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Quinn learning church not ready to let go of schools

Remember the formation of the Cabinet? How there was a delay before the Taoiseach came into the Dail to announce it, and the rumours about last-minute behind-the-scenes rows?

I'm not talking about Joan Burton's supposed tantrum at not getting a finance portfolio (although the tantrum seems largely to have been thrown by other people who thought she should feel snubbed). I mean the other backroom rumour, that Ruairi Quinn, former Labour Party leader, former Minister for Finance, and what is commonly known as a "veteran politician" had, in lobby parlance "thrown the cat among the pigeons" by claiming that there was "fight in the old dog yet". In other words, lads, I'm still here, and I want a ministry.

And he got it. He got the Department of Education. And there's definitely fight in the old dog yet. There's plain talking and energy for fundamental change in our inadequate educational system, starting with the scandalous level of illiteracy in this country.

So who's cheering for Ruairi Quinn in his first few weeks as Minister for Education? Well, not the Roman Catholic Church for a start. Remember not so long ago how it seemed as though the church was finally acknowledging that its stranglehold on the State primary education system was untenable? The Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin was quite forceful three years ago about the undesirability of his church being over-represented in the primary education system. That "over-representation" comprises 90 per cent of the 3,200 primary schools in the State: owned by the church, controlled by it, and imposing the ethos of the Catholic Church.

Dr Martin even pointed out that the 90 per cent of schools under his control cater for a population only 50 per cent of which actively want a Catholic education for their children. With figures like that, his comments seem beyond contradiction. Yet he seems to have been backtracking recently on his disavowal of the desirability of this moral monopoly, and one can't help wondering about smoke coming out of telephone lines from Rome.

But nothing has really happened until now, which meant nobody got bothered. Particularly not the men in black. They make polite acknowledgements of inclusiveness and plurality provided they're Catholic inclusiveness, plurality, etc. They're laughing up their embroidered sleeves because they well remember the "seismic upheaval" of the Eighties, when the Roman Catholic Church was swept from all influence on Irish civic life by having its "special position" . . . ie, its position as the established State religion under law . . . removed from the Constitution. Seismic upheaval, my eye.

Nothing changed. As the church authorities knew nothing would change: they still had control of the health system through religiously owned and run public hospitals and control of the ethics committees of private hospitals, and through their all-powerful and all-encompassing grip on the education system. To this day, everyone training to be a teacher in the state primary system has to qualify with a Certificate in Religious Education. That's Roman Catholic education.

It emerged recently that in Mary Immaculate Training College for Teachers in Limerick, the students spend four times as many hours studying (Catholic) religion as they do studying science.

Just as it emerged many years ago in studies carried out by the OECD that 23 per cent of all Irish adults between the ages of 16 and 65 are functionally illiterate, that is, cannot read the destination on a bus, or the directions on a packet of medication. The response of successive governments has been to ignore the unpalatable truth, even to deny it flatly, and certainly not to adjust the balance of instruction. The future may not be safe for democracy or knowledge, but at least it's safe for good Catholic indoctrination.

Then along comes Ruairi, swinging his school-bag. Not a wet day with his feet under the desk in Marlborough Street, and he's putting the future of Irish civilisation at risk. "We're codding ourselves," about our education system, he says. Imagine! A government minister using plain language, and then daring to say that youngsters should be encouraged to think, indeed taught how to think, not what to think. It amounts to creeping secularism of the most insidious kind: that's the judgement from Catholic groups since his appointment, and their judgement is the best argument for secularism in education that I've heard in quite a while.

Suddenly, all that gentleman's agreement about the need to reduce the percentage of State schools under Catholic "patronage" is floating away on the nearest breeze. The Catholic Schools Partnership has stepped in, yelling its head off in an 8,000-word "position paper". Actually, the position can be summed up in a sentence: "Hands off Catholic control of the primary schools."

The CSP, a group "providing support for all partners in the Republic's Catholic schools", sounds like an objective body. In fact it's a committee set up by the Conference of Religious of Ireland and the Irish Bishops' Conference, to protect their own power in education. And the chair, a man called Fr Michael Drumm, has thrown a wobbly at the suggestion by the minister that the process of handing over "patronage" should begin next January, and that ultimately, the number of schools taken out of Catholic control should be up to 1,500, or 50 per cent of the total.

Fr Drumm thinks it should be 10 per cent . . . on account of the logistical difficulty of a handover, you understand. By that, he presumably means the logistics of getting the State to agree to a massive pay-off for the church to show our appreciation for already having paid them handsomely for their "contribution" and to "compensate" them . . . followed by no change in the status quo of church power. That's what usually happens.

What the CSP wants is a lengthy period of consultation, and a series of pilot studies . . . a bit like a class of a tribunal, maybe? And that's before the process can even be set in train. After all, according to Fr Drumm last week, the very mention by the minister of a 50 per cent figure for the transfer of school control has already "destabilised school communities".

Begob, Ruairi Quinn must be reeling as he looks in his shaving mirror and sees reflections of Ivan the Terrible, Joe Stalin and Rasputin.

Sunday Independent