THE UN's human rights watchdog says it is concerned that the government's 'pace of change' in establishing non-denominational schools is discriminating against children.
Patronage of primary schools came under severe scrutiny yesterday as an Irish delegation, led by Justice Minster Frances Fitzgerald, faced a second day of questioning on a range of civil rights issue.
The UN's Rapporteur for Ireland Yuval Shany said the information provided by the delegation had been "encouraging" but said he had serious concerns about Irish efforts to cater for children from non-religious families.
"The number of non-denominational school is still minuscule and it is our understanding that most of the new schools created are multi-denominational and not non-denominational.
"We understand that are no plans to create non-denominational schools by way of transfer of control in areas which have been deemed, following the recommendations of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, areas where there is no sufficient demand for non-denominational education."
He asked the delegation to explain if children could be discriminated against under the new Education (Admission to Schools Bill) 2014.
Later he questioned how the state could be compliant with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) when it allowed religious-run schools a "near monopoly" on public services.
He said this appeared to "openly discriminate in admissions policies between children on the basis of parents registered convictions".
Layla de Cogan Chin, from the Department of Justice, said Ireland was committed to "providing a diverse system catering for all religions and none" and added seven multi-denominational schools had been delivered last year.
"A further four new schools are due to open in 2014 all of which will be multi-denominational," she said.
She said that schools could be divested in areas where there is "sufficient demand" for a wider choice on patronage and added that the advisory group for the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism identified 28 such areas.
"There is no obstacle to the establishment of secular or non-denominational schools if sought by a sufficiently-large number of parents if the required for patronage are fulfilled," she stated.
Other issues addressed by the committee included mental health and prison reform, the asylum process, gender recognition and traveller ethnicity. Minster Fitzgerald said "serious consideration" would be given to recognising Traveller identity.
She also committed to removing all young offenders from prisons by the end of 2014.