Saturday 22 July 2017

Ministers issue stark warning to Bruton over 'baptism barrier' bid plan will hurt Protestants

Education Minister Richard Bruton Picture: Steve Humphreys
Education Minister Richard Bruton Picture: Steve Humphreys
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Two Fine Gael ministers have warned Richard Burton not to rush into changing the school admission rules for fear it could have unintended consequences for Protestant communities.

The Education Minister has committed to tacking the so-called 'baptism barrier' that gives Catholic children priority admission to nine out of 10 of the country's primary schools.

However, a significant number of his colleagues, including Arts Minister Heather Humphreys and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, have warned him that he must tread carefully on the issue.

TDs and senators told a private Fine Gael meeting that schools run under the ethos of minority religions face the prospect of being destabilised by the changes.

According to sources, Ms Humphreys said that there was "huge concern about how it will impact upon Protestant schools".

Mr Flanagan warned colleagues that Protestant communities could feel their identity was under threat if children were not guaranteed a place in a school under their own ethos.

He said the "perception" of Mr Bruton's well-intentioned plans could be a big issue in the debate.

Earlier this year, Mr Bruton held a public consultation on four options he is considering as an alternative to the legal entitlement enjoyed by denominational schools in relation to protecting their religious ethos.

His aim is to have proposals to table when a Labour Party bill in this area comes before the Oireachtas next month.

The options currently under consideration are:

* A catchment-area approach, prohibiting religious schools from giving preference to children of their own religion who live outside the catchment area ahead of non-religious children who live inside the catchment.

* A 'nearest school rule', allowing religious schools to give preference to a religious child only where it is that child's nearest school of that particular religion.

* A quota system, which would allow a religious school to give preference to children of its own religion in respect of only a certain proportion of places, meaning the remaining places would be allocated based on other admissions criteria, such as proximity to the school or a lottery.

* Outright prohibition on religious schools using religion as a factor in admissions, meaning all places would be allocated based on other factors.

Mr Bruton told the meeting that one-third of couples are now marrying outside of religion.

"Change is coming, I'm trying to shape that change," he said.

However, TDs Colm Brophy and Peter Burke, aswell as Senator Neale Richmond, argued there should be some exemptions for minority religions to help them protect their ethos.

Several party member expressed concerns that some small Protestant schools could ultimately be populated by a majority of Catholic or non-denominational children under the proposals.

Mr Brophy said it was better to raise the issue now, rather than allow it to "explode" at a later stage in the legislative process.

A spokesperson for Mr Bruton told the Irish Independent last night that work is progressing to find an appropriate approach.

"The Minister will convince a roundtable discussion with interested parties who've put in submissions as part of the consultation process in the coming weeks," he said.

Irish Independent

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