Wednesday, 6 October 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. U. Burke: I warmly welcome the Minister to the House. I congratulate her on her elevation and wish her luck. She has been credited with the characteristic of being a bridge builder. Following on from the previous Minister, she has many bridges to build. However, I wish her luck and every success. I hope her days in the Department of Education and Science will be beneficial to all at every level of education.
The decision of the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to close this long-established college without consultation with the relevant parties involved, namely, the staff, governors and students, is deplorable. His continued refusal up to the time of his departure to discuss his decision clearly indicates that it was not based on educational grounds. He completely ignored the professional advice of his own Department’s senior personnel, including Mr. Jack O’Brien, former assistant secretary general at the Department of Education and Science, who he appointed as a consultant to report on the options for the future of the college. He later ignored the advice of Mr. Paul Kelly, assistant secretary general at the Department of Education and Science. Taking this into account, how can anyone believe the decision to close St. Catherine’s and relocate all teaching facilities in one centre, St. Angela’s in Sligo, was anything but politically motivated?
It is important to note the terms of reference set out by the Minister for the consultant’s report. These were to examine the options for the future of St. Catherine’s in light of the decision by the trustees to withdraw from involvement in the college; to examine the implications of this for the staff; to examine and assess the capital and recurrent cost implications of the various options; and, most importantly, to prepare a report and recommendations for consideration by the Minister for Education and Science in terms of the most appropriate way forward which would ensure the continuation of quality home economics teacher education.
In September 2003, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, announced the closure of St. Catherine’s and stated that St. Angela’s in Sligo would become the only teaching college of home economics in the country. There was obvious dismay in St. Catherine’s at this announcement. In view of the recent substantial investment in upgrading and refurbishing, including the Department’s investment of approximately €1.5 million in recent years, together with the Dominican Sisters resources and other loans guaranteed by the board of management, one was led to believe in the Department’s continued commitment to the future of St. Catherine’s as a teacher training centre.
The Minister ignored the terms of reference and, on 28 September, in reply to concerns raised by past graduates, he cited his reasons for closure, “having carefully considered the options for the future of the college”. These included the national spatial strategy, relevant costs in a time of financial constraint, a Government decision to restrict public service numbers and the need to secure value for money and a better allocation of resources. All four are typical “Dempsey-speak”.
Following the decision of the trustees to withdraw, the Department appointed Mr. Jack O’Brien as a consultant to liaise with all relevant parties and to advise on the future options open to the Minister. The study on the future of St. Catherine’s College of Home Economics was prepared by Mr. O’Brien and completed on 4 July 2002. The report noted that “an air of uncertainty has hung over St. Catherine’s for a considerable time. This has caused great anxiety amongst the staff and has inhibited development of the college’s activities.” In the conclusion of his report, Mr. O’Brien stated:
Furthermore, he recommended, “that the Department, through the Higher Education Authority, would engage with TCD, UCD and DCU with a view to securing the incorporation of St. Catherine’s in one of these universities. I believe further that a merger with UCD would be the most beneficial for the staff and students of St. Catherine’s and would be welcomed by them”.
The higher education colleges section and the third level building unit made submissions to the Minister in May 2003. This submission noted that, “the question of how to deal with the staff in St. Catherine’s would be the most challenging issue to address”, with regard to the possible merger with St. Angela’s.
Mr. Paul Kelly, assistant secretary in the Department, having regard to the submissions made by the colleges section and the building unit, recommended that St. Catherine’s remain open and that a merger with UCD be sought. He specifically identified the recommendations already made in the O’Brien report as well as recent expenditure on refurbishment at the college, the long lead-in time to the transfer of students and the very major industrial relations issues associated with the closure of the college. Why was the secrecy and deliberate exclusion of the staff and governors of St. Catherine’s College from the decision-making process necessary?
Following the announcement of the closure by the Minister, the college had to seek access to the consultant’s report through the Freedom of Information Act to ascertain the reason for the decision. In a ruling on the matter, the Information Commissioner, in response to Ms Madeleine Mulrennan’s appeal as president of the college, severely reprimanded the Department for failing to take public interest provisions into account in refusing the college’s request for information. In this regard, the commissioner wrote: “I regard this as a significant omission and a serious defect in the decision making process in this particular case.” She also noted that while it had asserted that the release of the documents would have a significant effect, the Department of Education and Science had not specified what would be the adverse effect. She added:
The former Minister’s refusal to meet the staff of St. Catherine’s College shows complete disregard for the magnificent contribution of the Dominican Order since 1910, the continued contributions to education of highly qualified, excellent teachers, the recommendations of a consultant appointed to advise on the best options for the future and the advice of a senior Department official. The Minister can reverse this appalling litany of disregard by agreeing, as a matter of urgency, to meet all relevant parties at St. Catherine’s with a view to allowing for the continuation of teacher training. as recommended by the reports available to her in the Department. There are no educational, economic or other reasons which support the decision to close St. Catherine’s College.
At a time when it is Government policy to increase awareness of food science and hygiene, good nutrition and the need to tackle the growing problem of obesity, the continuation of training sufficient home economics teachers would surely assist in achieving this goal. Why is it not possible to have two centres of excellence? St. Catherine’s College could, as recommended in the O’Brien report, be incorporated in a third level university to maintain the status of its qualifications, while St. Angela’s College in Sligo could be the second such centre. Both could continue to operate successfully.
Will the Minister immediately offer to meet the board of governors, staff and management of St. Catherine’s College so that her predecessor’s decision, which has no educational basis, can be reversed and quality home economics teaching can be allowed to continue without disruption? We have had enough disruption in recent years. The Minister must not embark on her period in office by allowing this matter to fester.
