This is about much more than education
NOBODY should doubt the hurt in the Church of Ireland at present. Archbishop John Neill's outspoken comments this week follow months of anguish within that church and genuine fears that Church of Ireland children won't be able to get a good education in future.
These fears are not unfounded or unreasonable; it certainly seems likely that Church of Ireland children will be getting an inferior education in future as funding is reduced and the pupil-teacher ratio creeps up to 20:1 from 19:1.
This is tough for ordinary Protestants to swallow because while some of the Protestant schools in the country are undoubtedly elitist, that is not their point nor their function. The truth is that the Protestant community is widely dispersed and boarding schools are the only sensible option for parents who want their children to grow up within the Protestant belief system.
Cork's Bishop Paul Colton has described the dispute as "a litmus test of how Ireland treats and values us" and his comments illustrate just why so many Protestants are so unhappy with Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe. This is not just about education but also about the position of a much-maligned and misunderstood part of Irish society.
Any understanding of the modern Protestant experience must acknowledge the near pogrom which took place in the Republic after Independence, a pogrom which drove most Protestants out of the country for good and ended a certain way of life forever. Those who remained were forced to keep their heads down, avoid politics and stick to their own.
There was an unspoken agreement that Catholics would be allowed to run the country while Protestants would be allowed to maintain their own traditions as long as they did nothing to upset the majority.
Those habits die hard and remain a reflex reaction for many Protestants today. We can see it in the make-up of the Dail and many other state institutions. Sebastian Barry's wonderful new play, 'Tales of Ballycumber', which is running in the Abbey at the moment delicately explores this theme, looking at the residue of wariness among many Protestants living in rural Ireland today.
This sense of alienation was fuelled in the 1980s and 1990s as many traditional Protestant institutions were dismantled. The Adelaide Hospital, with its distinctive uniforms, was abolished in 1998, ending a 160-year tradition and robbing Protestants (and free-thinking Catholics) of a distinctive system of care which placed more emphasis on a mother's rights than traditional Catholic hospitals. Other institutions which were once Protestant such as Ulster Bank, Guinness and Trinity College are all now led by Catholics and no longer offer Protestants safe enclaves where they can meet one another. In truth, many people meet their future partners at university or in work and it remains Catholic dogma, even if it is often ignored, that children in so-called mixed marriages be brought up Catholic.
Protestant schools are almost the last bulwark against total absorption by the majority and for this reason Protestants everywhere retain a great affection for them. While this affection is understandable, it sits uncomfortably with many aspects of modern Ireland.
In truth, many Catholics in the Republic are Protestant in all but name. Catholics used to differ from their Protestant neighbours in obvious ways; their belief that the host actually is the body of Christ, for example, their opposition to contraception or their prayers to scores of saints. Today, Catholics tend to listen to their own consciences rather more and papal encyclicals less.
A significant number of Church of Ireland clergy and worshippers are former Catholics who have converted to the Church of Ireland. The 2002 census showed a dramatic increase in all Protestant denominations compared with 1991. The number of Church of Ireland followers jumped 30pc to 115,611 while the number of Presbyterians rose 56pc to 20,582 and the number of Methodists doubled to 10,033. The number of Catholics rose just 7pc in the same period.
CATHOLIC Ireland has changed and the idea that Protestants are a small and vulnerable group under siege is not really tenable. But it remains a potent myth -- one that the bumbling Batt O'Keeffe has unwittingly stumbled upon in a bid to save a few million euro.
A Protestant cabinet minister would have understood how high the emotions run on this issue and urged him to save money somewhere else but there are no Protestant cabinet ministers and Minister O'Keeffe was allowed to sleepwalk into a dispute which will alienate many voters while saving pennies. Still, for all his tactlessness, Minister O'Keeffe is not entirely wrong. The Church of Ireland is stronger than it knows and no longer needs to be singled out for financial aid.
The people of Burke, Grattan, Swift and Parnell, to quote Yeats, are well able to stand on their own two feet.