DUBLIN – A bishop in Northern Ireland has rejected a claim that Catholic schools represent a “benign form of apartheid.”
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson made the claim and called for an end to state funding for faith-based schools. Catholic politicians have described the comments as “naked sectarianism.”
Bishop Donal McKeown, an auxiliary bishop of Belfast who chairs the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education, rejected Robinson’s analysis and said church-run schools should continue to receive state funding.
“This key principle, which recognizes the right of parents, is guaranteed by the European Convention for Human Rights,” Bishop McKeown said. “It is also the hallmark of a stable and pluralist society, such as exists in Ireland and Britain, and which finds expression in the provision of state-funded faith-based schools.”
Robinson spoke at a function for the mainly Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, leading some people to question his motives.
The education spokesman for the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, Dominic Bradley, accused Robinson of “naked sectarianism.”
Commenting on Robinson’s statement, Bradley told Catholic News Service in mid-October that the comments “are an attack on the right of Catholic parents to have their children educated in the ethos of their faith, a right which they have literally paid for down through the years in Northern Ireland.”
“He is simply electioneering in nakedly sectarian terms in an attempt to win votes,” Bradley said.
Robinson told his supporters: “We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately. I don’t in any way object to churches providing and funding schools for those who choose to use them. What I do object to is the state providing and funding church schools.”
The head of the body that manages Catholic schools in the region reacted angrily to Robinson’s remarks. Donal Flanagan, chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, insisted that it was the state and not the church that had created a divided society in Northern Ireland.
“A large percentage of Catholics who were discriminated against were ‘herded out’ to towns like Newry and large pockets of Belfast where they felt safe. It wasn’t the schools that created this ‘apartheid’ climate – it was the state,” he said.
“There is no Catholic school that you go into that teaches hate,” Flanagan told CNS.
Bishop McKeown noted that “parents who choose faith-based schools for their children pay taxes toward the provision of that education.”
“The Catholic Church has also contributed substantial funding and resources for the provision of Catholic schools over generations, and this has ultimately saved the taxpayer money,” he said.
“Long experience across this island, North and South, shows that Catholic schools are committed to welcoming pupils of all backgrounds and to building a cohesive society in the service of the common good,” Bishop McKeown said.
Caitriona Ruane, Northern Ireland’s education minister, said the government’s policy “is to have a single system of education administration supporting a diversity of schools. This policy recognizes that the diversity of school types, each with its distinctive character and ethos, is a strength of our education system. It is also a reflection of parental and learner choice.”
More than 148,000 students – almost 45 percent of Northern Ireland’s total and nearly 100 percent of Catholics – attend Catholic-managed schools.
While Catholics are a minority in Northern Ireland, the church dominates the provision of denominational education; Protestants have only six schools.
Protestant churches transferred the overwhelming majority of their schools to state control following the creation of Northern Ireland in 1922. At the time, Catholic leaders resisted turning over control of their schools given the distinctive Protestant ethos of the new state.