Atheist Ireland response to Programme for Government and UN examination of Ireland

by Michael Nugent on May 15, 2016

new governmentThis week saw two significant developments that will affect Atheist Ireland’s work in the coming years: the new Programme for Government, and the UN questioning of Ireland’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review process.

Atheist Ireland will continue to promote an ethical, secular Ireland as partners in the ongoing dialogue process between the Government and religious and nonreligious philosophical bodies, and in our international briefing and lobbying at the United Nations, European Union, Council of Europe, OSCE and other international human rights bodies.

Here is Atheist Ireland’s response to this week’s developments:

  1. Introduction and overview
  2. How the Government says it will govern
  3. Policy commitments that we welcome
  4. Freedom of religion or belief
  5. The law against Blasphemy
  6. Religious discrimination in schools
  7. The UN and non-denominational schools
  8. Constitutional change

1. Introduction and overview

We are pleased that the United Nations this week made recommendations for Ireland to respect human rights with regard to removing our blasphemy law and providing non-denominational schooling and curricula. These are issues that Atheist Ireland raised in Geneva when we lobbied other UN states earlier this year. Ireland’s responses to these recommendations are mixed, as detailed below.

Atheist Ireland also welcomes some of the commitments in the Programme for Government with regard to how the new administration will govern, in particular that it will work in close partnership with the Oireachtas and others outside the Oireachtas.

We also welcome some of its policy commitments, including a referendum to remove the blasphemy clause in the constitution, and the equality proofing of new legislation with the help of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

However, there is no commitment to protecting the fundamental human rights of atheists and minority faith citizens to freedom of religion or belief, freedom from discrimination, equality before the law, and the right to an effective remedy. This is significant, because the State claims it has a constitutional obligation to buttress religious discrimination.

In particular, there is no commitment to ending religious discrimination in schools, despite nine different sets of findings from UN and Council of Europe bodies that Ireland is breaching the human rights of students, parents and teachers.

There is also no commitment to protecting the rights of non-faith or minority religion people who want to train or take up employment as teachers in the State. The outgoing Fine Gael Labour Government committed to addressing this, but then abandoned that pledge.

The Programme for Government’s education policy is based on the flawed premise of “parental choice”. This seems good as a sound-bite, but it will not end religious discrimination in schools. Instead, as the Joint Oireachtas Education Committee has already agreed with Atheist Ireland, multiple patronage and multiple ethos in schools leads to segregation and inequality.

We are disappointed that there is no commitment to removing the religious oaths for President, Judges, Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Chief Justice, Attorney General, chair of the Dail and Seanad, and other offices. We are also disappointed that the question of a referendum to remove the prohibition on abortion has been put into a Citizen’s Assembly that will delay a referendum.

2. How the Government says it will govern

We welcome the following commitments on how the Government will govern:

That the new Government recognises that it does not have a monopoly on good ideas, that they are open to good ideas from any quarter, that they will have to work with others to achieve our shared ambitions, and that they will listen, learn and act.

That the new Government says that it will work in close partnership with the Oireachtas and others outside the Oireachtas, that its desire is to do politics and government in a different way that unites us, and that its ethos will always be open and accessible.

That the new Government says that its approach will be one of good faith and no surprises, and that it will develop relaxed whipping rules, shared ordering of Dail business, extended opposition Dail time and access to assistance in legal drafting of Bills.

3. Policy commitments that we welcome

We welcome the commitment to holding a referendum on the question of amending Article 40.6.1.1 of the Constitution to remove the offence of blasphemy, and Article 41.2.1 regarding a woman’s life within the home. However, the repeal of the eighth amendment has been put into a Citizen’s Assembly that will delay a referendum.

We welcome the commitment to policy-proofing as a means of advancing equality, to ensure that the institutional arrangements are in place to support equality and gender proofing within key Government Departments, and to draw on the expertise of the IHREC to support the proofing process. However, this does not seem to encompass the many existing laws that breach human rights and equality standards, particularly in the education system, about which the State has been repeatedly told by UN and other human rights regulatory bodies.