Mr. B. Hayes: I second the motion. I welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to the House. It is usually a bad idea to appoint teachers or doctors to the positions of Minister for Education and Science and Minister for Health and Children, respectively, but I make an exception in the case of the current Minister. I wish her well in the years ahead in this challenging portfolio.
I know the Minister is not in favour of the decision to close St. Catherine’s College, which she would not have taken if it had been her decision to make. Those employed in the Sion Hill educational facilities, who have done so much for the country and, in particular, education in Dublin, are very proud of her and her immense contribution to the college over the years.
Even at this late stage, I hold out an olive branch because I have no regard for the trite amendment tabled in the Minister’s name — I suspect it emanated from a brusque Cabinet meeting held yesterday. If she agrees to meet the board of governors, management and staff of St. Catherine’s College and reviews the decision taken by her predecessor, the Fine Gael Party would consider withdrawing the motion. The college is proud of the Minister and she of the college, which is important in terms of her educational contribution.
The motion is not concerned with pitting schools against each other. My colleagues from the Sligo area should be aware that the notion that this is some kind of ferocious debate between St. Angela’s and St. Catherine’s is pathetic. The purpose of the motion is to achieve excellence. Who says we must centre all work and academic excellence in home economics in one area?
Mr. B. Hayes: I will not refer to the freedom of information request, about which the Senator may have something to say later. When we ask Ministers to do a job, we should be cognisant of what they say. In this case, two educational experts have come down fairly and squarely on the side of St. Catherine’s College continuing as a school of excellence for home economics education. We cannot put their views to one side due to electoral considerations or loyalty to former Members. We should focus on what the experts have told us is in the interests of home economics education. If the Minister were to ask the Department’s inspectors of home economics education, they would tell her a different story from that told by her predecessor.
The Minister stated she wanted happy teachers and fairness to schools. Is it fair that two days before the start of the academic term, St. Catherine’s College, with its distinguished record over the past 90 years, should receive a call informing it that the game was up? Is it fair that at no stage in the course of the consultations between the college and the Department was a face to face meeting organised between her predecessor and the college or that, at one fell swoop, one stroke of a pen, an entire educational institution was set aside? It is not fair and I believe the Minister appreciates that because it runs contrary to all the statements she has made since her appointment to Cabinet last week. I ask her to reconsider the decision.
I represent a working class area of Dublin. Day in and day out, nutritional questions are among the most important issues to arise as regards the care of families and children. For example, what food are children bringing into schools? What knowledge would help many single parent families make the right choices as regards what to put in their children’s lunchboxes and what is eaten at home? The Minister is aware that this is a major problem in areas of deprivation in this city and elsewhere. The notion that Dublin will have no school of home economics flies in the face of the real poverty in many of our estates. This area of education needs to expand because it has so much to offer in terms of teaching young parents in particular the rights and wrongs as regards diet and how to manage one’s income to ensure the best possible use of one’s budget. These are the kinds of skills we need to impart to many lone parents who are in a vulnerable position. Therefore, the notion that we should simply send all our educational experts in this area to one part of the country is flawed.
The way in which the management of the school has been treated is very shoddy. I understand the Department has offered those involved voluntary redeployment. To where are those concerned to be redeployed? All of the 24 full-time members of staff, who have given their lives to education in one part of our country and produced in excess of 1,800 graduates all over the country, are being told they will be redeployed in one fell swoop. That is not living in the real world.
The Minister is a fair person and I know that if this decision had been hers initially she would not have taken it. Therefore, she should, even at this late stage, offer some hope to St. Catherine’s and re-examine the decision. She should ensure not only the future viability of St. Angela’s in Sligo but also the viability of St. Catherine’s.
The Minister will have the support of the House if she is courageous on this matter. A face-to-face meeting with the board of management and staff should be held and a commitment should be made to review the decision. It is now time for politicians to listen to the teachers, school management and the very people to whom the Minister said she wanted to listen last week. If she does so, they will tell her this decision is wrong.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus is mian liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh léi ar a ceapachán mar Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta. Guím rath ar a cuid oibre. I warmly welcome the Minister and congratulate her on her elevation to the Ministry of Education and Science. I have no doubt but that her Ministry will be a testament to a great commitment to education. She has tremendous experience in education and many insights based on a long career both here in Leinster House and in the educational field in the past. She is passionately committed to education. I know this as I had the privilege of spending a few years with her on an educational forum in another place.
The issue before us is the decision to close the college of education for the training of home economics teachers and to concentrate its provision in one campus in Sligo instead of both Dublin and Sligo, as was the case prior to the decision. There are three fundamental questions at issue. Is the decision in pursuit of educational excellence? Is it good value for money? What are the implications for staff and students? The controversy that has surrounded the decision relates to the reasons for closure, the manner of the announcement, regarding which there is sensitivity, and the withholding of a consultant’s report by the FOI unit of the Department of Education and Science.
The decision to close St. Catherine’s College and consolidate the provision in St. Angela’s in Sligo was made on its merits. I am quite clear on this having examined all the facts and documentation. The closure of any college with a long and noble tradition of service to education is regrettable at any time. As a Dublin politician, I regret the closure of a college in Dublin, as I am sure do all my Dublin colleagues. The proud record of achievement of St. Catherine’s, Sion Hill, is legendary. It was founded in 1910 and served the country well and with great distinction over many generations thereafter. Its highly-qualified graduates brought the science and skills of home economics to every corner of Ireland, mainly, although not exclusively, through our second level schools.
I pay special tribute to the Dominican congregation and the staff who worked in the college down through the years for the invaluable legacy they have bequeathed to the country over successive generations. That mantle will now have to be carried exclusively by St. Angela’s College in Sligo. Given its track record to date, I have no doubt that it will fully justify the confidence the Government has placed in it to do the job required of it.
