Minister for Education Richard Bruton has announced plans to legislate on the controversial school admissions system.
Under the so-called 'baptism barrier', many children cannot access religious primary schools unless they have been baptised in a Christian faith.
In a speech this morning, Minister Bruton said the Government supported a Labour bill on the issue of admissions - but added that 'significant issues' needed to be worked out.
He explained: "I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, a non-religious child can be refused entry to the local school, because preference is given to a religious child living some distance away.
"I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, many parents who might not otherwise do so feel pressure to baptise their children because they feel it gives them more chance of getting into their local school."
He outlined four different approaches under consideration, stressing that none were straightforward and each raises unique difficulties:
- instituting catchment areas into Irish education legislation for the first time
- a 'nearest school rule' where schools could only give preference to children of a certain religion "where that child is the nearest school of that religion for that child"
- a quota system, where a percentage limit would be placed on admissions for children of a specific religion
- a full prohibition on publicly-funded schools from giving a preference to children based on religion
Minister Bruton observed: "There is no simple solution to this challenge, and there are strongly held views among people who stand to be impacted. No one should pretend that these issues are simple, or that there is an easy fix which solves everything and leaves no possible unintended consequences.
"In particular, as we develop reforms we must strive to avoid impacts on the rights of minority religions."
He also stressed: "These issues only arise in respect of the 20% of schools which are oversubscribed – the percentage of religious primary schools that are oversubscribed is probably much lower. Schools which are not oversubscribed accept all applicants regardless of religion – this will become explicit law following the enactment of the Admissions Bill later this year."
On Newstalk Breakfast, the Minister said he is aiming to ensure Ireland has "the best education service in Europe", and wants the system to accommodate people of different faiths.
"Ireland has changed very substantially, and we now need to respond to the new environment", he said. "Many parents want choice and don't marry in the Catholic or any other denominational setting."
Minister Bruton said allowances need to be made for these families as 96% of primary schools are denominational.
Current law states that a denominational school can give preference to a child of Catholic faith that lives further away from a school than a child of a different faith - or no faith at all - that may live closer.
Minister Bruton believes the time-frame of consultation should be limited to 10 to 12 weeks.
"We need to hear the views of minority religions who could be impacted by these some of these routes," he said.
The proposals were 'cautiously' welcomed by the Humanist Association of Ireland, who said in a statement: "The HAI believe that removal of the baptism barrier provides the best move toward Ireland becoming a truly secular society. The other options may be open to a wider interpretation and possible manipulation.”
The Green Party's deputy leader Catherine Martin said: "We support any attempts to address this issue. However, we would question why this issue can’t be addressed in the current School Admissions Bill that is going through the Oireachtas?
"I have raised this on the Education Committee, and fully intend to make amendments to that affect when we deal with the School Admissions Bill."
Meanwhile, Minister Bruton's comments were criticised by Fianna Fáil.
The party's education spokesperson Thomas Byrne argued: "While the Minister clearly enjoys talking about the subject, he has entirely failed to take any action to implement change."
The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association said it 'broadly welcomes' a public consultation process on school admission policies.
Seamus Mulconry, General Secretary of the association, said: “This issue is being misleadingly referred to as the ‘baptism bar’. It is important to clarify that there is no requirement for parents to have their children baptised in order to gain admission to a Catholic school.
“The issue the Minster is proposing to address only occurs in the small number of schools who are oversubscribed."
New research by the campaign group EQUATE shows that almost one in four parents of children of school-going age would not have baptised their child if they didn't need it to gain entry to their local school.
EQUATE Executive Director Michael Barron says there is growing momentum across Irish society to remove the baptism barrier.
"We've heard from parents who actually regret baptising their children against their beliefs solely on the basis of getting their children into a local school", he said. "We heard last year from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin who said he really did not believe in the practice of baptising children to get into your local school.
"I think there's widespread agreement that it's really not a practice that anybody can really support in a modern democracy."