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Reviewed by:
  • Freedom of Religion and Schools: the Case of Ireland, A Failure to Protect International Human Rights Standards
  • Ronna Greff Schneider (bio)
Alison Mawhinney, Freedom of Religion and Schools: the Case of Ireland, A Failure to Protect International Human Rights Standards (Saarbrucken: VDM, Verlag Dr. Müller, 2009), ISBN 9783639141023, 218 pages.

In her book, Freedom of Religion and Schools: the Case of Ireland, Alison Mawhinney, succinctly states her theme in the book’s subtitle: the structure of the Irish primary education system constitutes “a failure to protect international human rights standards.” More specifically, Mawhinney examines the role of religion in the Irish system of publicly funded primary education through multiple lenses: historical, legal, and empirical.

The Irish primary school system is almost entirely composed of schools that are owned and operated by private religious organizations rather than the state; however, these schools are still state-funded.1 The book offers a detailed description of the ownership and governance structure of these primary schools. Most of these schools are managed by the Catholic Church, with a small percentage being controlled by Protestants, and an even smaller percentage being multi-denominational schools.2 As the author repeatedly emphasizes, there is essentially no parallel state-owned system.

Mawhinney’s message is simple and direct: an education system that is almost entirely run by private bodies, almost all of which belong to a particular religious denomination, cannot adequately protect the rights of minority-belief children and their parents in the absence of some meaningful and readily available, publicly funded, alternative education. Such an alternative is not available in Ireland, despite the state’s constitutional obligation to provide free primary education.

The author maintains that this failure on the part of the state is in violation of international human rights standards to which Ireland is subject. She looks at how the Irish system violates three rights guaranteed under international human rights norms: the right to freedom of religion, the right to an education, and the right to employment. Mawhinney stresses that understanding the current educational structure is key to evaluating and assessing the violations of international human rights standards discussed throughout the book.

The book is an excellent source of both Irish and international scholarship concerning issues involving religion and publicly funded education. It also provides an analysis of cases from a variety [End Page 1163] of other countries that address such questions and that rely on international human rights standards. In particular, Mawhinney focuses on the European Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. She also examines the provisions of a number of other international human rights conventions and treaties. The book should be of value to those specifically interested in such issues in Ireland as well as those with a broader global perspective since the accommodation of increasingly religiously diverse populations in publicly funded education is becoming a more universal concern.

Mawhinney is certainly sensitive to this need within Ireland as she notes the changing demographics within that country and the increasing number of individuals in Ireland who “do not identify themselves with the religious denominations that own and manage the vast majority of primary schools.”3 She argues that this clearly raises “the question of the appropriateness of the dominant role of religious schools in a society that is exhibiting greater diversity in its beliefs—religious and non-religious.”4

The book begins by using the historical lens to explain why and how the current system developed its denominational character. The author seems to assume that the reader will have very little knowledge regarding the background of the Irish system and therefore provides an excellent recounting of nearly three centuries of education history in Ireland. Her focus is essentially on the period from the time of the creation of a national system of education in Ireland in 1831 through its evolvement into the current system.

That original national system was not created by any statutory framework, but was instead essentially established according to criteria set forth in a letter from the Chief Secretary of Ireland, E.G. Stanley, to the Duke of Leinster, and subsequently referred to as the Stanley Letter. Public funding...


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