Seanad Éireann - Volume 143 - 27 April, 1995
Adjournment Matter. - Financial Support for Irish School of Ecumenics.
Dr. Henry Dr. Henry
Dr. Henry: I thank the Minister for Justice for taking this matter on the Adjournment. Pope John XXIII was one of the most remarkable figures of this century. The Second Vatican Council  was one of the most important events. The Irish School of Ecumenics was founded in 1970 as an Irish attempt to mark and to respond to the historically significant changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. The ecumenical movement of modern days sprang from a series of conferences involving the Missionary Movement of the Protestant Churches. The new attitudes and policy marked by Vatican II signalled a change of remarkable and world wide significance. The founding and the ecumenical basis of the Irish School of Ecumenics deliberately reflected that change at a very early stage. Throughout its 25 year history, the Irish School of Ecumenics basis, organisation, staffing, curriculum and student body has been fully representative of the different Churches on this island.
The school is constituted legally as a trust, separately for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The policy and general direction of the school is governed by the academic council, a body of some 50 members drawn from the Churches and public service, from industry, from academic institutions and from the wider community. The council appoints an executive board to which the director is responsible for the running of the school and its financial management.
The areas of study in the school include unity and diversity in the Church; the Eucharist and intercommunion; mission, evangelism and dialogue; Christianity and major world religions; conflict, resolution and nonviolence; international politics; the politics of development and conflict and change in contemporary Europe. I am sure the Minister will agree that these topics are of great relevance nationally and internationally at present.
At this critical time, when we are all attempting to forward peace and reconciliation on this island, the school may have to close due to lack of funds. Students, who come on an international basis, cannot be enrolled now if the  school will not be open in September. It would be a disaster if, ironically, as we are making such progress towards peace, our only institute of peace studies was to close down.
The school has had a long struggle to remain financially viable. Its student fees contribute to less than 25 per cent of its income, while donations, gifts, collections and grants make up about 30 per cent. In recent years, with increased appreciation by the Churches of the work of the Irish School of Ecumenics, direct grants from Church bodies have amounted to about 12 per cent of its income. Small contributions have also been received from some Government sources in Dublin and Belfast, many countries abroad, the World Council of Churches and the International Fund for Ireland. However, the school still awaits a realistic grant-in-aid subvention from the Irish Government — a subvention extended to most educational establishments in the country — without which its work is not only hampered and restricted, but its very existence is put in doubt.
We realise the importance of the Irish School of Ecumenics following the representations made by some of its members to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Given a more realistic funding base, it could make a much more significant and revolutionary contribution to Irish life, secular and religious, community and Church. These are all extremely important at this time. The school has experience, skill, academic standing and reputation, practical and applied techniques and local and national knowledge and contacts.
With the creation of a non violent situation, resulting from the paramilitaries cease fires, and the movement towards an environment of open politics, free from the fear of death and injury, the challenge of sectarian bitterness, intercommunity fear and religious bigotry remains to be met, answered and transformed by a new valuing of diversity. Such has been the dedicated aim of the Irish School of Ecumenics through the  long years of the troubles. This contribution, through an era of conflict and alienation, has helped sustain the integrity of community life and leadership and foster a climate where the seeds of peace can take root.
The current director of the school, Sr. Geraldine Smyth, has worked in Northern Ireland and the school has expanded its staff there also, since it feels that an energetic response to the peace process is needed. It has undertaken a major research project there called “Moving Beyond Sectarianism”, the purpose of which is to explore the theological, ethical and structural factors which affect interchurch and cross cultural relationships in Northern Ireland. Psychological, religious and community dimensions will be examined, using an interdisciplinary and ecumenical approach.
The project will include the formation of cross-community groups of people who can reflect on their experience of sectarianism and develop processes of healing and open exchange. This will enable a deeper understanding of the dynamics of sectarianism and develop procedures which encourage respect for diversity and cross community development, thus leading to the transformation of sectarianism.
The project is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Coventry Cathedral Development Trust, the Christendom Trust and the Central Community Relations Unit of the Northern Ireland Office. Where is our contribution? The Constitution rightly does not allow for the support of denominational theology, but surely this is the antithesis of that. To quote the late John Whyte: “The Christian Churches are so important in Northern Ireland society that, paradoxically, there is little literature directly on them.”
It has been said that the very complexity of the troubles in Northern Ireland has allowed academics and Church people to neglect the obvious significance of sectarianism. The less obvious significance of sectarianism in this State should also be examined.  When religious minorities are very small, cherishing their beliefs is as important as when they are large and in a position to make their voices heard.
When Fr. Michael Hurley established the school, he chose the motto: “May it flourish in order to perish.” Those are very important words, particularly at this time in our history. Much has been achieved in the last 25 years in terms of closer relationships among the Churches, both leadership and laity. However, the school must flourish for a much longer period before we can say we are in a position to allow it to perish.
We should be mindful at this time of Pope John XXIII's commitment to tolerance and reconciliation between the Christian denominations and all religions. The will to continue the work is there. Surely the Irish Government will not allow it to finish prematurely for lack of funds of approximately £150,000 per annum?
Minister for Justice (Mrs. Owen) Nora Owen
Minister for Justice (Mrs. Owen): I am happy on behalf of the Minister for Education to express her appreciation of the valuable work undertaken by the Irish School of Ecumenics since its establishment in 1970. The role and objectives of the school are set out in its mission statement, which states:
The Irish School of Ecumenics is an international academic institute, Christian in its inspiration and ethos, interdenominational in structure and personnel. It exists to promote through research, teaching and extramural activities the unity of Christians, dialogue between religions and work for peace and justice in Ireland and abroad. Its resources are available to churches and other appropriate bodies committed to unity, dialogue and peace.
There is no doubt that at no time in the history of this State could there be a greater appreciation of the aspirations expressed in this mission statement. It would, however, be unfair and misleading to imply that there has been no recognition of the role and contribution  of the school in the peace and reconciliation process on our island. The school has been in receipt of Exchequer funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs since 1984 in recognition of its cross-Border activities in the sphere of peace and reconciliation. I note there is a provisional budget in 1995 of £30,000 from the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1993, a special once off grant of £15,000 from the Irish Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust Fund was also made to the school.
However, the school offers an educational course in ecumenics and peace studies in association with Trinity College and the University of Ulster. It is in respect of these educational activities that the school seeks funding from the Minister for Education over and above that being provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs. There seems little need to emphasise the heavy cost that the provision of educational services places on the Exchequer. However, one indication is that Exchequer expenditure on third level education rose from £186 million in 1985 to an estimated  £433 million for the current year. It is probably true to say that at no time in the history of this State has there been a greater demand for and a greater emphasis on the provision of educational services.
How the resources available to the Minister should be spread across the different sectors in education has also been the subject of great debate in recent years. I am glad to tell the Senator that the school's application for funding is under active consideration in the Department of Education at present and the Minister will give her response to it in the near future.
Dr. Henry Dr. Henry
Dr. Henry: I thank the Minister for her reply on behalf of the Minister for Education. I ask the Minister to express our concern to members of the Government. It would be extremely unfortunate if a school of peace studies failed at this time. This is one of my main reasons for taking up this issue on behalf of the school.
The Seanad adjourned at 4 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 3 May 1995.
Seanad Éireann 143 Adjournment Matter. Financial Support for Irish School of Ecumenics.