We welcome the international commitment to promoting fundamental rights, the rule of law and religious freedom, and supporting efforts by the EU and UN to stop the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, to protecting and promoting human rights through multilateral fora, and supporting the work of human rights defenders. However, the programme fails to protect the human rights of atheists and minority faiths within Ireland, particularly in the education system.

We welcome the recognition that radicalisation and terrorism pose a threat to our safety and our value system, and the commitment to support EU and UN efforts to tackle radicalisation outside the EU’s borders by measures such as working with third countries to stop the advance of brutal terrorists. We believe that this commitment should be accompanied by a commitment to respect the human rights of individual Muslims living in Ireland.

4. Freedom of religion or belief

Despite the commitment to equality proofing of laws, there is no commitment to protecting the fundamental human rights of atheists and minority faith citizens to freedom of religion or belief, freedom from discrimination, equality before the law, and the right to an effective remedy.

This is significant, because the outgoing Fine Gael Labour Government, and the Department of Justice, have claimed that the State has a constitutional obligation to buttress religious discrimination, despite repeated findings by UN and Council of Europe bodies that Ireland is breaching these fundamental human rights.

Ironically, with regard to international relations and work within the UN, the draft programme commits to promoting fundamental rights and religious freedom, protecting and promoting human rights through multilateral fora, and supporting the work of human rights defenders. However, the programme fails to protect these rights in Ireland.

5. The law against Blasphemy

We welcome the commitment in the Programme for Government to hold a referendum on the question of amending Article 40.6.1.1 of the Constitution to remove the offence of blasphemy. However, we remain skeptical about this commitment until we see it actually happening, and we will continue to actively lobby on this issue.

Why are we skeptical? Since the new blasphemy law was passed in 2009, both Governments have said they supported removing it, yet neither of them have done so. Also, last week, when the United Nations asked Ireland about this issue, Ireland did not say that it supports the recommendations made to remove it.

The United Nations was examining Ireland’s human rights record under a process called the Universal Periodic Review. Following lobbying in Geneva by Atheist Ireland, France and Sweden made the following recommendations:

“6.53: Repeal the constitutional and legislative provisions criminalising the offense of blasphemy, as these provisions could constitute an excessive limitation to the freedom of expression. (France)

6.54: Take necessary steps to amend its legislation on freedom of expression, and remove the prohibition on blasphemy, in line with ICCPR Article 19 and Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34, and the Venice Commission’s recommendation. (Sweden)”

Despite the commitment in the Programme for Government, Ireland did not tell the United Nations that it supports these recommendations. Instead, Ireland said only that it will examine the recommendations, and provide responses in due time, no later than the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council in September 2016.

6. Religious discrimination in schools

There is no commitment in the Programme for Government to ending religious discrimination in schools, despite nine different sets of findings from UN and Council of Europe bodies that Ireland is breaching the human rights of students, parents and teachers in Irish schools.

There is no commitment to protecting the rights of non-faith or minority religion people who want to train or take up employment as teachers in the State. The outgoing Fine Gael Labour Government committed to addressing this, but then abandoned that pledge.

This is what the Programme for Government says under the heading 10.3. Diversity and Choice for Parents:

“We need a dynamic and innovative education system that reflects the diversity of Twenty First Century Ireland. We will strengthen parental choice and diversity in our school system, reflecting the need in modern Ireland for new forms of multi-denominational and non- denominational education, while also safeguarding the right of parents to send their children to denominational schools that offer a distinct religious ethos, should they so wish.

A road map has been agreed for a phased transfer of Catholic schools to new patrons, where the support of communities exists. We will work with all stakeholders to facilitate this process whilst also considering new approaches such as the potential of different patrons on a single site. We will increase the number of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools with a view to reaching 400 by 2030.”

But parental choice will not end religious discrimination in schools. Instead, as the Oireachtas Education Committee agreed with Atheist Ireland two years ago, multiple patronage and multiple ethos in schools leads to segregation and inequality.

