The Department of Education intends to scrap provisions that allow the Catholic church to bypass employment laws and appoint nuns and priests of their choosing to State jobs in schools in Ireland.

Agreements renewed as recently as two years ago retain the right of Catholic bishops and Catholic school trustees to appoint priests, nuns, monks and brothers as teachers or principals in schools, ignoring normally stringent civil service advertisement and interview procedures, as well as equality and employment legislation.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education has told RTÉ News that the minister is concerned by the practice and has asked his officials to move to immediately rectify matters that all school posts are filled by open competition.

Priests and religious appointments in this way receive State salaries, as well as State pensions and all other entitlements that go with the jobs.

However the church retains full control over the duration of the appointment, and can remove those employed in this way whenever they wish.

Last June there was controversy when the Bishop of Killaloe used the provision to appoint a priest as principal of St Flannan's College in Ennis, Co Clare. The post is worth around €100,000 a year.

There are at least two sets of Department of Education provisions which allow for the Catholic church to appoint teachers to schools in this way.

Church's power in education system highlighted once again

At second level the provisions state that if the trustees of Catholic schools wish to nominate "a cleric or member of the order" to the post of principal or teacher "the [school] Board of Management shall ... appoint the person proposed by these authorities".

The agreement, which dates from 1998, goes on to state that the duration of the contract shall be determined by the trustees and that it shall terminate if the person ceases to be a member of the religious order.

Primary schools are covered by procedures approved by the Department of Education just two years ago.

The 2015 Governance Manual for Primary Schools states that in so-called "convent and monastery schools" the religious order in question can appoint a member of the order as a teacher or school principal if they wish.

In this agreement the appointment is "subject to the prior approval of the minister".

The agreement goes on to state that the religious order in question may "at its sole discretion" remove teachers or principals appointed in this way and that this power must be written in to the teacher’s contract.

These appointments bypass the stringent rules that in all other cases govern the hiring and firing of teachers and school principals, as well as all other civil servants.

These are rules based on equality and other employment legislation, drawn up to ensure fairness in the awarding of contracts and in working provisions.

The Department of Education says it believes that these Catholic church exemptions have been used in the appointment of "a handful" of principals in recent years.

RTÉ News understands that the department will carry out a review early in the new year with a view to removing the provisions so that all appointments in schools are governed by open and transparent public competition.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ireland's Catholic bishops said: "There has been a historical provision in diocesan, monastery and convent schools whereby the trustees could appoint a qualified member of their congregation or diocese, to the staff of these schools.

"Over the past 20 years, this provision has been seldom used as there is a sharp decline in the number of priests, brothers and sisters in Ireland and very few are now working in schools. The bishops have no difficulty if the Minister wishes to remove the provision".

The ASTI teachers' union, which represents lay teachers working in Catholic schools, has said it welcomes the proposed move.

The union said it will help safeguard openness, fairness and transparency in the appointment of principals and teachers in secondary schools.

The Le Chéile trust, which runs a large number of schools, has also said that it would have no problem with the removal of the provisions.