The decision to concentrate the provision of home economics teacher training in one campus was not taken lightly by the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey. It followed a long process of meetings, consultations, reviews and investigations——
Mr. Fitzgerald: ——into the future development of higher education. The issue first surfaced in the 1980s. The question of the closure of one or both colleges of home economics arose during this period, having regard to the demand for home economics teachers into the future. A report was prepared by a steering committee on the future development of higher education in June 1995. The president of St. Angela’s College was a member of that committee. Although the specialist teacher requirements were part of the committee’s remit, the examination of future needs was not completed and the committee referred the matter back to the Department and the HEA. An advisory group was then reconvened and following a report in 1996, it recommended the maintenance of the status quo in June 1998.
A significant development subsequently occurred. The Dominican congregation, the trustee of St. Catherine’s, decided for personnel and financial reasons that it was no longer in a position to fulfil its role as trustee. Consequently, discussions began with the Department with a view to transferring this role and the associated responsibilities. A consultant was appointed to prepare a report on the options available for consideration by the then Minister. As we know, that report was published in July 2002.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I stand corrected. What happened subsequently has, in some cases, given rise to wild and unfounded allegations of political interference, cover-ups and ministerial intervention to suppress information from Deputy Andrews, the Information Commissioner and the chairperson of St. Catherine’s, whom I understand is in the Gallery and whom I welcome. However, the known facts clearly prove that these allegations are unfounded.
Mr. Fitzgerald: The principal allegation is that the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, simply binned or, at best, ignored the consultant’s report. The then Minister has stated repeatedly in public that the report was thoroughly examined and that the options for the future of the college were set out for his consideration. However, some important aspects of this have not been articulated properly, one of which is that the report was commissioned long before he came into office and in a slightly different context. Second, if one looks at the terms of reference given to the consultant who drew up the report, one will note they were based on the assumption that St. Catherine’s would be kept open.
Very soon after the presentation of the report to the then Minister and the outlining of options to him, a significant presentation was made by St. Angela’s College in Sligo. This presentation made a very convincing case for designating that college as the sole centre for the training of home economics teachers in the country. While the consultant’s report dealt with the option of linking the existing facilities at St. Catherine’s to one of Dublin’s third level colleges, the proposal by St. Angela’s College offered a new and additional feasible option. It was at least of equal merit educationally. I have heard some references to the contrary across the floor today——
Mr. Hanafin: I thank my colleague Senator Fitzgerald for allowing me to share time with him. He has many points to make and I am sure he could speak on the subject for hours and every minute of his contribution would be of value. The reason I requested him to share time is to warmly and heartily welcome the Minister for Education and Science to the House.
I wish to heartily welcome the Minister to the House. She has had a distinguished career in politics as well as a distinguished career in teaching. I have no doubt she will make a fine Minister. I hope she will start by addressing this matter in a sensitive way, although not in any sense by criticising her predecessor — we will be able to do that for her — but by taking an intelligent and open decision in a situation which requires this kind of approach.
I disagree with what my two colleagues on the Government benches have said; it does seem to me that there is an element of gombeenism in this. There was a substantial attempt to conceal information. The Minister formerly responsible, for whom I have generally speaking a high regard, was pretty strongly rapped over the knuckles by the Information Commissioner, Ms Emily O’Reilly, who made it plain in her report that he had transgressed by not taking into account public interest and by only taking into account matters such as management relations and the fact that people might be upset if they knew they were going to be sacked. Those were the reasons he gave and I quote, “It could have a significant adverse effect on the performance of my Department in its functions relating to management, including industrial relations. Furthermore it could disclose positions taken, or to be taken, for the purpose of negotiations”. Those concerns were put above the public interest.
Mr. Norris: It is really quite extraordinary and the sequence of events is so clear. A consultant was appointed by agreement between the school and the Department. That consultant reported and made a clear recommendation, which is not what the Minister decided to do.
Mr. Norris: A second group was appointed which made exactly the same recommendation. It is like poor, unfortunate Pope Paul VI and the contraception debate: establish a commission of experts, listen to them report unanimously and then say, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m infallible”.
Mr. Norris: Exactly. This is what happened but we have not had any satisfactory, educational explanation. I speak as a former teacher and a member of the Irish Federation of University Teachers. All the experts, including IFUT, came out clearly on this issue, yet we were just given this kind of blanket comment, “No, I’m sorry, we are transferring this over to Sligo”. Of course, there was a degree of political lobbying.
Mr. Norris: I have no problem with that and there is nothing disgraceful in it. Perhaps Senator MacSharry, his father or other local people were lobbying for their own interests. Let us not pretend that there is anything sinister in this; they are perfectly entitled to do so but at the end of the day it is the Minister’s responsibility to make up his or, in this case, her mind as to what is in the best interests of the country and the entire educational community. In this case, I believe that decision was not made on those grounds.
What is happening is a precursor because we will get much more of this kind of thing, although not in exactly the same situation. We will get problems thrown up by the fact that the religious orders are contracting in terms of their financial capacity and the numbers of personnel involved. This is really what happened in this case. There was a degree of contraction and the trustees, in their original form, found they were not able to continue with the valuable service they had given. There have been tributes from both sides of the House to the work that was done at Sion Hill.
An attempt was made by the authorities of that excellent educational establishment to reach agreement with the Minister. They agreed to the appointment of a consultant to produce a report. Its recommendations were that the Department, through the Higher Education Authority, should have discussions with TCD, UCD and DCU with a view to having St. Catherine’s College of Education, Sion Hill, incorporated into one of them. He also indicated that a merger with UCD would be the most beneficial for staff and students, and would be welcomed by them. Nothing could be clearer than that recommendation, yet in terms of a Government that has committed itself to openness, transparency and accountability, it is astonishing that no such discussions were held. That suggests that minds were made up already, which is regrettable because the discussions should have been held.
