O'Keeffe to discuss cuts' impact on Protestants

 

MINISTER FOR Education Batt O’Keeffe is to meet representatives of Protestant secondary schools today to discuss the effects on them of cutbacks in last year’s budget.

Yesterday, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev John Neill, accused the Department of Education of mounting a “very determined and doctrinaire effort . . . to strike at a sector which some officials totally failed to understand”.

In his presidential address to the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan synod, the Archbishop continued that “a minority is as entitled to schools under their own patronage as much as the majority”.

Responding to questions by Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes in the Dáil yesterday, Mr O’Keeffe said: “My colleagues in government and I recognise the importance of ensuring that students from a Protestant background can attend a school that reflects their denominational ethos.”

He had “consistently said I am willing to consider any proposals that would more effectively focus funding on schools in rural areas. I have still to receive any such proposals.”

He pointed out the Attorney General had advised “that to continue the grant that was available would be unconstitutional because it was being given to the Protestant denomination and being refused to the Catholic denomination”.

Any proposals from the Protestant sector “and how precisely they are targeted will need to be considered having regard to the constitutional requirement”, he said.

In his address yesterday, Archbishop Neill said: “It is my distinct impression that the reclassification of the Protestant schools was not driven by financial considerations. It was driven by what amounts to a very determined and doctrinaire effort within the Department of Education and Science to strike at a sector which some officials totally failed to understand.”

Previous governments had “treated these schools in a fair manner. The same cannot be said of the present Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition,” he said.

“Provision for scattered minority communities and for large majority communities will always have to be different. This is true in every aspect of life, be it education, transport or health.

“This is precisely what Irish governments until now have always attempted to grasp. It is only now that what was once seen as realism in relation to different and complex situations is being described simply as ‘an anomaly’,” he said.

“The sudden transfer of these schools . . . into what is a private fee-paying sector is what is grossly unfair. The future of the schools is threatened by not only the loss of much funding that they had for many years, but also by the changes in the pupil/teacher ratio.”

The two changes “will not only cost jobs but actually make some schools no longer viable in quite a short span of time”, he said.

He also warned that “the suggested annihilation” of the Church of Ireland College of Education in Dublin, “which is at grave risk of losing its funding”, sent “a very sad message to the Church of Ireland community”.