The Bishop of Derry has said that the exemption of Northern Ireland’s schools from employment laws on religious discrimination is “no longer appropriate or required”.
Bishop Donal McKeown told members of Stormont’s executive committee that the exemption made in 1998 assumed that everybody in Northern Ireland was Catholic or Protestant, but that was “a bizarre assumption for any political decisions in 2022”. He was supported by Gerry Campbell, the chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, who said: “It’s a different world we live in now”.
A private member’s bill from the Alliance Party’s Chris Lyttle would remove the exemption of teachers from the 1976 Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act, which said that “the essential nature of the job requires it be done by a person holding, or not holding, a particular religious belief”. The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order maintained the exemption in 1998.
Members of the committee supported its removal, Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan calling it “an anachronism that should be done away with” while the Democratic Unionist Diane Dodds claimed that “most people believe the exemption does not sit easily with a modern Northern Ireland”.
Although Bishop McKeown defended governors’ rights to uphold the Catholic ethos of their schools, he said that “we have no need whatever to say that you appoint someone just because of their perceived religious affiliation”.
The comments follows the bishop’s reaction to the claim by Michael D Higgins, the Irish president, that Catholic schools in Northern Ireland were “overwhelmingly segregated”. He told The Tablet that this was a “simplistic caricature” and, speaking to the Stormont committee, said that there had “never been any suggestion” of a teacher being denied an appointment at a Catholic school because of their religious beliefs or opinions.
He also warned that the removal of the exemption could be used as a “Trojan horse” to undermine the ethos of Catholic schools.
This will inform the controversy surrounding the Integrated Education Bill, due to be debated in Stormont today. The bill would increase the number of places at integrated schools, which currently educate seven per cent of pupils in Northern Ireland, but has attracted substantial criticism from schools and parents who say it would “elevate integrated schools above every other type of school”.