O'Keeffe accused of trying to stop education parity

 

MINISTER for Education Batt O’Keeffe has been accused of actively seeking “a way to discontinue parity with the free education system” where Protestant schools are concerned.

It has also been pointed out, in response to the Minister’s assertions that cutbacks on Protestant education followed advice from the Attorney General, that “governments in the past have often decided not to take the Attorney General’s advice on issues with reference to the Protestant community in Ireland”.

The comments were made in a statement last night from the Committee for Management of Protestant Voluntary Secondary Schools, whose representatives met Mr O’Keeffe on Wednesday last.

Protestant schools were “too important to our community to be diminished in this fashion” said committee member Eleanor Petrie last night. The committee issued a strongly worded statement that expressed “the unanimous view of all” its members.

It read that “having, in recent weeks, given a whole range of spurious reasons why the Protestant voluntary secondary schools cannot have parity with the free system [as it has had for 40 years], the Minister has now settled on a single reason; advice from the Attorney General”.

It said that at a meeting with the committee on Wednesday the Minister “refused to share this advice or give sight of the Attorney General’s opinion when requested to do so”. It continued that in an interview on RTÉ yesterday, the Minister said “there is no precedent for disclosing advice from the Attorney General. However, governments in the past have often decided not to take the Attorney General’s advice on issues with reference to the Protestant community in Ireland”.

The statement concluded: “It is difficult for many in our community to avoid the suspicion that the Minister or his officials actively sought out a way to discontinue parity with the free education system, thereby overturning 40 years of enlightened policy. The Minister has asked for a solution from the Protestant community for the situation he has created. He himself needs to come up with the solution.”

Speaking to The Irish Times last night, Ms Petrie said that final paragraphs in a statement issued by Mr O’Keeffe on Wednesday were “not true”.

Ms Petrie also pointed to the 2002 indemnity deal agreed by then minister for education Michael Woods with the 18 Catholic religious congregations which managed residential institutions for children, as an example of the department’s selective approach to advice from the Attorney General’s office.

The then attorney general, Michael McDowell, was excluded from meetings between the department and congregations, at which the deal was agreed. It was known he was unhappy with the deal.

l Meanwhile, the Church of Ireland diocesan synods of Cashel Ossory and Ferns have passed a motion expressing “extreme disquiet at the unilateral redesignation” of Protestant schools and concern that the Attorney General’s advice on the issue was not being disclosed.