Tuesday, 23 March 1976
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Brennan: Question No. 12 on today's Order Paper relates to a row  that has taken place between two schools. This is the type of problem with which we have become familiar since the amalgamation of schools took place. The difference in this case is that it is not a question of one school trying to press a decision on the Minister or trying to get their way in relation to a specific problem. This is a row between two schools. I would like to approach this subject as compassionately and dispassionately as possible without further aggravating what is already growing into a quarrel which is likely to leave a lasting scar on community relations in that district. Nobody would like to contribute to growing antagonism. In this case, the trouble is of such dimensions that with each passing day, month or year, the situation is becoming worse and the likelihood of a settlement is becoming more difficult.
The decision to amalgamate Rannafast school with Annagry school led to a demand by the people of Rannafast for the retention of their school. The Minister at the time in his wisdom decided to leave the Rannafast school and give it the necessary number of teachers to make it viable. For a time it appeared that the problem was solved. The difficulty then arose that there was no clearly defined catchment area for either school and some of the pupils who might ordinarily be expected to attend the Rannafast school opted to attend the Annagry school and used the transport provided. This led to a certain antagonism, feelings escalated and eventually led to the physical interference of people in the transport service. From there, trouble developed between the two schools. Over 200 children attend at Annagry and 60 plus at Rannafast. There is no reason why both schools could not carry on as viable units and give satisfaction by providing facilities for a good education at primary level in the area. We would all like to revert to that position and get over the present trouble. I do not want to go into details of all that happened since the decision was taken to allow Rannafast to retain its primary school facilities. Those facts are well known  to the Minister and, unfortunately, to all of us as well.
I would like to refer now to a related point. The Mullaghduff school was also closed and amalgamated with Annagry. As is the rule, the children were provided with transport. In any event, they are entitled to transport but they have none at the moment. They have become the innocent victims of the dispute. This gives a third dimension to the problem.
My reason for raising this matter on the Adjournment is to bring home to the Minister in as calm a manner as possible how this problem has escalated and developed into a serious community row. Many side issues are being brought in, one group is scoring petty points over another, with the result that a great deal of enmity is being engendered which, as I have already said, is likely to have lasting effects on community relations in the area. The longer this goes on the worse the situation becomes.
It is all right to say that the Minister should meet one section or the other but that will not solve the problem. It will not solve the problem for any local TDs to try to bring both sides together because we can only make suggestions. Ultimately, they must be considered by the Department and the Minister and these, in turn, may only exacerbate what is already a rather serious position. I can only see one remedy and that is for the Minister's representative to attend in the area to meet all sides in the dispute, point out that it is not right for either side to score points over the other, but to come to an amicable solution which, in my view, should not be difficult at this stage because the parents of the children concerned will be glad to see a settlement reached.
The Minister is taking the attitude to leave them alone and let them stew in their own juice until they come to an agreement he can accept. This is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future. The difficulty here is that the longer the dispute goes on the worse the position gets. Now they have decided to go on strike and the school is closed. There is no transport to  either school. If the Minister had to provide more than the usual transport regulations permit, it would be worth while to bring an end to this hateful situation. It is not difficult to appreciate how many people get in on rows of this kind and sometimes irrelevancies are introduced. Issues which are not connected with the strike tend to be magnified. The general feeling in the area at the moment is electrified with hatred and efforts at one-upmanship. A feeling one could not have seen at the outset has developed. I do not want to apportion the blame or to say what should have been done here or what might have been done there. But a nasty situation has developed and it is likely to become worse unless a solution is found. The only way out of the dilemma is for the Minister or somebody representing him to go to the area and talk with representatives of those concerned in an effort to ascertain what would be the best attitude to adopt. Both schools may remain open but the question is one of transport. Perhaps in this context it may be necessary to define clearly catchment areas or it may be necessary to give the children concerned the option for the time being of attending either school, but it is imperative that the outlying district of Mullaghduff would have transport facilities for the children who, in the first instance, were not a party to this vendetta. They are entitled to have restored to them the transport facilities which they enjoyed up to the time of this dispute. In this way, too, the Department will be tackling the root of the problem.
