June 19, 2024

Freedom of Speech? Ah – that would be an ecumenical matter…


I did not condemn the IRA in 1971 when I wrote calling for the withdrawal of troops from Ireland. I was reminded of this the evening of Bloody Sunday, 30-01-1972,  when a group of male, drunken rugby club thugs played a game of judging how near my head they could throw beer bottles, whilst singing, “13 dead taigs it should’ve been more.”

In 1978 I wrote a series of articles under the name Christian Torres calling for a reversal of women’s rights, a ban on contraception and other reactionary things. I got tremendous support until someone realised they were spoof articles and then there were more bottles. I’m not sure how hard Debbie Day Crickmore was going to hit me with her bottle as it was coming from behind. Someone stopped her and then a group of profound Christians held a meeting to decide if they would pray for me. They decided I was too far in league with the devil for prayer or salvation.

In 1982, the publication of my first English Language book for Collins was met with intellectual condemnation of my revisionism by Haringey’s English Advisor. Mind you he was trying, unsuccessfully, poor soul, to seduce my wife.

My use of words has been provocative at times. I have been pleased that my last blog on Parenting and Childhood in Crisis has been so well received by an audience seven times greater than usual and I will return to this theme later in the year. I have been told that parents respected my stance that I am no better than anyone else.


My exhilarated, blistering, biblically uncompromising prose has me in trouble with a few self-appointed spokesmen for Catholicism. Only the very safe, the very cloistered, isolated and dogmatic can be so sure of wrong and right. Waving both English and Irish passports, I am amazed, and politically impressed, that the church in Ireland has lost so much credibility through covering up the sins of its priests that we now have laws allowing divorce, gay marriage, contraception and abortion and a gay Taoiseach whose dad was born in Mumbai. This is fantastically 21st century. However, the governors of St Mary’s Catholic School, Bishops Stortford, and their lawyers, worry that I am dangerous, and, in their deepest, darkest thoughts they seem to fear I wish to perform satanic rights with their young people.

Now I’m not a devout catholic but I have a view on heaven. When St. Peter does his interminable shift of listening to some priests, some nuns, some bishops, archbishops and popes explaining why they performed or covered up sexual, physical and mental abuse of young children I wonder how worried he will be that the next guy seeking entry thinks single faith schools are divisive.

Following a three page speech against my right to free speech by the governors of St Mary’s it was worrying to see that their Headteacher, recently so under siege from just about every national newspaper – and not for the school’s exam results – joined in the final declaration : “We repeat that we respect (his) right to hold and express his views in accordance with the law, but…”

Oh dear, there was a “but”.

Apparently my freedom of speech does not include opposing the idea of faith schools, which I see as segregating children at a time when we need to draw  together as humanity and show that killing people because of their faith is not admired by any of their very similar gods.

Blind faith in one’s righteousness would be a terrible thing and damning freedom of speech can only end in tyranny, silence and fear, if we are silent. At times in the last decade I have been invited to speak on Holocaust Education in the House of Commons, to an audience including the education minister in the Department for Education offices and in the Russian Embassy on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. My message was that we have to stand up for freedom of speech and freedom of worship and that when we don’t, after the murder of Jews, Catholics, Communists, Slavs, Homosexuals and the Disabled they will be coming for the rest of us.

I reckon their Headteacher hankered for a return to 1492, and the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Catholic Spain unless they converted to Catholicism. Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, but they came to seek out, torture and often execute those “conversos” who were still secretly holding on to their old faith. I guess their religion would call them martyrs, just like many in the Book of Saints we had at home.

I think I will have to leave my job within the next 10 years, so I’ve been thinking ‘succession.’ The advert for my job will have to reflect the nature of the school. Catholic schools try, even though, it severely diminishes the field of possible candidates, to demand that the Headteacher be a practising catholic with a letter from the parish priest. Shortlisting is a breeze in faith schools. Would I be right in thinking that Jewish faith schools and Muslim faith schools use the same sort of deselection criteria? I knew a Seventh Day Adventist supply teacher who moved straight into headship as the governors felt that his religion was more important than his teaching experience or qualifications.

Would it be at all controversial or against some Equality Act if a state, co-educational, comprehensive, non-denominational school put out a job advert that says, “No Catholics, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims or Jews may apply?”

After being accused by the governor, lawyer and Headteacher of being anti-Catholic, I rang my sister, my nephews in Ireland, my old friend Father Danny who is an enforcer for the church. I consulted the old men with whom I shared a primary school education and duties as an altar server. Most of them thought there had been a misreading of religious works, the latter group said it was my turn at the bar. I never kept in touch with any of the kids, now adults, to whom I taught Catechism classes on Saturdays at St Mary Magdalen’s.

My view is simple:

What divides us or segregates, by religion or class, fosters discrimination and makes society weaker.  A few weeks ago faith schools were allowed by government decree to have 100% of their faith children in their schools. Is this because society is coping so well with matters of faith? Does it reduce the number of attacks on Jews? Does it encourage moral development in our schools?

I know it was 1969 when we had the catholic lesson on sex education. It was all about STDs and Mickey Green asked if wearing a condom reduced the risk. He was taken aside and no-one ever answered his question. Were catholic schools surprised that there were unplanned pregnancies that filled their Magdalena Laundries and provided many American families with children they could adopt in return for a wee bit of cash?

There are no static context free British values and I understand that values evolve with the maturity of a society. Who would have thought Ireland would be the first country to vote for Gay Marriage in a referendum. There is no place for Sharia Law in Britain and we need to respect British Muslims into society, not ostracise, isolate, label and condemn them.

In 2017, about one third of the 20,000 state funded schools in England were faith schools, 6,814 in total, of which 68% were Church of England schools and 30% were Roman Catholic. There were 48 Jewish, 27 Muslim, 11 Sikh and 5 Hindu faith schools – these last 4 on the increase whilst the others slightly declined in number.

Are we really surprised that Muslims do some Islam related teaching in state sponsored Muslim schools, that their ethos may be a bit different to the going-to-mass-in-school-time Catholic faith schools? Do boys in Jewish faith schools wear the kippah, Sikhs turbans and Muslim girls the niqab? Surely the refusal to insist on secular state schools means we tolerate faith schools praising and proclaiming their own religion just a bit. Do we doubt that the Methodists, Greek Orthodox and United Reformed Church who all have state funding for their schools, sometimes go on a bit about what they consider the best bits of their faiths? Allow and encourage faith schools and we must accept that elements of separatism will pervade. The Friends (Quaker) school might mention pacifism when talking of war, much to the distaste of those who glorify British wars. And as for the Hindu Free school with a ban on sausages…

If we segregate children by religion are we surprised they become segregated socially? If we want a multicultural society our kids have got to grow up together.

Let all schools educate about the similarities between religions, the fact that there are different views of religion. A little thought to town planning, to mixed housing provision to help create communities of people of all races, religions and colours who consider themselves British and who can celebrate their faith, or none, in a fair society based on good old British values: equality of opportunity, meritocracy, inclusion, fair play and doing the right thing.

Dennis O’Sullivan

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