In 2015, a referendum was held to allow the people in the South to decide whether same-sex marriage should be legalised – 62% of voters supported legalisation and in turn defied the dominance of the Catholic Church within state policy. However, the political establishment have since shown no sign of stepping toward full separation of church and state.
In contrast to the popular demand for a secular society, announcements were made during April of plans to award the running of a National Maternity Hospital in Dublin to the Sisters of Charity, a religious order who have yet to pay their share of a compensation scheme for victims of institutional abuse. This revelation has caused public outrage, leading to protests. Continually, we are reminded of the atrocities Church institutions have inflicted upon women, such as the enslavement of thousands of women and girls in the Magdalene Laundries, yet the political establishment refuse to hold these institutions accountable and instead continue to place the health of women in the hands of the Church.
Instead of addressing demands to separate religious institutions from vital services, a month after the proposal, the Southern government passed legislation requiring all TD’s (members of parliament) to stand for a prayer and observe a moment’s silence at the opening of Dáil business. This was protested on its first day by representative of Solidarity – of which the Socialist Party is part – who remained sitting and held signs saying ‘Separate Church & State’.
The continued dominance of the Catholic Church in the Southern state was underlined when an investigation against Stephen Fry was announced based on blasphemy laws. This followed an interview where he explained how he, as an atheist, would react if he found himself before god at ‘the pearly gates’. The charges increased the demand for the removal of the Defamation Act and urged many members of the public to speak against religious influence with state legislation
Religious control over education in the South is currently being tackled by Solidarity TDs, who have announced the Equal Participation in Schools Bill which will be debated in the Dáil. The bill aims to stop discrimination on the grounds of religion, as currently Catholic schools can reject unbaptised students, and also aims to incorporate secular sex education.
Similarly, more people in the North are recognising the need to separate religious institutions from education. Segregation on the basis of religion breeds sectarianism and fear of different communities, which serves the interests of the Unionist and nationalist establishments and the churches. In order to fully move on from the past, the removal of religious orders from schools and the full integration of pupils in a comprehensive, free education must be established.
Religious influence in both the Catholic maintained and state controlled sectors has a large part to play in the scaremongering of young people into avoiding discussions surrounding sexuality, contraception and reproductive rights. The Christian ethos binds schools to heteronormative, conservative sexual education that does not deal adequately and in a fact-based way with issues such as relationships, abortion or the LGBTQ+ community. This inevitably leads to the detriment of the mental and physical health of young people.
Religious influence is used as a prop by the conservative establishments on both sides of the border, and both Orange and Green. We live in an increasingly secular and multi-cultural society. We need to fight to remove all religious influence from education, healthcare and state institutions. This demand must be interwoven into the struggles for abortion rights, LGBTQ+ equality and the fight against sectarian division.
By Casey Slevin,
(Dungannon Socialist Youth)