I want to welcome you all to St. Patrick’s Hall for today’s dialogue.
I’d also like to welcome the observers from academic institutions, the Dublin City Interfaith Forum and elsewhere, and the media who are joining us for this opening part of the session.
Ten months ago we welcomed Pope Francis to Ireland. Speaking in this room, I suggested that I believed the time had come to build a new relationship between Religion and the State in Ireland - a new covenant for the 21st Century. One in which religion is no longer at the centre of our State but continues to have a real and meaningful role to play on our society.
This structured dialogue is part of that work and builds on my meetings with the Roman Catholic Church two years ago, and with the Protestant Churches last year.
I believe open, transparent and regular dialogue is the best way of establishing that new relationship, one that recognises the things we have in common and respects our differences.
A covenant formed by our different communities. One that is not handed down by the State, but created by the people, shaped by all of you and reflecting the values of our society.
Today is an opportunity to discuss what that covenant might look like, as well the wider issues of interest and concern.
When the men and women of the revolutionary generation declared our independence one hundred years ago in the first Dáil they committed their ‘destiny to Almighty God’ and asked ‘His divine blessing on this, the last stage of the struggle’.
Imagine if we were writing those words today. What would we say? How would we phrase it differently to recognise the diversity of our communities, including those of many different faiths, as well as those of none?
We would seek to include rather than exclude with our words as well as with our actions.
So in agreeing a new covenant we should be influenced by our history but not bound by it. Liberated from the past instead of its prisoner. In Ireland we have an opportunity to create a new relationship protecting religious freedom while also respecting the rights of all. Ensuring fair treatment for all.
The most recent census shows that almost one in ten people registered here identify as having no religion. We see an increasing number of faiths being listed, and a genuine Republic has space for everyone.
Looking at some of the issues and questions you have flagged, one thing struck me. Your interests and concerns extend beyond questions of faith. They include the biggest challenges which affect our country: housing, Brexit, and climate change to name three you have indicated.
We care for those around us, we care for our communities and their future, we care for our planet.
Our sympathies and concerns are not confined; they extend across our country and beyond.
Ireland is a country of faith and spirit and values. We aspire to build a Republic based on: family, community, enterprise, social justice, diversity, openness to the world, equality before the law, and individual liberty. These are values we all share, values which unite us.
Ireland has changed so much since that first Dáil met one hundred years ago. Today one in six of us were not born here.
As Taoiseach, I am very proud of the fact that our country is now one of the most diverse in the world, and one of the youngest.
This diversity in our communities – in our schools – in our places of worship – in our workplaces makes us stronger.
Around the world people now know that in Ireland anyone can grow up to achieve their dreams and not be judged on their religion, or their sexuality, or their gender or their skin tone.
This has been made possible by the sharing of cultures, the sharing of experiences, the sharing of beliefs.
All of you have contributed to that, so thank you.
In a participatory democracy there is a need for regular dialogue with churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations. Indeed, it’s even provided for in EU treaties.
We see the value of religion and faith based organisations every day all around us. For example, through the various faith-based charities and voluntary organisations that do so much good work in our communities.
Any new covenant – any new relationship between the State and your organisations, should be about pluralism, rather than absolute secularism.
That means, for example, greater choice for parents in education through the availability of more Educate Together schools, community national schools and Gaelscoileanna. It also means the divestment of some existing religious schools to the community sector should parents want that. It doesn’t mean the complete secularisation of education.
The prospect of divestment can give rise to concerns but I believe we can alleviate these concerns if we handle this sensitively and in a collaborative way. The objective is to provide the choice desired in some places by some parents. The prospect of choice does not denigrate in any way the invaluable contribution of various Churches to the education of Irish children over many generations.
It simply recognises that in the more diverse Ireland of the 21st century many parents want a greater choice about where to and how to educate their children.
We must also recognise that a choice of schools may not be possible or practicable in all areas, so we need to have regard to the views of majority as well as minorities.
In any new covenant there must still be a role for State funding of faith-based charities and voluntary organisations, such as the St. Francis Hospice and Our Lady's Hospice and Care Services for example.
We do not want to see their funding taken away or the voluntarism and ethos that exists there removed. In the same way, many faith-based organisations have made a huge contribution to helping us deal with the housing shortage, such as Crosscare and de Paul, Peter Mc Verry Trust and others.
We also need to be open to discussions with some organisations, which to date have been run on a voluntary basis, who may themselves wish to review their governance and funding arrangements.
The themes we will discuss here today, reach across all aspects of our society as we search for greater concord.
Today, is a little bit of an experiment. I hope it works and I believe we should meet like this every two years if possible, leaving open the idea of regular bilaterals with ministers and me, as necessary.
I look forward to the conversations we will have this afternoon.