I echo Senator Brian Hayes’s plea that, at this stage, the Minister should be prepared to meet with representatives of the college. I hope she will be in a position to give us this undertaking. It seems extraordinary that no such discussions took place and that staff were kept in the dark until the last minute. Moneys were spent, including public funds, on refurbishing the premises at St. Catherine’s College during the time this process was going on. That could be regarded as a substantial waste. If an arbitrary political decision had been made to cut off the school at that point, why go on wasting money?
Although we fought during debate on the Universities Bill to ensure universities retained their autonomy, and Senator Ross and myself nailed our banners to the mast on this matter, it looks as if we have been subverted. An important university course leading to the conferral of degrees has been closed down, not by the university but by departmental intervention and the arbitrary action of the Minister.
Dr. Henry: I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time with me. I welcome the Minister to the House. I am sure she will make a splendid contribution to education in this country. I agree with what Senator Norris has said. I too am concerned that Sion Hill graduates who, for the past 25 years have received Trinity College degrees, will now apparently have that degree abolished. Under the Universities Act, universities were in a position to establish degree courses with autonomy, but apparently the Minister can now take them away. This seems to be an extraordinary situation and I can see that the Minister looks puzzled herself. I do not think this has been taken into account. It was suggested that the merger should be with UCD but TCD, after all, has a long association with Sion Hill, so I wonder why that option was not considered further.
Students said the move to Sligo would deny them any semblance of a third level campus, which was suggested as being important in the consultant’s report. The relevance of that fact should be noted. It is hard to accept what has happened, given the importance of the recent all-island report on nutrition. That report stated that in the ten years from 1992-2002 adults gained, on average, six kilos. I only gained three in that period so many people must have gained nine kilos to get an average figure of six. We have a problem with nutrition in this country and a task force on obesity has been established. We need to have more people involved in home economics and nutrition, yet two such colleges are now to be combined.
We have not taken into account the fact that there may be different approaches to home economics within these colleges. On an island of this size it is important to have diverse courses and points of view. The Minister should do her utmost to get this decision reversed. St. Catherine’s College is in her constituency and I am quite sure she has received plenty of representations about it on a personal level. As Senator Norris has said, I would like to see this matter examined from the point of view of the Universities Act. To breach that Act in this way would be truly dreadful.
Mr. MacSharry: I wish to join with other Senators in congratulating and welcoming the new Minister for Education and Science to the House. We look forward to working with her over the coming years. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that this is not a Dublin-Sligo issue. I pay tribute to the Dominican Order and all the staff at St. Catherine’s College. I am delighted that some of them are present in the Gallery to hear the points of view from both sides of the House.
I pay tribute to them and the excellent work they have done since the college was founded in 1910. The degree course was introduced in the 1970s. However, the Dominican Order decided due to falling vocations and available private funding that it would withdraw, as a result of which the college must close at its current location and be transferred elsewhere.
As we heard already, there were numerous reports and much talk about this since the mid-1980s, when the Dominicans first mooted the possibility of ceasing to be trustees of the college. Mr. O’Brien’s report stated that Government decisions of the late 1980s led to the establishment of a working group in the Department to consider future requirements for home economics teachers. The group, working on the basis of a total annual intake of 32 trainee students, recommended that provision be made for this number in St. Angela’s College, Sligo, as the sole college providing teacher training in home economics. From this, we can see it was not unheard of that St. Angela’s would be considered as the location. Throughout the compilation of his report, Mr. O’Brien consulted widely with St. Catherine’s, the various Dublin colleges listed in the report, including TCD, DCU, UCD, the Dún Laoghaire college, DIT, etc., and St. Angela’s in Sligo. Based on all the facts available to him, he drew up what was the best outcome in his opinion, which is but one interpretation of the facts. When I hear people say how the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, ignored the report——
Mr. MacSharry: I will come to the FOI request in due course. If the Senator had the manners to be here earlier in the debate, he would have heard that I will touch on it. This report facilitated the Minister’s decision to transfer St. Catherine’s to Sligo. It is interesting that the report states a transfer anywhere other than St. Angela’s in Sligo would require varying amounts of capital investment. To transfer it to Sligo requires none, despite the briefing document, of which I got wind today, which stated it would require €500,000. This is incorrect. It would need an additional amount of in the region of €400,000 per annum to facilitate the college in Sligo. The students are already in place. I am amazed that Senator Burke is involved in the motion.
Mr. MacSharry: We have consulted with everyone. We have seen no capital outlay to go to St. Angela’s, minimal changes in terms of additional staff and the students are already in place. This represents great value for money. There is no doubt the consultant recommended going to UCD and people in the Department agreed with that. It is the Minister’s prerogative and duty to examine the entire picture and make an informed objective decision without being clouded in any way by any vested interest.
He certainly did not ignore the reports. In fact, the reports helped to facilitate the best and most logical outcome, one that is in line with Government policy in terms of the national spatial strategy and balanced regional development. There is no third level institution in the NUI north of the line from Dublin to Galway except for St. Angela’s College. In a report which I notice did not come under the freedom of information but was commissioned by a Sligo group, PKS Consultants, it is estimated that to build a greenfield site to facilitate the students on an annual basis would cost in the region of €12 million. Many of the facilities needed are in UCD. The report states that specialist kitchens would be required. One is in the multi-million dollar area in terms of putting these facilities in place. Better value for money means going to St. Angela’s.
Mr. MacSharry: Senator Norris said that an amount of money was spent on St. Catherine’s and asked how it could be closing when money had been spent to bring it up to a particular standard. If people took the time to read the report from beginning to end, they would see the works had to be carried out to bring it up to the required health and safety standards in order to go forward for the following three years.
