O'Keeffe 'on collision course with Protestant faith'

 

MINISTER FOR Education Batt O’Keeffe was accused in the Dáil of being on a “direct collision course with the Protestant faith in this country” and of being “utterly insensitive” in his handling of the funding paid to voluntary Protestant schools.

The accusation by Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes came as the Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Neill accused the department of a determined and doctrinaire attack against Protestant schools over the decision to cut funding to 21 educational establishments and to reduce teacher numbers.

But defending his approach, Mr O’Keeffe told the Dáil that maintaining the funding would be “unconstitutional”.

He said he had “treated the Protestant bishops and any other group who have met me with the respect and fairness due to them and certainly the equity that was desired”.

He also said he would meet the Protestant education sector today and “I have consistently said I am willing to consider any proposals that would more effectively focus funding on schools in rural areas”.

Under a deal done in the 1960s with then minister for education Donogh O’Malley, Protestant fee-paying schools received the same funding and teacher numbers as non fee-paying schools, protecting their ethos as the minority tradition in the State.

But the extra funding and teacher numbers were cut in the last budget and Mr O’Keeffe said his actions were in keeping with the advice of the Attorney General under article 44 of the Constitution, 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”.

Mr Hayes accused him of breaking the deal done in the 1960s and “doing so in the most insensitive way”, that “loses confidence in his position as Minister for Education and Science. The Minister needs to deal with this issue once and for all. He has been putting canards into the public domain that in some way there is legal advice that he had to act upon this.”

Mr Hayes noted that Catholic school representatives had made clear they had no difficulty with the Protestant schools continuing to have those grants.

He added that “the Minister is on a direct collision course with the Protestant faith in this country and that his handling of this issue has been utterly insensitive to Protestant schools and the ethos provided in those schools”.

The Fine Gael TD said “schools will go to the wall, particularly Protestant schools in rural parts of the country unless he shows some flexibility and meets people half way”.

Insisting that the Government recognised the importance of ensuring students from a Protestant background could attend a school that reflected their ethos, Mr O’Keeffe said, however, he would not be prepared to behave in an unconstitutional manner.

Mr O’Keeffe, who denied he had broken the deal done by Donogh O’Malley, said the block grant agreed then “continues to this day”, an additional €6.5 million that Catholic schools did not receive. It was “worth €645 per pupil. The grant available to ordinary second-level schools is €345. They are in a more privileged position.”