It has not helped the situation of already seriously strained relations to have some of the delinquents brought to court and sentenced particularly when in the first instance no prosecutions were brought for the interference with the transport. Matters such as this can only exacerbate the situation with the result that relations between the areas concerned are becoming worse daily. I do not think the Minister realises fully how nasty is the situation that is developing. There is no point in his endeavouring to wash  his hands of the trouble or in saying that it will resolve itself and that the Department can then operate transport as they consider fit. It is a case which requires consultation between people in authority and the people of the area. This is the only way in which a solution can be found. That is why I did not consider the Minister's answer today to be satisfactory.
The Minister has had some experience of differences in other places. The success of a small group in another area in having their school retained has encouraged the people I am talking of here to press their case strongly. People are always ready to take advantage of established precedents. The people of Rannafast, with the larger number of children concerned, consider that they have a much better case than the people of Dún Caoin and they expect to be accorded the same facilities as applied in the other case.
Therefore, those of us who are elected representatives for the area cannot wash our hands of responsibility in the matter and merely tell the people to settle the matter among themselves. We must make an effort to bring about reconciliation and an end to the conflict that can destroy the otherwise good relations in the area. For that reason I would impress on the Minister the seriousness of the situation. He must tackle this problem without further delay. If the Minister or somebody representing him arranges to meet representatives of the people concerned he will find that they are very reasonable people but in the present situation actions are being undertaken which are fraying tempers. It is because the situation has reached this serious point that I am raising the matter on the Adjournment this evening. I appeal to the Minister not to let any more time pass without dealing with the matter as I have suggested.
In the last analysis the children are the sufferers in this sort of situation. Any of us can appeal to the parents to settle their differences but any moves on our part must have the ratification of the Minister and must be acceptable to the Departments  otherwise any solution would be only of a temporary nature. The Minister must begin to arbitrate now. It is not my intention to apportion blame. Already there have been enough recriminations and to apportion blame would only result in a worsening of the serious community division that has occurred in that otherwise close-knit community in The Rosses. The Minister must agree, therefore, that it is wrong to adopt the attitude which he indicated in his reply today—that the people should settle their own differences and reach some agreement before he decides on what transport is to be provided. I am not here to endeavour in any way to score political points but to impress on the Minister the seriousness of the situation and to exhort him to move in quickly. I shall conclude now as other Deputies from the area may wish to say something on the matter.
Mr. White: First of all, I thank the Minister for letting me in on this. I, too, am an elected representative for this area and I am very concerned with the very serious problem which is developing. It is fair to say that the history of this case goes back to the amalgamation of Meenaleck school, Mullaghduff school and Carrickfin school with the Annagry school at that time. The Rannafast school was also amalgamated with Annagry. The problem which has arisen is that when the Rannafast school was reopened some of the people in the Rannafast area were asked to transfer back from Annagry to Rannafast school. The parents of seven of those children sent their children to the Annagry  school. This is the kernel of the whole problem.
Mr. White: We are talking about seven children. I agree with Deputy Brennan that an official should be sent down to try to sort out this problem but the Deputy must also agree that officials have been sent down in the past to no avail. The only sensible answer to this problem at present is to make this area an open catchment area for those seven children only.
Minister for Education (Mr. Richard Burke): The two Deputies who represent the area have given some of the history of this matter. I want to say that I appreciate the manner in which they have approached this very difficult question. Let me say that when I came into the Department of Education I inherited this problem. It was as follows. In May, 1973 I visited the area and a private service passing by the Rannafast school existed at that time. I decided to establish an official service to Annagry national school for the pupils concerned. This service also passed by Rannafast school. The running of this bus was obstructed by a number of local people who objected to the conveyance of pupils from the Rannafast and Derrynamansher districts to Annagry national school.
In August, 1973, an arrangement was arrived at whereby the service from the Meenaleck area to Annagry would in future operate along the main road as far as the Irish College at Rannafast and back again. This arrangement was authorised on the understanding that it was acceptable to both the Rannafast and Annagry parents. However, it was later ascertained that the Annagry viewpoint  was not fully represented at the meeting at which the arrangement was discussed. The objection from the Annagry side was that it left the Derrynamansher road unserved, so that some children would have to make their way to meet the Annagry service at Jackstown Cross on the Crolly-Annagry road.
Mr. Richard Burke: These children absented themselves from school in protest. A senior inspector of the Department visited the area at the end of 1973 to try to find a solution but the Rannafast parents would not accept any further extension of the service to Annagry school. When no improvement in the Annagry service was forthcoming a number of parents from the Annagry area blocked the Rannafast transport service at Jackstown Cross and they sought an extension of the Annagry service along the Derrynamansher road. It was represented to the Department at this stage that the Rannafast people would not object to such an extension, and in May, 1974 the Department authorised its introduction.
