The issue of the relationship between the State and private education providers, and its implications for the educational rights of children and parents, is a particularly pressing and difficult one in Ireland, which illustrates a variety of complexities that can arise from constitutional provisions concerning religious liberty in the education system. For various historical and political reasons, the Irish State has chosen to discharge its duty to provide education to its citizens in an overwhelmingly indirect manner, through the provision of funding to private schools rather than through the direct provision of public State-run schools. This historical practice has become deeply embedded in the Irish legal system, both at constitutional and legislative levels. Originally, this model developed to serve the needs of a large Catholic majority and a small but significant Protestant minority, and was a reasonably good fit for the demographic make up of Irish society.
In more recent years, immigration, declining rates of religious participation, increasing diversity in the religious make-up of society, and the diminishing role of the Catholic Church in Irish society, have combined to bring this model under increasing scrutiny and pressure. In spite of express constitutional guarantees to parents regarding their right to determine the religious education of their children, parents in many areas of Ireland find themselves with little or no real freedom of choice of school, with no option other than to send their children to a school espousing a specific religious ethos. While the courts have viewed the current arrangement as a vindication of the rights of parents, it is questionable whether such a system vindicates the educational and religious rights of members of minority religions and of none; critical mass, rather than individual liberty, appears to be the key operative factor. This paper will examine how this model has developed and operated in practice, and how the deeply embedded nature of the current approach causes efforts at reform to encounter serious resource difficulties as well as barriers stemming from the prevailing concept of religious freedom.