Ireland to fund non-Catholic schools for immigrant-heavy parts of Dublin

Dublin, Ireland - Ireland announced Thursday it will organize new non-Catholic primary schools in Dublin, a move that reflects growing immigration and declining church power in this traditionally Catholic nation.

Education Minister Mary Hanafin said two new schools planned for northwest Dublin would not be controlled by the Catholic Church, which for more than a century has been the principal administrator in Irish education — including for 99 percent of primary-age children today.

Hanafin made the move after widespread criticism of how Catholic-run schools favor applications from children baptized as Catholics and sometimes close enrollments early — policies that most disadvantage new arrivals from non-Catholic parts of the world.

The issue has grown each year since the mid-1990s, when Ireland's newly booming economy fueled its first-ever wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.

In little more than a decade, Ireland has gone from being a virtually all-white society to one with a large immigrant population, particularly on Dublin's north side, which is developing neighborhoods with predominantly foreign-born populations.

"The new schools will be open to children of all religions and none. They will be interdenominational in character, aiming to provide for religious education and faith formation during the school day for each of the main faith groups represented," Hanafin said.

She said a third elementary school in Dublin, which opened three months ago under the patronage of the Catholic Church, would be transferred to secular control within the next two years. About 95 percent of that school's students are non-Catholics, chiefly Muslims and Protestants from Africa.

Hanafin's department has been harshly criticized for failing to plan adequately for the impact of immigration on schools, which for decades have developed slowly and in consultation with church authorities.

The major opposition party, Fine Gael, complained that the government provided too little support to teach Ireland's 31,000 foreign-born students in primary schools how to speak English.

Sen. Eugene Regan said schools were receiving a maximum of two extra teachers who specialized in teaching English as a second language. He said some schools were "buckling under the pressure of coping with large numbers non-English-speaking pupils."

In September, the Department of Education offered emergency support for establishing a new elementary school in suburban north Dublin after dozens of African families complained that their children had been denied places in the existing overcrowded schools.

Catholic leaders welcomed the government's move as a reflection of social reality.

"The Catholic Church welcomes choice and diversity within the national education system. We believe that it is important to accommodate the rights and needs of people of different faith backgrounds, and of none, to an education which reflects, as far as possible, their sincerely held convictions and values," said Bishop Leo O'Reilly, chairman of the Education Commission of the Irish Bishops Conference.

The Catholic Church gained a commanding role in Irish education in the mid-19th century. But it has struggled to maintain its position in the face of declining Mass attendance and dwindling numbers of priests, nuns and lower-ranking "brothers," who once provided the backbone for high school education.

In recent years, church authorities have concentrated on retaining a near-monopoly on patronage of elementary schools, where students go through the church's key steps of membership: First Communion, around the age of 7, and Confirmation four years later.

First Communion involves eating the church's bread wafer — which the church teaches is transformed into the literal body of Jesus Christ — for the first time. Confirmation involves taking a pledge of commitment to Catholic teachings. The new schools will permit church support for preparing Catholic students for both sacraments.