Minister raises hopes of end to Protestant schools row


MINISTER OF State for the Office of Public Works Martin Mansergh’s expressed hope that the budget could bring a resolution to the row over funding of Protestant schools has been welcomed by some seeking to have the cuts reversed.

Dr Mansergh was standing in for Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe in the Seanad on Wednesday night when he said it was not in the public interest for the “stand-off” to continue.

“I am certain there is no ill will on the part of the Government towards Protestant schools . . . I hope a resolution can be found to this problem in the context of next year’s budget,” he said.

Independent Senator Shane Ross and Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer, who questioned Dr Mansergh in the Seanad, welcomed his remarks.

Yesterday Dr Mansergh told The Irish Times: “I suppose what the Government is indicating is a willingness to accept the decision last autumn may have borne harder on some rather than others.”

The cuts in ancillary grants to Protestant schools unveiled in last year’s October budget have provoked an angry response from the main Opposition parties and educational lobby groups.

A spokesman for Mr O’Keeffe said discussions were ongoing between Mr O’Keeffe and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan regarding the Department of Education’s spending plans for next year.

“Minister Mansergh made it clear that Minister O’Keeffe was willing to consider any proposals that would more effectively focus funding to meet the objectives of improving access and sustaining Protestant schools, particularly those in rural areas,” the spokesman said. “The priority is to come up with a mechanism to effect such a scenario.”

Mr Ross yesterday said he hoped Dr Mansergh would “feel the need to press the Cabinet to pursue the agenda he outlined”, while Mr Buttimer said he “took hope” from Dr Mansergh’s remarks.

The Labour Party is considering putting down a Private Members’ motion on the issue in the Dáil shortly.

In the Seanad, Dr Mansergh said he personally regretted that “a type of religious emotional charge which sometimes arises in controversies of this type” had entered the debate.

“I was a member of the board of a Protestant secondary school in Dublin city for almost 20 years. Shortly before departing last year, I inquired about the number of block grant pupils among the school population of 630 and was told it was in single figures,” he said.

“However, in other areas, including Senator Buttimer’s county, the proportion may be 30 per cent or 40 per cent and, in one or two instances, even higher. The case can be made that the cutbacks announced last October bear more heavily on such schools than on those with no substantial disadvantaged intake.”

Dr Mansergh said the Government faced severe financial constraints, “the consequences of which are bearing down on everybody, with complaints from almost every sector”.

He stressed the block grant, covering capitation, tuition and boarding costs, had not been abolished. And he said Government recognised the importance of ensuring students from a Protestant background could attend a school that reflected their denominational ethos.

Dr Mansergh concluded: “It is not in the public interest that this type of public stand-off, which does not offer a sufficiently differentiated and nuanced representation of the nature of the problem, should continue.”