A majority of opposition parties in the Dáil, with the exception of Aontú and the Rural Independent Group, have united to severely limit the rights of Catholic and denominational schools and to support the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021 brought forward by the Social Democrats.
The Private Members Bill would prohibit parents from having the right to withdraw their children from relationship and sex education classes that conflict with their values or which they felt were age- inappropriate or overtly ideological in nature.
In support of this position, the main sponsor of the Bill, Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon, pointed to a White Paper published in 2017 by the UN Commissioner for Human Right on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
According to Deputy Gannon, the White Paper recommendation which called for the provision of “comprehensive sex education to be made be mandatory and standardised” should be enshrined as government and state education policy.
Deputy Gannon said that “domestic legislation should not permit children to be withdrawn from age-appropriate sex education that meets the standards of objectivity and impartiality as set by human rights law.”
The Dublin-Central TD said this was a vitally important element of the work to ensure a full separation of Church and State.
He went on to note that “it will not be a clean separation but a long and arduous process of untangling, bind by bind, the many ways in which they are connected and embroiled. It will be messy work. It will be a long journey, one which the Social Democrats and, I am sure, other parties around the Chamber are willing to take on.”
Meanwhile Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns said she found it “unbelievable to think we do not treat relationship and sex education the same as other subjects” and called for an identical standardisation approach to sex education to the one that is currently applied to maths and Irish.
Co-Leader of the Social Democrats Rosin Shortfall described the current system of relationships and sexuality education teaching as “not only socially unjust but reckless.”
For Sinn Fein, the right of denominational schools to teach their own vision of sexuality and relationships was something the party “cannot tolerate.”
The most strident intervention was offered by Labour TD Aodhan O’Riordan, who claimed that Catholic and religious teaching in Ireland “was always” – “out of sync with any sort of reality.”
He went to say that for him, “it is sometimes almost embarrassing to discuss the Irish education system with somebody who is not Irish.”
He also condemned the patrons of Catholic schools for promoting the view that abortion is “wrong” or that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The only party leader to oppose the Private Members Bill was Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín.
Deputy Tóibín said the Bill was an attack on the pluralist education model of a republic.
“I believe wholeheartedly that the Social Democrats Members here today should be able to send their children to any school that reflects their ethos but I oppose strongly that party’s seeking to deny parents of a different ethos doing the same thing.”
“I oppose the Social Democrats forcing their ethos on other families who do not want it. This Social Democrats Bill is an attack on pluralism and on diversity and is a one-size-fits-all Bill. It states that parents can forget about the ethos of their family and that the Minister of the day will determine the ethos of the education system that parents, and students will receive in the future.”
The Rural Independent opposed the Bill as ‘the thin end of the wedge’ and an attempt to impose an educational model that is rarely raised or supported by the majority of parents at constituency level.
The government submitted an amendment to the Bill which would see it debated again in nine months from now.
It is expected that the governments amendment will pass when a vote on the Bill takes place. The Bill is also set to be opposed by the Rural Independent Group of TD’s.