How UN committees influence Irish social policy

How UN committees influence Irish social policy
Ireland has to answer to international organisations overwhelmingly secularist and ‘liberal’ in their outlook, writes David Quinn

The bishops will have to starting preparing themselves for a possible referendum on schools within the lifetime of the next government. The distinct possibility of such a referendum was flagged at an appearance by Ireland before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva last week.

Minister for Children, James Reilly, was heading the Irish delegation that appeared before the committee. The committee pressed him repeatedly on religious patronage of schools in Ireland and their admissions policies which allow them to admit children from their own faith community first in the event of there being a scarcity of places in the school.

This has obviously been a fairly big issue back here in Ireland with a growing campaign to take away this right from faith schools and from the faith community. The campaign is led by the Labour party and a number of allied organisations along with sections of the media, not least The Irish Times, RTÉ and Newstalk.

However, there is also sympathy for this agenda within the Fine Gael party. This much was obvious from what James Reilly had to say to the UN Committee and to reporters afterwards. (‘Reporters’ here seems to chiefly mean The Irish Times reporter present.)


Minister Reilly told The Irish Times: “I don’t believe that it is appropriate that a child needs to be baptised to go to school.”

Of course, strictly speaking a child doesn’t need to be baptised to go to school in Ireland. The possibility arises only in the case of Christian schools and only in the 20% of schools that are over-enrolled. There are thousands of non-baptised children in Christian schools around the country.

Among those accompanying the Minister to Geneva was Caitríona O’Brien of the Department of Education.  When asked by the UN Committee if Ireland intends to amend section 7.3 of the Equal Status Act – which permits faith schools to admit children from the school’s faith community ahead of other children in the event of over-enrolment – said: “That’s the intention, yes.”

The current Education Minister, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan, has said she envisages an amendment to that Act which would force faith schools to set aside up to 49% of places for children who do not belong to the faith of the school. This would go a very long way towards nullifying the purpose of such schools. Would it even be constitutional?

Asked about this afterwards by The Irish Times, Minister Reilly referred to the constitutional protection afforded to denominational schools and said, “the only way to get forward momentum on this might be in the next government”, adding when asked about the possible need for a referendum, “that is the advice we have”.

Article 42.4 of the Constitution acknowledges that the State provides for primary education and will not discriminate between schools managed by religious when providing State funding. Article 44.2.5 adds: “Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for charitable purposes.”

Overall, the Constitution obliges the State to be responsive to parents, not the other way around, with regard to education.

What kind of constitutional amendment would the next government seek? To what extent would it seek to weaken the rights of the various faith communities in Ireland?

Even without a referendum, however, it is very clear that the admissions policy of faith schools is going to come under a lot of pressure in the next government (depending somewhat on its makeup) and the bishops are going to need to have a game plan to respond properly, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the wider Catholic community. Likewise in the case of the other Churches.

You might at this point be wondering why we were in Geneva responding in this way to a UN committee. The answer is that Ireland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and every few years we have to appear before the committee responsible for monitoring it and explain how well we are implementing it.


The process is extremely flawed though because it is so ideologically biased. It works like this. Ahead of a country’s appearance before this or other UN committees, organisations from the country in question are invited to submit their own take on how well the particular UN treaty or convention is being implemented.

Those organisations are overwhelmingly secularist and ‘liberal’ in outlook. This immediately skews the process. Their interpretations of the various UN documents are highly debateable.

Matters are made worse by the fact that the members of the various UN monitoring committees share the same ideological outlook and sing off the same hymn-sheet as the aforementioned organisations.

This makes the process even more skewed. Therefore, among other things, these various UN committees spend a great deal of their time arguing for more permissive abortion laws in countries like Ireland that don’t have such laws. This is despite the fact that a right to abortion is not to be found in any UN document.

Likewise, the Committee on the Rights of the Child is much more concerned about the rights of parents seeking a secular education for their children, than it is about the rights of parents seeking a religious education for their children.

These UN committees will also ignore the plain meaning of their own treaties when it suits them. For example, Article 7.1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child says a child has a right “to know and be cared for by his or her parents”.

But this right is broken in every country that permits children to be brought into being using the sperm or eggs of individuals who do not intend raising their own children. Ireland is one of those countries and we passed a law last year reinforcing this practice called the ‘Children and Family Relationships Act’.

It does not suit the Committee on the Rights of the Child to interpret Article 7.1 as it ought to be interpreted because of the committee’s ideological outlook.

The effect of all this is, of course, to push Ireland in a particular direction. We are going in that direction anyway, but the speed of movement is faster thanks to these UN committees and the organisations they take their lead from. How appropriate is this from a democratic point of view?