The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin gave a long and interesting address to the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies at Magdalene College on Tuesday 22 February.
In it he said that the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in the patronage of primary schools in the Republic is 'a remnant of the past and no longer tenable today'. He went on to say that the government in the Republic had been 'very slow in providing a plurality of patronage models' and called for a national forum to debate such plurality.
The 'massive dominance of the Catholic Church in the management of schools is patently a remnant of the past and no longer tenable today.' A very high proportion of Roman Catholics would prefer their children to attend a school with a pluralist mix, albeit with some basic religious culture. 'I believe that there is need for a national forum to debate the issue. Plurality in management is needed to address the changed Irish society. Plurality in school management can only benefit the true Catholic identity of Catholic schools.'
He spoke of the decline in church attendance among Roman Catholics and said that 'Ireland was 'undergoing a further phase in a veritable revolution of its religious culture.' The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland would 'inevitably become more a minority culture. The challenge is to ensure that it is not an irrelevant minority culture.'
This address was highly significant. It is not clear what sort of future educational arrangements Archbishop Martin has in mind but he sees that there will be change and he wants a national debate in a national forum. This represents a departure from the traditional stance of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been rigid and dogmatic.
I hope that here in Northern Ireland there can also be a debate about the future of education. Here we have a range of sectors and a very complex architecture of educational administration. What is being proposed by the Sinn Fein education minister is even more complex and at the same time unacceptable to many because it is inequitable.
We need a thorough rethink and a proper debate about the future structure and administration of education in Ulster. Four years has been wasted because Sinn Fein has been incapable of facilitating such a debate. It is trapped in its own rigid and dogmatic framework and neither the Sinn Fein minister nor her party have been able to understand the issues and the concerns of those outside the Irish medium and Roman Catholic sectors. The Sinn Fein minister has shown a lack of vision, a lack of understanding and a lack of ability. When questions are asked she simply trots out some of her stock of catch phrases and frustrates every effort to have a constructive engagement.
I hope that after the Assembly election we can have a real educational debate in Northern Ireland. It must be an inclusive debate, an open and constructive debate and one that has a focus on what is right for the children and the rights of the children. I know the DUP is ready to engage in such a debate and I hope that all the other stakeholders will be ready to play their part too.