The town of Castlebar has moved a step closer to opening its first non-Catholic primary school after Mayo County Council gave its approval last night to the use of a council-owned building to provide accommodation.

A new multi-denominational school, to be run by Educate Together, will be housed in Castlebar's old town council building which is in the centre of the town and has been vacant since 2014.

However, planning approval has yet to be granted.

Castlebar is one of 28 areas around the country identified by the Department of Education as suitable for inclusion in its divestment programme.

A departmental study concluded that these areas had too many Catholic schools and that the number of parents who wanted an alternative justified the creation of multi-denominational facilities.

There are 11 primary schools within a 5km radius of Castlebar town centre. They are all controlled by the Catholic Church.

The 2012 survey of parents found "viable demand" for change in the town.

It recommended that the local Catholic bishop be asked to consider a reconfiguration of its schools so that a building could be freed up for a new multi-denominational one.

Controversy erupted last August after a derelict school building - offered to the State by the Catholic church - was rejected by patron body Educate Together.

While the Department of Education had welcomed the offer, Educate Together said the building's location, in a remote National Park area 9km from the town, made it entirely unsuitable.

The divestment process was designed for areas of stable population where there is no demographic need for additional school places, but where there is no diversity of school provision.

It envisaged the merging of existing Catholic schools so that existing school premises could be freed up to house multi-denominational schools.

However, Castlebar is the latest area where the divestment process has so far failed in this regard.

If planners approve the use of Castlebar's old town council building for the new school, an additional school will open in Castlebar even though there is no demographic need for such.

To date there is just one instance of a Catholic primary school premises being handed over to a multi-denominational provider under the divestment process - this was in Dublin.

Educate Together has said its delighted that Mayo Co Council has approved the use of the building. It says it hopes the area's first multi-denominational school can open in September.

Local parent Yvonne Coyne told RTÉ News she was "absolutely delighted".

Ms Coyne, who hopes to send her twins to the new school, said that as someone from Mayo and Castlebar it was fantastic that parents and children in the town may now have another option for education.

Elsewhere, the secularist organisation Atheist Ireland has called on the Department of Education to ensure that second level students are able to exercise their right to opt out of religious education should they wish.