I am not long in this House and am probably politically naive and ill-informed about many matters. I can only aspire to the greatness and fluency in the political system of Senator Ryan and others. However, as far as I know, if a freedom of information officer is asked to give out something, and if it is appropriate to do so, he or she should give it out. I used this facility once or twice in my previous occupation. I lobbied and made extensive representations based on the facts and the Minister made his decision based on the facts and value for money.
Some 57 students started this year in St. Angela’s College, the largest proportion of whom come from County Galway. Some 91.6% of them come from Senator Burke’s constituency. Perhaps he will answer the question——
Mr. MacSharry: They are in Sligo because they would rather be there than in UCD where they would pay more on rent, accessing amenities and the general cost of living, but that is where Senator Burke would have them.
Mr. MacSharry: I commend the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, for his exceptional vision in making the correct decision and not being forced down a road by a consultant with one view. He looked at the bigger picture with no vested interest.
Mr. MacSharry: I commend the amendment to the House. I appeal to the Minister to do everything in her power to facilitate the redeployment and help the staff of St. Catherine’s College in every way possible.
Mr. Ryan: There was a lot of heat but not so much new light. The Information Commissioner’s report makes interesting reading. It is astonishing that five years after the Freedom of Information Act came into force the original decision maker in the Department of Education and Science could ignore, we are assured without any political interference, the public interest provisions of section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act when making a decision about the disclosure of information. It is extraordinary that a civil servant, presumably whose promotion to a degree at least depends on the goodwill of the Minister, would forget a major section of the Freedom of Information Act in order to come to a conclusion, which just happened to be the same view as that of the Minister.
The former Minister refused to disclose the same information to his own party colleagues and to the new and perhaps naive Fianna Fáil Deputy for Dún Laoghaire, whose name I cannot mention because Senators are not supposed to name Members of the other House. It is an extraordinary coincidence that the former Minister came to exactly the same conclusion and used almost exactly the same language to refuse access to information as that used by the independent freedom of information officer in his Department.
Another strange matter arises from the freedom of information disclosures, rather than the consultancy report about which many people were immediately suspicious once the refusal to disclose it arose. We have all watched Fianna Fáil in particular wriggle under the exigencies of the Freedom of Information Act and its shameless filleting of it because the party decided to wriggle no more on certain matters. The strange matter in the disclosures, and one assumes and accepts that everything relevant has been disclosed, is the absence of one document which one would think central to this issue. That is the document upon which the former Minister based his decision. He decided to ignore his own officials and consultants and to do something different.
We are all now used to the mantra that advice is advice and Ministers make decisions, which is a tenet with which I do not disagree. However, we are entitled to expect that decisions are rational and reasonable and are documented in a manner which allows others to make a judgment about them. In the whole mass of documentation about this issue, there is no document which explains why the former Minister made his decision. There is a press release about the national spatial strategy but there is no mention of intensive lobbying by eminent members of Fianna Fáil, including former Ministers and EU Commissioners. There is no letter from any former Commissioner among the documents disclosed although the name of such a Commissioner appears in the report. One assumes that the telephone must have been used for the purpose of this vigorous lobbying.
Separate from the merits or demerits of the case, this is a scandalous piece of odiferous decision-making by a Minister who has nothing documented in his departmental files to explain why this decision was made. Future decisions will be made in the dark without any written evidence as to how they were made. This most expansive Government, which spends so much money on consultants and advisers, decided to overrule and ignore an eminent former senior civil servant in the Department of Education and Science and did not condescend to include a document in its own files to explain why. We all know why, however. This was not a decision about educational policy or about the national spatial strategy. Nobody is quicker to ignore the national spatial strategy than this Government when it suits it, as it did in the matter of the botched decentralisation programme, a nonsense which will hopefully be abandoned soon. The Government blissfully ignores spatial strategies in that matter in the interests of much more mundane issues like the question of where votes might be attained. This is exactly the same situation.
I have no particular axe to grind but I recognise that reports which were written years ago about the number of students doing subjects such as home economics have been overtaken by events and issues, such as those to do with role models and the status of men and women in society. I am concerned that a process of decision making undertaken by a Minister for Education and Science should be based on reason and analysis. In all the documentation I have seen on this matter, there is no reason and analysis, only big name lobbying and politically expedient decision making. If that is the way decisions about the future of Irish education will generally be made, then the future of Irish education is severely threatened. God help us if the entire OECD report is ignored in the interests of political expediency in response to high level lobbying. Is the entire Kelly report regarding capital investment in third level education no more than a document to be considered and then discarded in the light of political lobbying and expediency?
The situation is clear; a mess has been created of grandiose proportions. The lives of dedicated teachers in St. Catherine’s College have been messed up and the future of a fine educational institution undermined and we still do not know why. There is no rational basis detailed in any file in the Department of Education and Science. We know the Department knew the decision stank, however, because the former Minister would not publish any of the related documentation and his officials came to a coincidentally identical conclusion to his own. The Information Commissioner told the Department how wrong it was and so we now know that the reason it did not publish was because the absence of rational decision making would become immediately clear after publication. The rational case was for retention of the status quo; the political case was for the closure of St. Catherine’s College. Not for the first time, a Fianna Fáil Minister for Education and Science ignored rationality and the best advice and went for political expediency. He should be ashamed of himself.
Incidentally, the amendment is peculiarly worded and grossly out of order, and should have been ruled as such. It is not the function of Seanad Éireann to confirm a decision to close any institution; such a confirmation forms no part of the Members’ constitutional role.
Mr. Scanlon: There is no doubt that St. Catherine’s College was a fine college with excellent staff. Nobody can take that away and I congratulate the college on the work it has done over the past 90 years. However, the trustees and the Dominican Order announced that they were not in a position to retain the college in its current form for financial and other reasons. The former Minister for Education and Science had a decision to make. There is no Member who can deny that he or she does not lobby from time to time and I acknowledge that I lobbied to have the facility moved to St. Angela’s College.
