THE Department of Education warned yesterday that it would take action on the divesting of schools if there was a delay in reaching agreement on a handover from Catholic-run schools to different patrons.
Department Secretary-General Brigid McManus said there was an "urgent" need within certain communities to give a choice to parents who had shown in sufficient numbers that they wanted an alternative.
In the absence of speedy agreement, the State would have to meet its obligations in relation to balancing rights and "find some way to address it", she said.
Ms McManus was speaking at the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage, which is examining ways to increase choice in primary education to meet the growing demand for cultural and religious diversity.
The forum's brief includes advising on how to divest some of the 90pc of Catholic-run schools to other patrons. It is also exploring how small schools in rural communities, which will not change patrons, can provide greater diversity.
In the course of three days of public hearings this week, the forum was told that issues which could delay any handover included resistance to change by school boards of management, legal complexities around transfer of ownership of school buildings and compensation for property that is handed over.
A spokesman for the Catholic bishops, Fr Michael Drumm, told the forum's closing session yesterday that schools felt "set upon" if they were approached about the possibility of divesting to another patron and that a "road map" was needed to help communities deal with the issue.
Fr Drumm, chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, also said he was getting "a little bit tired" of some of the allegations being made about religion in Catholic schools.
He rejected suggestions by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) and the Irish Human Rights Commission that the way the religious ethos permeates the work of Catholic schools amounted to preaching in an attempt to convert others.
Ms McManus said there were issues before the forum that needed to be addressed in the longer, medium and short term.
She said it was important that the department works with the Catholic church authorities to achieve a balance of the rights within communities, but in some areas the demand was urgent.
Areas regarded as priority for change were those where there are a number of Catholic schools and a strong demand from parents for an alternative, such as a multi-denominational or Irish-language school.
She said in such communities there was a need to move "speedily if it is to be done in a consensual manner", otherwise the State would have to meet its obligations in relation to balancing rights.
One of the areas with the most pressing demand for new school patronage is Dublin 6 to Dublin 8, where the multi-denominational body Educate Together told the forum that it had 400 names on a waiting list but no recognition for a school. The forum will report to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn later this year and the minister hopes to start implementing change next year.