Parental choice and support of communities seem positive as sound-bites, but in practice this means choice for Catholic parents and no choice for most other parents. It means that atheist, secular and minority faith parents might have their human right to a religiously-neutral education, but only if their neighbours agree. We wouldn’t tolerate such inequality in the provision of any other state service, and we shouldn’t tolerate it with education.

For example, the Government talks about safeguarding “the right” of parents to send their children to denominational schools, while describing other types of schools only in terms of “needs”. But there is no right for parents to have the State fund any particular type of denominational education. If there was such a right, then it would have to apply to all parents and not just religious ones, and that is clearly impractical for obvious reasons.

The State has a duty to respect equally the human rights of all children, parents and teachers. This requires a national network of public secular schools, inclusive of all, neutral between religions and atheism, and focused on the educational needs of all children equally. This requires changes to the four key areas of Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching.

The target in the Programme for Government (of reaching 400 non-denominational and multi-denominational schools by 2030) will simply make the problem worse. 400 such schools out of over 3,000 will mean that most families will still have no access to secular education, and the minority of families who do will be segregated from their local communities.

Also, without changes to the Education Act and the school curriculum, it is in practice impossible to have a non-denominational school in Ireland. There are currently no nondenominational schools in Ireland. Educate Together schools are multi-denominational, despite their recent decision to stop describing themselves as such. But there is no ambiguity here. The Government is clear that Educate Together schools are multi-denominational.

7. The UN and non-denominational schools

Last week, when the United Nations asked Ireland about this issue, Ireland gave somewhat contradictory responses. Following lobbying in Geneva by Atheist Ireland about secular education, India, Czech Republic, Slovenia and the United States of America made recommendations. Ireland said that it supports the following three recommendations:

“5.138: Wider availability of multi-denominational and non-denominational schools to better cater to the multi-cultural society in Ireland today. (India)

5.139: Establish a system providing children and their parents the real opportunity to choose from among religious, multi-denominational or non-denominational types of schooling and curricula. (Czech Republic)

5.140: Ensure that all children have the option to attend a non-denominational school at no extra cost. (Slovenia)”

The key recommendations here is 5.140, to ensure that all children have the option to attend a non-denominational school at no extra cost. This is the key to respecting equally everybody’s right to freedom of religion or belief. A non-denominational school is the only type of school that is neutral between all religions and beliefs.

If everyone has access to a non-denominational school and curriculum, then denominational and multi-denominational schools can genuinely be choices, and cease to be restrictions on human rights. Ireland has told the United Nations that it supports this recommendation, but the Programme for Government does not reflect this.

However, Ireland did not say that it supported the United States recommendation, saying only that it will examine the recommendation, and provide responses in due time, no later than the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council in September 2016. This is the US recommendation:

“6.80: Review and amend laws, as appropriate, to ensure that publicly funded schools provide equal access to education for all, irrespective of one’s faith or religious affiliation. (United States of America)”

The significance of this seems to be that Ireland is saying that it will support the setting up of some multi-denominational and non-denominational schools, but it will not support ensuring that all publicly funded schools should provide equal access irrespective of religion or belief.

8. Constitutional change

We welcome that there is a commitment in the Programme for Government to holding referendums to remove the constitutional prohibition against blasphemy, and the Article on a woman’s life within the home.

However, there is no commitment to changing the unspecified clauses in the Constitution that caused the outgoing Fine Gael Labour Government to claim that the State has a constitutional obligation to buttress religious discrimination.

There is no commitment to removing the religious oaths for President, Judges, Taoiseach, Tanaiste, Chief Justice, Attorney General, chair of the Dail and Seanad, and other offices.

There is a commitment to establish a Citizen’s Assembly, with a mandate to look at a limited number of issues over an extended period, and to make recommendations on other issues, including the issue of the eighth amendment. This seems to be an unnecessary delaying tactic to avoid holding an immediate referendum to remove the eighth amendment.

The Programme for Government says that the challenge of constitutional reform will not fall to any one party, nor will it be the responsibility of the Government alone, but will be the responsibility of every member of parliament, and will require constant pursuit during the lifetime of the parliament. We hope that all members of parliament will support the holding of referendums on all of the above secular issues.

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