We are currently riding another wave of self-congratulation on how modern and inclusive we are in Ireland, in the wake of the election of Leo Varadkar as Leader of Fine Gael and presumptive Taoiseach.  We now have a leader to match Canada and France in terms of boyish handsomeness, although not quite so much in terms of policy and ideology methinks.  However, there is little doubt that we in Ireland, have been through a period of transition and change as the country moves from a highly conservative country dominated by the Catholic Church to a more secular, inclusive and open society.

But there are still issues that we still grapple with; the 8th amendment being one and the hold the Catholic church still has on our educational and health systems and infrastructure being another.  We saw these two particular issues coalesce recently over the ownership of the National Maternity Hospital until the Sisters of Charity relinquished their involvement in same.

But while we were exercised on that issue another equally troubling problem with the religious orders was surfacing and that is, the current trend of selling off land belonging to schools; playing pitches and outdoor space particularly in areas where land values are sky rocketing once again.

Historian Diarmuid Ferriter published an interesting column in the Irish Times on June 3rd under the headline ‘How Did Irish Religious Orders Get So Rich?’.  He outlined the familiar fact that, the new Irish state, with limited resources and very high levels of poverty, passed much of the responsibility for welfare to the Catholic Church, which already had an extensive network of charitable and health endeavours.  Ferriter says ”this generated enormous power for the church and great dependence on it.”   The source of the huge wealth generated by these orders, according to Ferriter came from “donations, State aid and the fund-raising of many communities”.

We now have a Catholic church in decline in Ireland, along with ageing religious orders and yet most of our schools are still on land owned by various congregations.  And these congregations, possibly seeing the writing on the wall in terms of public support, along with the prospect of big bucks from rising land values are selling up.  Selling up land which is a vital part of OUR school’s infrastructure.

The Sisters of Jesus and Mary have recently sold 5 acres of land formerly used by Our Lady’s Grove school in Goatstown for a reported €13million.  In recent weeks, we have learned that the Christian Brothers have done a deal with a developer to sell off most of the playing pitches belonging to Clonkeen School in Deansgrange for a reported €18 million.

In both cases, these non fee paying schools will be left without a vital amenity. Outdoor space and playing fields should not be a luxury item for any school, (although of course not every school has access to same) particularly today with rising obesity and mental health issues in our young people.

In 2009 in the wake of the Ryan Report, an offer was

made by the Christian Brothers to put the playing fields associated with their schools into a joint trust to be set up comprising of the Dept. of Education and the Edmund Rice Trust (a body the brothers set up in 2008).  The then Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn countered with an offer that all playing fields be signed over to the state with guaranteed access by the schools for as long as required.  This was rejected by the brothers.

The following is from a report by Colm Keena in the Irish Times on March 10th this year.

In 2013 the Government agreed to a revised proposal under which the congregation would transfer the land to the ERST for the continued use of the schools “subject to a legal requirement that prior approval of the minister be obtained for a disposal of any part of them” and that in the event of a disposal, half the proceeds would go to the State.

The revised proposal was put to the congregation in 2013. Two years later, after a comprehensive review by the congregation of its capacity to meet all its obligations, including its redress contributions, the Government’s proposal was rejected.

The congregation stated that as the initial proposal of joint ownership was not accepted by the minister, and as his counterproposal was not acceptable to either it or to ERST, it was proceeding with the formal transfer of the sports fields to the ERST.

Keena goes on to quote Ruairi Quinn who said that these bodies can decide to change their focus and this could result in decisions to liquidate school assets.  “This is not just an issue for the department, it is an issue for the whole of society.” The present ownership structure could see the “unpredictable and random closure of schools.”

The collateral damage in these actions by the religious orders is our children, once again, whose general wellbeing, mental and physical health are being sacrificed at the altar of greed by congregations of the Catholic Church.

The sale of the playing fields at Clonkeen College as far as we understand, has been agreed but contracts are not expected to be signed until later this year.  As far we can establish Minister Bruton was aware of the secret deal that was hammered out between the Congregation of Christian Brothers and the developer.  Bruton has already stated in the Dail (in answer to a question by Richard Boyd Barrett) that this is a matter for the Christian Brothers.

But is it?  I don’t think so.  This issue affects us all and not just the community in the immediate Dun Laoghaire area from where the school draws its pupils. The sale of the playing pitches at Clonkeen has to be stopped and legislation has to be passed to prevent the wholesale destruction of vital part of our schools infrastructure by these religious orders.

Diarmuid Ferriter finished his column with this.  Almost a century later, the wealth and power of the Catholic Church are still apparent, as is the abject failure of the State to confront the resultant inequality and the irony of the religious orders profiting spectacularly at the expense of community welfare.

It is time that we, the people, demand that our Minister for Education puts a stop to this fire sale of our schools valuable, precious assets.  Ruairi Quinn was right, back in 2009 when he said that this is not just an issue for the Department of Education but one for all of society.

This is an issue that demands a national conversation.  We owe it not only to our children but to our grandchildren and great grandchildren to protect this vital part of our schools’ infrastructure.  As long as schools exist, their playing fields should be protected, from developers, from greedy religious orders and from spineless ministers.  A good start would be to stop the sale of Clonkeen’s grounds before passing legislation that would protect all schools from this asset stripping.

For more information on the campaign to ‘Save Clonkeen Pitches’ see the Facebook page set up by the students here.  They also have a twitter account @clonkeenpitches.  And there is a petition which you could sign here.