OPINION: RECENTLY THE Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, warned that Church of Ireland primary schools are “under a creeping threat”.
This follows comments last October by Ian Coombes, headmaster of Kilkenny College, that the Protestant secondary school section faces severe problems.
The situation of southern Protestants is obviously of prime interest for the people of the Republic.
Less obviously, but very significantly, their position is also of interest to people in the North, especially members of the Protestant and unionist community.
In 1995, Dr John Dunlop, former moderator of the Presbyterian church in Ireland, wrote: “More than any other single factor, the observed decline in the Protestant population in the Republic has confirmed northern Protestants in their prejudices and fears.”
There has been much debate on the treatment of Protestants in the south post-1921. The stark fact is that their numbers fell every decade until the 1990s.
In 2002, Protestant numbers stood at 146,226 compared to 327,179 in 1911. By way of contrast, the Catholic community in Northern Ireland in 2001 numbered 737,412 compared to 430,161 in the same six counties in 1911.
Various factors lay behind the decline in southern Protestant numbers.
In the first decade there were special reasons such as losses during the first World War and intimidation, especially during the Civil War. Subsequently, however, numbers continued to fall, in considerable part because many felt excluded by the new ethos of the State.
In a speech in 2010, Martin Mansergh observed how “post independence . . . notwithstanding vestiges of a more idealistic and inclusive republicanism, there was a concerted effort to create a homogeneous 26-county society, in which there would be no challenge to the hegemony of the church”.
This ethos also affected ideas of Irishness. In 1961, RH Cathcart, headmaster of Raphoe Royal School, Co Donegal, at his annual speech day, observed how Home Rule movement founder Isaac Butt had attended the school, but now people were being told that to be really Irish you had to be Catholic.
Southern members of the Orange Order continued to hold demonstrations in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan in the 1920s. These stopped in the early 1930s because of attacks by republicans and parades were relegated to the remote coastal area of Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal.
For southern Protestants, by the middle of the 20th century, the main cause of the decline in their numbers was the Ne Temere decree of the Catholic Church, which required children of a mixed marriage to be brought up as Catholics.
By 1991, nearly a quarter of all married persons from the Protestant community were in mixed marriages. By 1991, Protestant numbers had collapsed to just over 3 per cent of the population. From 1977 to 1992 only one Protestant TD was elected to the Dáil.
At this stage there was concern that the Protestant community in the South might disappear entirely.
This continuing decline had not gone unnoticed in the North. On January 25th, 1993, Marlene Jefferson, Ulster Unionist deputy mayor of Derry, spoke to the Opshal commission. She said she would have very personal fears about a united Ireland because, as a member of the Church of Ireland, she had seen the dramatic decline in membership of her church in the Republic.
The 1990s, however, witnessed significant improvement. The 2002 census showed Protestant numbers in the south had risen from 107,000 in 1991 to 146,226 in 2002, although in considerable part this growth was due to the arrival of new immigrants. During the 1990s there were sometimes as many as four Protestant TDs in the Dáil.
The new pluralism which appeared in the South, starting with the election of Mary Robinson, meant Protestants could now feel part of a more diverse and tolerant society.
From 1998, then president Mary McAleese held a reception on July 12th for southern Orangemen and their families and others at Áras an Uachtaráin.
At the same time, it is clear that southern society has some way to go to become a genuinely pluralist society.
In 2008, the Department of Education reduced the government grant to secondary schools for Protestant pupils, few of whom have access to free education, unlike their Catholic friends.
In 2010, Archbishop John Neill, said that despite new respect for diversity, “the presence of the majority church is still all-pervasive”.
And recently Dr Jackson expressed “alarm” over the lack of consideration of the effect of funding changes on the future of many small Church of Ireland primary schools.
At the recent Fianna Fáil ardfheis, Micheál Martin repeated the often-made call of republicans to unite “Protestant, Catholic and dissenter”.
If, however, the Protestant community in the South is not treated fairly or fails to prosper, such aspirations will be futile, not only for southern society but for Ireland as a whole.
Prof Brian Walker is a member of the school of politics at Queen’s University Belfast. His book A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace has just been published