As 2015 draws to a close, the South is leaving it in a much more secular state than how it began the year. Of course, under any amount of scrutiny whatsoever, it becomes apparent that the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government have limited the inevitable drive towards the full separation of Church and State that people have demanded and deserve. At almost every opportunity that they have been given, or sometimes under great pressure – created themselves, our conservative forces have often quite skilfully (but on a number of occasions – entirely without tact) made changes that have allowed them to wear a mask of progress while hampering true attempts at creating a society free from conservative backward thinking that permits racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas as well as harmful government policies to continue to go on unchallenged.
For the most part, the parties of the capitalist establishment want the historic connection between the traditionally dominant Church & State to endure. But 2015 has seemingly been claimed by the government as one in which Fine Gael and the Labour Party delivered equality for everyone. The massive support for the YES vote in the Marriage Equality referendum in May (particularly overwhelming in working class communities) and the recent polls showing great opposition to the brutally regressive restrictions on Abortion, exemplified by the Constitution’s 8th Amendment, have both been clear demonstrations that the conservative views of the Church (some of which are openly shared by the political establishment), are not remotely in line with those of the people any longer, if indeed they ever truly were.
These ruling parties still refuse to recognise that diversity in current times requires legislation to reflect it, ending legal discrimination in numerous areas of society. Much of this discrimination is propagated by the Church, the legacy of the influence they have had since the founding of the State is as evident today as it ever has been, particularly in our medical and educational institutions. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act allowed religious, educational or medical institutions under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes to discriminate against an employee or prospective employee to prevent them from, supposedly “undermining the religious ethos of the institution”. This meant that LGBTQ teachers and hospital workers, along with atheists, unmarried mothers, divorced people, minority faiths and others could be legally discriminated against and fired by Church-run or owned institutions. This is a particularly serious issue, given that some 96% of primary schools have denominational patronage and 90% of them are Catholic-owned or run. 50% of our secondary schools and many of our hospitals are church-run also. This is a serious indictment against any claim that there exists a separation of Church and State in Ireland. The recent amendment of Section 37 means LGBTQ people can no longer be discriminated against in such institutions, but it did not change the situation for other groups for which discrimination is still permitted, as originally proposed in the summer by the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA). The current government version of the amendment excluded this, however, and when the AAA tried to alter this, the government and other parties of the capitalist establishment voted against it. They expose their own hypocrisy in regard to the separation of Church and State, when they make promises that they would much rather not keep when the opportunity to do so is forced upon them by the Left.
Church patronage of schools creates other problems beyond employment discrimination which are directly permitted by the government. For example, even if it were the will of the majority to have Catholic patronage, minority rights are also a matter where this patronage is greatly problematic. The State funds all schools, pays the salaries and trains the teachers, but permits admission policies which are exclusive, discriminating against those of other faiths or none by giving preferential treatment to Catholics. There is also the significant issue of freedom of conscience, as people who are not Catholic or religious are being forced to teach religion (which in practice means simply teaching Catholicism) and to go to schools to which they do not really want to go. For refugees, immigrants, atheists and others, such a discriminatory education system is a horribly alienating array of Catholic doctrine to be welcomed with.
This lack of separation of Church and State continues in discriminatory medical practices. For instance, an archaic and stigmatic lifetime blood ban is imposed on men who have had sex with men. There is no scientific, medical, or logical basis for this. Even if bisexual and gay men get tested and are certified as having perfectly healthy blood suitable for always direly-needed donations, they must be refused by medical staff on grounds that can only be be termed homophobic, and the result of Catholic interference in Ireland’s medical practices. This interference and blatant lack of separation of Church and State in Ireland is even more evident when it comes to Ireland’s horrific history surrounding abortion. The entirely common medical practice of abortion is a controversial issue only because of backward views foisted on Irish society by religious institutions, which are upheld by the conservative establishment. The constitution is still overwhelmingly strongly Catholic, and reflects some of the absurdly backward Catholic social teachings prevalent in the 1930s, when the original Constitution was drafted.
The conservative parties of the capitalist establishment in the South have made as many ‘progressive’ changes towards the separation of Church from State as possible without really changing the strength and power of religious institutions’ interference in State matters, all of which have serious and harmful repercussions on society. Their bare-faced hypocrisy is most blatant when they attempt to supposedly challenge the influence that the Church still has, by introducing limited amendments and changes that leave the power safely in the hands of the religious elements still active in Irish society. Their Section 37 hypocrisy is their most recent and clear example of this. The introduction of same-sex marriage was the fantastic result of decades of campaigning – demanded and fought for, not benevolently granted by conservative political parties. The treatment of trans* people was among some of the worst in Europe, and the originally proposed legislation was not far off this. The Gender Recognition Act providing a process enabling trans people to achieve full legal recognition of their preferred gender and allowing for the acquisition of a new birth certificate that reflects this change, was incredibly limited in its original form which these same parties would have been happy to introduce, were it not for the tireless work of groups like TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland) which transformed it into one of the most progressive in Europe (yet it still fails young people under 18, as well as others).
The Establishment’s inherently conservative nature can be most brutally seen through their reluctance (at best!) to act on the issue of abortion, previously introducing unbelievably regressive legislation via the Protection of LIfe During Pregnancy Act in 2013, and only when forced to act. The Church today has a domination over religious and educational institutions that is entirely unacceptable, as religious teachings, whatever religion that may be, should not be granted the power to have an influence on healthcare, education, or politics in a modern society. No matter how prominent a legacy the Church may have had in the South, it should not have influence on institutions where religion should have no relevance whatsoever, especially considering the historical abuses and atrocities that the State has permitted or ignored.
Darragh is a Limerick based Socialist activist and AAA member