FG claim on Protestant schools rejected

 

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen has described as irresponsible and inaccurate a Fine Gael claim that the Department of Education reduced funding to Protestant schools to “get at” them, because the schools won a court victory against the department.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kennymade the claim in the Dáil when he said he understood from the Department of Finance that it was not a question of extra grants for Protestant schools but “the fact the Department of Education lost its case against Protestant schools last year.

The schools were told they would be “got at by the department”. He warned that “we do not want claims of sectarianism or discrimination of upheaval considering that the Protestant ethos in this Republic has been recognised and treated fairly by all governments since the late Donogh O’Malley introduced his free education scheme”.

But Mr Cowen said: “I fundamentally disagree with Deputy Kenny. I do not attach mal fides to anyone in this matter” and to do so “is not responsible or accurate”.

He said it was a “question of dealing with the issue in a substantive way, recognising that some schools require continuing assistance, which the Minister is anxious to facilitate on the basis of a targeted initiative, and that there are other well-established schools whose needs might not be so great”.

Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe, who yesterday met representatives of the Protestant school sector, told the Dáil on Tuesday that he could not continue the extra grants of €2.8 million to 21 fee-paying Protestant schools because it was considered unconstitutional, when Catholic schools did not receive the ancillary funds.

Since the 1960s the fee paying Protestant schools have received the same funding and number of teachers as non-fee paying schools, but the extra funds were cut in the last budget.

Mr Kenny said the Minister “has wandered into stormy waters that could be very controversial”. He called on the Taoiseach to “step in, overrule the Minister for Education who has made an almighty mess of the matter and reinstate the grants”.

It was not an issue concerning the “Department of Finance but one of a mood and environment within the Department of Education resulting in an effort to get at Protestant schools”.

Mr Kenny asked the Taoiseach why “advice on this matter was sought from the Attorney General given that the system in place operated without any difficulty for the past 40 years”.

He said the Minister appeared to be saying that the additional payment to the 21 Protestant schools, agreed in the 1960s to protect their minority status, “has been unconstitutional in all the years for which it has been made available”.

He asked who sought advice from the Attorney General and what question was asked. “Does the Taoiseach believe the system that has been in place for 40 years is unconstitutional?”

Mr Cowen declined to be drawn on the constitutionality of the measures but insisted that the Government’s “intention at all times” was to support minority schools, faith schools and the Protestant community generally.

The block grant paid to Protestant schools remained in place and there was no question of it being removed.

The issue was about the withdrawal of the ancillary grant last year because of limited resources. He said that since November last year the Minister had said he would like to hear from the Church of Ireland education committee about “how those schools in rural areas that require support can be targeted, while acknowledging at the same time that there are well-established schools in more urban areas that draw from a wide catchment, similar to Catholic fee-paying schools”.