of public healthcare is testament to their unending dedication to their fields of care. It should inspire us all to work harder for a universal healthcare system for all citizens where access to services is dictated only by patients need.