Mr. Scanlon: The right decision was taken as there was spare capacity in St. Angela’s. I know of qualified home economics teachers who are finding it very difficult to get a job. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that there should be more emphasis on home economics teachers and the work they do. Unfortunately, however, there are qualified people who cannot get teaching work in this subject. There is probably only room in this country for one college for home economics teachers.
Mr. Scanlon: We had two colleges, but to be honest there is room for only one. It happens there was one in Sligo and I lobbied for it. There is no need to ask the Minister to talk to the board and the staff of St. Catherine’s, although I am sure she would have no problem with that, and to ensure the staff are facilitated. The decision has been taken and there is no going back on it. It has come as a shock to the people working there and we must have consideration for them. I do not doubt but that they will be treated in the best manner possible by the Minister.
Ms Feeney: I too welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, to the House. It is a pleasure to see her here and I am sure she will do a fine job in her new role. I heard her on different programmes over the weekend and she came across well. I am sure she will be a caring Minister for Education and Science.
I have listened to the Opposition and agree with Senator Brian Hayes when he said it is not a matter of St. Angela’s versus St. Catherine’s or of Sligo versus Dublin. Senator Scanlon put it well when he said there was room for only one home economics college in the country. Bearing in mind the decentralisation programme, it seems the Minister considered decentralisation, as well as sound economic and educational reasons, when making up his mind.
Ms Feeney: I am proud to tell the Senator that I am one of the people who lobbied on behalf of St. Angela’s and the late Michael Hanley. St. Angela’s is a fine establishment run by the Ursuline Sisters. We have a wonderful relationship through——
Ms Feeney: Senator Burke should have some respect for this Chamber, but I know that is difficult for him. Senator MacSharry pointed out how many people from Senator Burke’s area lobbied us and asked us to retain St. Angela’s. It is obvious they did not lobby him to do the same job.
Ms Feeney: They are free to go anywhere they want. I applaud the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, for his forthright decision in deciding, for sound economic and educational reasons, to relocate to St. Angela’s. His decisions were not clouded by anything——
Ms Feeney: A point was made in the summary of the report we received this morning, and Senator Henry also raised the same matter, relating to the idea of a campus, the lack of facilities and the feelings students have that they are not part of a larger campus such as that of a university. Sligo town has between 4,000 and 5,000 students at Sligo Institute of Technology where there is an excellent campus with the best residential accommodation. Sligo town is almost a campus for the students. St. Angela’s is approximately two miles from the institute and both sets of students get on very well.
Ms Feeney: The Senator is a doubting Thomas and doubts everything. Does Fine Gael stand united on this or is there a split? Did any of the Fine Gael Senators ask Deputy Perry where he stands on the issue?
Ms Terry: One would not need to be from Mars to observe the significant lack of transparency in the Minister’s decision or to see that political interference influenced that decision. This is what we are talking about. We are not here to pit one college against the other. There is no doubt that St. Angela’s is a wonderful college. That is not in question. What we are doing is questioning and trying to establish how the Minister came to his decision.
Ms Terry: We have no proof that those were the reasons for this decision. What happens when there is no transparency is that people lose faith in the political system and their Ministers. We all become tarnished by that, not just the Government of the day. I do not like this system. I like to see decisions taken for reasons over which a person can stand. I do not like to see a Minister appoint a consultant who makes a decision which is then disregarded by the Minister. On other occasions Ministers like to hide behind consultants’ decisions or recommendations. However, we cannot find the reasons the Minister made this decision.
Why did he stand over an investment in St. Catherine’s and then on the day following completion of the work make the decision to close the college? This reminds me of the €13 million spent by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform about three years ago on a building in Mountjoy which still lies empty. Senator Feeney spoke about value for money. Did the taxpayers get value for money from the €1.3 million spent on St. Catherine’s? Did they get value for money from the €13 million spent on the school in Mountjoy which still lies empty? Staff who were employed to go into that school are being paid although they are not carrying out their duties in the empty school.
When we have a process that does not show sound reasons for a decision and which does not include consultation with the interested parties before a decision is arrived at, we must be suspicious and lose faith in the system. The decision to close St. Catherine’s showed total disregard for the Dominican Sisters and for the staff of the school who served the students so well over the years. Treating them in such a shoddy fashion undermines our political system and is unacceptable.
I can understand why the local politicians lobbied to have the school in Sligo. However, was that the only reason the Minister arrived at his decision? If so, he did not look at the overall picture to see how he could deliver the best education for those who want to study home economics. It would make sound economic and educational sense to keep a school of home economics in Dublin where we have one third of the population. I have young student children and live in an area in Dublin where there are many students. People resident in Dublin would prefer to stay in Dublin.
Ms Terry: If they must make a choice between travelling to Sligo to take up the courses of their choice or taking another course in Dublin, they may well opt for their second choice, stay in Dublin and not do the home economics course. This decision was arrived at in an undemocratic fashion.
I am sorry I did not welcome the new Minister when I began but I do so now and I wish her well for the future. However, her first visit to the House concerns a serious issue, which she must take on board. I ask her to examine how the decision was reached and to review it in a transparent way. I expect she will examine the issue from a practical perspective, taking account of all the merits and demerits of the case, and will arrive at a decision. Whatever the decision, it should be transparent and she should inform us of on what her decision is based. We will then see whether that is acceptable. People cannot be treated in a shoddy fashion. If, at the end of the day, everything has been done to save the school and we can see the correct decision was made to move to Sligo, so be it, but the process has not evolved in a transparent way. I hope the Minister will ensure this is the case.
