ExcellentThe choice is simple: all or nothing
What was the first thing the Dáil did when it assembled in June after the general election? All the reports will tell you that the new term started with the election of the Ceann Comhairle. In fact, it started with a prayer, asking God to direct all the words and actions of its members. This is what happens at the start of every session of the Dáil and Seanad. It is so much taken for granted that no one even mentions it and the parliamentary reports do not carry the text of the prayer, writes Fintan O'Toole .
Christianity - and often a specific Catholicism - frames the functioning of the Irish State. The preamble to the Constitution invokes the "Most Holy Trinity". Article 44 commits the State to hold the name of Almighty God "in reverence". Juries and voters are sworn on the Bible, unless they specifically request another form of affirmation, so that a religious declaration, implicit or explicit, is central to the way a citizen performs the actions that define citizenship.
Public hospitals are heavily adorned with Catholic symbols. Religious schools are, for most people, the only schools their children can attend. It is impossible to be trained as a primary teacher outside a college owned and run by a Christian church. RTÉ, the State broadcaster, starts its main news bulletin a minute late in order to allow it to mark a specific Catholic religious practice, the Angelus.
The Army runs an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. It provides guards of honour for the inauguration of Catholic bishops. This is not just a quirky tradition - there is a specific Defence Force regulation under the Defence Act that lists, among the duties of the Army, the provision of guards of honour at episcopal and other ecclesiastical ceremonies. The Army's official celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising was presided over by the Catholic Bishop of Meath, Michael Smith.
The Garda organises Masses to mark the anniversaries of the opening of police stations. The Dublin metropolitan traffic division, for example, holds a Mass in Dublin Castle which has been attended by the President at least once in recent years. The Garda Commissioner, Noel Conroy, attended the Mass in Knock Basilica to mark the beatification of Mother Teresa, of whom, on her death in 1997, the Taoiseach informed the Dáil, "no one doubts the evident saintliness". Gardaí on duty, like the Taoiseach in the Dáil, wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
There are two ways in which a democratic republic can deal with religious and cultural diversity. The choice between them arises not from immigration, but from the very nature of democratic societies in which people have different beliefs and allegiances. That choice is simple enough: all or nothing.
The State can allow every public servant and every public institution to display and proclaim every lawful expression of religious identity. Or it can allow no public servant or institution to display any expression of religious identity. Either of these positions is sustainable. Typically, however, we are opting for an unjust, unsustainable and potentially explosive muddle.
Some expressions of religious identity - Christian and specifically Catholic - are not just permissible but practically mandatory in the public realm. Others, like Sikhs in the Garda Reserve wishing to wear turbans, are unacceptable.
For my own part, I do not think Sikh officers should be allowed to wear turbans, or Muslim officers allowed to wear hijabs. I entirely agree with Garda spokesman Kevin Donohue when he says that "the person standing in front of you should be representative of the police force - not a Sikh police officer, not a Catholic police officer, not a Jewish police officer".
Such a stance can be hard on Sikhs and members of other faiths, but it is the only way to avoid a Balkanisation of State services, not just in the Garda or Army, but in schools, hospitals, the Dáil and the courts. The preservation of a public realm that everyone enters equally as a citizen is a value of greater importance than any individual's right to express a personal identity while performing a State service.
The problem is that this State has absolutely no right to take such a stance. So long as we refuse even to discuss a non-sectarian education system, so long as we evoke a specific religious belief system in every aspect of our system of governance, we have no right to tell anyone that they have to keep their religion separate from their public function. Unless we are to practise naked discrimination, the logic of our current system is that our police officers can wear turbans, hijabs or Jedi light sabres - anything that is required by their faith. We also have to provide a range of religious schools in every community, all paid for by the taxpayer. We have to start Dáil sessions not with one prayer, but with at least 25 - one for each of the main religious groupings in the State - and with an atheist evocation of humanist principles.
Or we could just cop on to ourselves and start creating a public realm in which all religions are respected because none is invoked.
© 2007 The Irish Times