However, it transpired that, in fact, the Rannafast parents committee were unhappy about the extension which they viewed as a further incursion into their school area. Following a further visit by a Department inspector to the area, the Department made a new arrangement in September, 1974 whereby the Annagry service would operate along both roads leading to Rannafast, but would only travel as far as a certain point on the road. Only the households in the Rannafast area which already had children attending Annagry national school would avail of the Annagry service and the children would make their own way to those points.
This new arrangement brought further protests from the Annagry interests, particularly with regard to the standard of service available to children living near the school at Rannafast, but the revised services  continued to run without hindrance until September, 1975, when pickets were placed by Annagry parents on the Rannafast service at Jackstown Cross. The Department decided that on days on which the Rannafast service could not get through because of picketing, the service to Annagry school from the same area should not operate. A picket was subsequently placed on the Department by the same group and their representatives were met by officials of my Department for a discussion of the problem. These officials made it clear that no further progress could be made unless the bus services to the Annagry and Rannafast schools were allowed to operate without hindrance. A promise to that effect was not forthcoming. Subsequently a delegation from the Rannafast area at a meeting in the Department indicated that Rannafast parents might disrupt the other services to Annagry national school from Mullaghduff and Carrickfin. When I authorised a one week extension recently I got a telegram which said: “Picéidí ag dul ar minibus”, which goes to show that in fact the delegation not being able to give the undertaking was borne out by the subsequent events.
Mr. Richard Burke: The Department wrote on 11th November, 1975, to the chairman of the Annagry and Rannafast school boards of management requesting that the two boards get together and work out a solution and stating that in the meantime services would be restored. It was stated, however, that should further stoppage of buses occur the services might have to be withdrawn again. The services were, in fact, restored on 2nd December, 1975. The boards of management failed to reach an agreed solution.
The Annagry committee continued to picket the bus at Jackstown Cross and as a result the transport services to both schools from the Meenaleck district could not operate on many occasions. The Department felt obliged to announce that if the pickets  continued to be placed, all of the services to Annagry national school would have to be withdrawn. Since the disruptions continued, the Department decided to withdraw all school transport services to the Annagry and Rannafast schools on 22nd December, 1975.
Representations were made for the restoration of the services after the Christmas vacation, and this was acceded to, on condition that the services would not be blocked in future, and that the boards of management would again try to find a solution. However, pickets were placed on the bus once again when the new school term commenced and on 12th February, 1976, I instructed that all the transport services to both schools be withdrawn as and from 16th February. The services to Annagry national school from Carrickfin and Mullaghduff were later restored on a trial basis for one week, against my better judgement, in the hope that local agreement would be reached. As this did not materialise, I again decided that all services should be withdrawn as from 8th March, 1976.
I regret that it was necessary to suspend all of the services to these schools, but I cannot accept that parents from any district whose children attend the schools have not a responsibility to make every effort to resolve the problem. While I feel that the solution to this problem is primarily a matter for the local people, I would be prepared to send representatives of the Department, as I have done on numerous occasions previously, to a meeting of the boards of management of the two schools if there was any indication that such a step would result in a successful outcome. I must repeat that there can be no question of talking about restoring the services until I am guaranteed that no disruption of the services will occur.
In reply to the Deputy today I even said that if I got any indication from the boards of management, or from any reputable section of that population, that a solution had been worked out to the satisfaction of both schools  I would be delighted to send a representative. I must emphasise that it is not I who should have to take the blame for the suspension of the services from the Carrickfin and Mullaghduff areas but rather those who are disrupting, and who sent me telegrams indicating that they would disrupt, the services. The local authorities must be brought to realise that the solution must emanate from their willingness to come together and reach agreement. God knows it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for mature people to do that in 1976.
I must place on the record of this House that I treat all schools equally in the matter of providing school transport. I appeal to the Deputies or anybody in authority to influence people up there to get the message home that if a solution is to be found to this problem it must be found locally. The moment it is found I will not waste any time in sending an official down to put the seal of the Department's approval on the local solution which is arrived at.
Mr. Richard Burke: I should like to have notice of that question. Obviously I would not have available to me just now details of all the catchment areas. I will pursue the matter and send the information to the Deputy.
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