Catholic trust got concessions from State before divesting school

Christian Brothers trust clashed with department officials, documents show

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the opening of St James’s Catholic primary school in Basin Lane, Dublin, in April 2014, whose creation – out of two merging Catholic schools – allowed Educate Together move into a former Christian Brothers school next door. Photograph: John Mc Elroy.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the opening of St James’s Catholic primary school in Basin Lane, Dublin, in April 2014, whose creation – out of two merging Catholic schools – allowed Educate Together move into a former Christian Brothers school next door. Photograph: John Mc Elroy.

 

A trust controlling the only Catholic school to be divested to a non-denominational patron insisted on getting “fair” economic value for the arrangement, correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act shows.

The Edmund Rice Schools Trust (ERST), an entity chaired by Mr Justice Peter Kelly that controls the property interests of the Christian Brothers, refused to surrender a vacant school premises to the Department of Education to promote diversity of patronage until it had secured financial concessions, the documents reveal.

They also show that Mr Justice Kelly clashed with the department over his non-attendance at a meeting between it and the ERST board in February 2013 to discuss the planned divestment.

The department had then sought to obtain the building at Basin Lane, Dublin, for a nominal rent under a 24-year lease to “provide for a level of security of tenure” for the new patrons Educate Together.

The ERST responded by offering a five-year lease, but only if the department wrote off any debt arising from school grants paid towards the building, totalling more than €400,000 for 2000-2011.

The department also had to surrender any historical claim over the property, which had been held in trust since 1959.

The department told the ERST this would give rise to “very significant issues for us relating to accountability and our legal capacity to dispose of such an interest on a heavily discounted basis”.

However, just months later, after the trust had revealed it had been approached by another bidder for the site, the department accepted the same terms in exchange for a 10-year lease.

Educate Together moved into the site in September 2014.

Concerns have since been raised about the long-term viability of the school, given the nature of the lease, which allows the ERST to put the property on the open market in 2024.

The ERST has declined to comment to The Irish Times on whether it plans to sell the Basin Lane site after the 10-year lease is up, noting there had been “no further discussions” with the department.

In letters to the trust in 2013, the department cited “the importance of the relationship with ERST” in view of planned capital investment of €91 million in ERST schools, as well as the Christian Brothers’ outstanding bill for compensating victims of institutional abuse.

The documents show such pleading had little impact, with the trust arguing it had “legal and financial obligations” to secure a proper financial return.

“Recent examples of institutions in Ireland which have ignored such requirements and obligations are unfortunately all too well-known,” the ERST board told the department in August 2013.

“It is not open to ERST to give its trust property away or to lease it at a nominal rent to any third party.”

In 2008 the Christian Brothers transferred school property with a value of €430 million to the ERST, which was set up to continue the order’s work in supporting Catholic education.

The brothers still owe the state over ¤20 million in cash - money which was pledged to meet the costs of the redress scheme for institutional abuse.

They have also yet to transfer school playing fields and associated lands valued at €127 million to an independent trust jointly held by the Government and the ERST.