The Constitution Review Group was established by the government, with Dr TK Whitaker as chairman, in April 1995 to review the Constitution, and in the light of this review, to establish those areas where constitutional change may be desirable or necessary, with a view to assisting the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, to be established by the Oireachtas, in its work. This Committee has since been established.
The Constitutional Review Group in its 1996 Report accepted that the activities in National Schools at present are unconstitutional “In summary, therefore, the present reality of the denominational character of the school system does not accord with Article 44.2.4°. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory. Either Article 44.2.4° should be changed or the school system must change to accommodate the requirements of Article 44.2.4°.”
In considering whether the activities in the National Schools should be changed, or the Constitution changed to suit the illegal activities, the group made the following comments:
The Review Group does not favour the amendment of this part of Article 44.2.4° for the following reasons:
i) Article 44.2.4° may be thought to represent something of an exception to the general rule contained in Article 44.2.3° that the State shall not endow any religion. Accordingly, if a school under the control of a religious denomination accepts State funding, it must be prepared to accept that this aid is not given unconditionally. Requirements that the school must be prepared in principle to accept pupils from denominations other than its own and to have separate secular and religious instruction are not unreasonable or unfair.
ii) if Article 44.2.4° did not provide these safeguards, the State might well be in breach of its international obligations, inasmuch as it might mean that a significant number of children of minority religions (or those with no religion) might be coerced by force of circumstances to attend a school which did not cater for their particular religious views or their conscientious objections. If this were to occur, it would also mean that the State would be in breach of its obligations under Article 42.3.1°
iii) this aspect of Article 44.2.4° reflects an earlier commitment given on behalf of the State contained in the Treaty of 1921 and Article 8 of the 1922 Constitution which was designed to safeguard the rights of religious minorities. Any amendment at this stage would be a retrograde step − especially in the context of Northern Ireland − and would send the wrong signal concerning pluralism in this State.
- The Group’s recommendations were very straightforward in recommending that the existing Constitutional provision for universal multi-denominational National Schools be retained.
- The Constitutional Review Group Report was straightforward is saying that the present system of National Schools, which, in practice, was becoming increasingly denominational, was in breach of the Constitution.
- The Constitutional Review Group’s report should be read in its entirety in assessing the existing situation regarding National Schools and the Constitution.
- A “Catholics First” admissions policy in a National School (introduced since the Report in 1996) exacerbates the unconstitutional position elucidated by the Constitutional Review Group.