Minister for Education and Science (Ms M. Hanafin): Gabhaim buíochas dona Seanadóirí uilig as an bhfáilte croíúil a chur siad romham anseo inniu. I thank Senators for their warm welcome and I look forward to working with them over the next two years and nine months in my new role. I was chuffed that, on my first day as Minister of State in February 2000, my father was in the Seanad to welcome me and it was particularly nice that my brother was present today to welcome me.
It is unfortunate that the topic we are discussing is close to my heart. I wish to address a misunderstanding, particularly in light of comments made by Senator Brian Hayes. He kept referring to the school and area with which I am associated. My association for a long number of proud years is with the second level school at Sion Hill and there is absolutely no threat to that school. The decision relating to the third level college has no implications for that school.
Ms Hanafin: People can get the wrong impression in this regard based on media reports and so on and I am anxious to clarify that in the interest of an excellent second level school. St. Catherine’s is also an excellent third level school.
I reject the notion that the decision was reached on the basis of political interference. We are all politicians and we make representations. The public is entitled to make representations to us and we, as politicians, are entitled to make representations to Ministers. That is a valuable part of the political process. Representations were made to my predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in the normal course of events but the decision taken was not based on them. The system of access to politicians and Ministers which operates in the State should not be jettisoned by the criticism of the valid role of political representation.
St. Catherine’s College has a long tradition of providing an excellent quality of education. It is a private institution, owned by the Dominican Order in the same way St. Angela’s College is owned by the Ursuline Order. It has provided training for home economics teachers for years. Both are small colleges but they are centres of excellence. Reference was made to the amount of money spent on them. The annual grant to St. Catherine’s to cover the bachelor of education training course, which is not met from the college’s income, was €1.973 million in 2003 but the majority of the funding comprised State grants and the remainder comprised free fees to students. A total of €1.3 million was spent in recent years on necessary health and safety improvements. It did not matter when a decision was made because wiring and so on had to be done and, therefore, the money had to be spent.
The number of home economics graduates needed has been the subject of ongoing debate for a number of years. A steering committee on the future development of higher education was established in the 1980s and it issued a report in 1995. The committee examined a number of issues but had not completed its work. It recommended that the necessary review and analysis should be pursued further through a joint approach between the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority. That was taken up in 1996 by the then Minister, who requested the HEA to reconvene the advisory group on the supply of and demand for second level teachers with revised terms of reference focusing, inter alia, on the determination of specialist teacher needs outside of the higher diploma programme. The terms of reference also sought recommendations on the required intake of students by subject area.
The review was concluded in 1998 and it was recommended that the intake of 53 students annually by both colleges should be maintained. It was assumed that number would satisfy the need for home economics teachers in the education system not only then but in the future, taking into account retirements, increases in student numbers and changes in the number of schools offering the subject. It was significant that the group decided there was no need for additional teachers.
There was no question of the Department seeking to close St. Catherine’s or to transfer the students to St. Angela’s but for the Dominican trustees indicating that they were no longer able to fulfil their role. This was understandable because the Dominicans have made a strong, positive and significant contribution to the area and to the State. However, because of their numbers, they could no longer fulfil their long-standing role in second and third level institutions. When they said they could not continue as trustees of the college, the question had to be asked regarding what would be done. All the options had to be examined. The trustees engaged in discussions with the Department to ascertain whether their role should be transferred and so on.
My predecessor was faced with a number of questions such as whether to buy the college, buy another site or transfer the students to different colleges. All these questions were examined. A decision on relocation of such a specialist college had significant financial implications and different advice was offered based on consultants’ reports, the spatial strategy, which dealt with finances at the time, the numbers permitted in the public service, better value for money, allocation of resources and so on. It was obvious the Department should have considered where else such a course was being offered at such a high standard. St. Angela’s College had spare capacity. It could accommodate the numbers, it had specialist facilities and it could respond to the future home economics needs of schools.
All the options were placed in front of my predecessor and, bearing all considerations in mind, the decision was taken. It was not based on the recommendation of one particular consultant or report or on political lobbying, but on all the considerations I have mentioned.
Senators have mentioned the report of Mr. Jack O’Brien, a senior official in the Department. While he set out some of the advice, there were overarching questions. It is not correct to say, as some Senators have suggested, that people will not travel to undertake a specialist course. People travel all over the country for specialist courses. There are courses which are only available at NUIG, which students are delighted to attend while others can only be undertaken at the University of Limerick to which people will travel from anywhere. There are other courses which are only available at DCU. Where people want to pursue a particular career or course, they are very happy to travel. It is not a persuasive argument to say that everybody wants to come to Dublin or even that Dublin people want to stay here. That is not the case.
While the decision was taken on the basis of all the considerations, I reiterate that the issue would not have arisen but for the recognition of the difficulties the Dominican trustees were having. We are faced with circumstances in which a decision has been taken and is being implemented. There are no first year students at St. Catherine’s while there is a double intake of students in St Angela’s. There is no evidence that there is a need to provide extra places. According to the reports we have, the numbers being taken in now are adequate to meet our needs. There does not appear to be any reason to maintain a college in Dublin.
Many decisions have been taken by previous Ministers and I regret that I am not in a position to reverse them. People are asking me, though not in this House, to reverse the decision of a previous Minister for Education and Science on free fees. While I will not be reversing that decision either, Members would try to make sure I did not do so if I indicated such an intention.
Ms Hanafin: Of course, I will be more than happy to meet with staff, the board of governors and the board of management of St. Catherine’s for whom I have a very high regard. However, I hope it is not in the expectation that I can reverse the decision which has been made but rather that I can help with transitional arrangements, discuss where their future lies and facilitate them in whatever way I can. Should evidence arise in future of a need to train more students at a course in Dublin, I will be open to hearing it. No other proposals have been brought forward to date. Unfortunately, the decision is being implemented and there are now only second, third and fourth year students at St. Catherine’s.
It is opportune to recognise the role St. Catherine’s and its graduates have played around the country. Senators are correct in their arguments about the debate on obesity, food awareness, safety and health. A role can be played in this area not just by home economics teachers but by graduates of courses such as that offered at Cathal Brugha Street. All of us can have an influence in terms of our own actions in this context.
Senator Henry seemed to indicate the degrees which have been granted in the past and those which will be granted to current students of St. Catherine’s will in some way not be Trinity College awards or that students will be stripped of them. That is a fabrication and I am surprised that Senator Henry should suggest it. There is no question of any threat to a degree which has or will be granted to students of St. Catherine’s. It is important to recognise those graduates and to thank most sincerely the Dominican Sisters for the role they have played in the education landscape and for their veritas, which of course is the motto of the order. It was instilled into us all as we taught there and into many communities in which the order has been involved.
This decision was made for a wide variety of reasons and based on numerous considerations rather than on any single report or lobby. While, unfortunately and to my regret, I am not in a position to reverse it, I look forward to meeting and working with the staff of the college to find how best to facilitate an easy transition for their futures.
Mr. Ross: I am sorry to welcome the Minister to the House in these circumstances. I regret the situation in which she finds herself, which is probably very difficult for her. Good, real and raw politics is being played in this House today. The Minister finds herself locked into and having to back up a decision taken by her predecessor and of which she probably does not approve. As the college is in her constituency, the Minister is on a skewer and must defend with the many weapons at her disposal a decision she feels is indefensible. She is cutting her teeth in Cabinet in a raw manner at a very early stage.
It was a good thing that the Minister discarded her supplied script as its contents were pretty feeble. Much of it was unadulterated rhubarb irrelevant to the issue and which would have been wasted on this House. If the Minister continues in that vein, she will do well. The script contained a great deal of background which was not relevant to the decision which was taken. In fact, the staff and students of St. Catherine’s are the victims of an old-fashioned Fianna Fáil stroke, as is the Minister to a large extent. As a university Senator, I deeply resent that decision. I suppose I have a vested interest in the matter as those with degrees from St. Catherine’s have a vote in the constituency represented by Senators Norris, Henry and myself. While I have a vested interest in defending the interests of those degree holders, that is not to say the position does not coincide with what I believe in. On the other side, there is an extraordinary preponderance of people from Sligo popping up to defend the decision.
While I did not have time to read the local newspapers, it is probable that when the decision was made in 2003 we would have seen all the Fianna Fáil representatives in County Sligo jumping up and down and saying, “Hey, we got this one off Dublin and we are responsible for the decision.” They came in here today to say the decision was made on the basis of rational considerations by an independent Minister and had nothing to do with geography, Fianna Fáil and public representatives. While Senators MacSharry and Scanlon should be congratulated for pulling a stroke, strokes have victims. The Senators can prance around Sligo and say they are responsible because they are. The evidence has been revealed here. Among the things which have been revealed is that my old friend and adversary, Ray MacSharry, continues to have enormous clout in this country.
Mr. Ross: The lesson here is that the former Minister, Mr. Ray MacSharry, continues to have enormous influence and can pull a stroke for Sligo. It is quite obvious to anybody looking at the evidence that this decision was made on purely political grounds. The previous Minister wrote a letter confirming the decision on his last day in office to ensure it could not be reversed by Deputy Hanafin. Somebody probably foresaw that she would be the Minister for Education and Science and might reverse the decision as a representative from the constituency in which St. Catherine’s College is situated. The previous Minister wrote an unnecessary letter which stated that this particular decision could not and should not be reversed just to lock Deputy Hanafin into it. The Minister is locked into a decision which is politically embarrassing because it relates to her constituency.
I would like now to put on record one or two thoughts on this issue as it applies first to Trinity College Dublin and, second, to the students involved. Despite the fact that this is a TCD-accredited degree I do not believe the authorities in TCD were apprised of or consulted about the decision. My experience in this House on matters of education has been that this Government, in particular, and the previous Government use them as a tool of political convenience whenever they feel like it. It was quite apparent when the Universities Bill was going through this House that the then Government and the subsequent Government, when the private Bill was introduced, promised consultation with the universities on important issues but did not deliver on it. Consultation is pretty irrelevant in political terms. It is a type of camouflage put out by party politicians to give the impression that there will be consultation but they then reject whatever opinion is given to them if they do not like it. It is apparent from this measure that when the Minister received from the consultant a result which he did not like, the political lobbyists from his party told him to take no notice of it and he rejected it.
I do not believe that the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, had the educational expertise to make a decision of this type. He had the political nous to know what would go down well with his cohorts in Sligo but he did not know much about St. Catherine’s College or any of the other schools involved. He made his decision regardless of the report. He also overruled the decision of a senior civil servant and watched €1.3 million of public money being frittered away willy nilly. It is an extraordinary coincidence that the works were completed just as the decision was made.
I plead with the Minister to look not just at the interests of the teachers in her constituency with whom she met. She knows as well as I that there is no point meeting them, that is blancmange to keep the constituents happy.
Mr. Ross: I am aware I am wandering into injury time. I ask the Minister to think of the good of the students. This places an enormous imposition on students, most of whom come from Leinster and Munster, who will have to pay the maintenance and travel costs associated with living away from home. They are the hidden costs which are not considered when political strokes of this nature are pulled. I condemn this decision which was taken regardless of the educational value or the great work done by the staff of St. Catherine’s College.
Mr. Bannon: I, too, welcome the new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to the House and wish her well in her new office. I know the Minister has midland connections and I hope to see much of her there, in particular in County Longford where there are many applicants for school funding, a matter with which I will deal another day. When I heard Senator Feeney refer to the Minister as Senator Hanafin, I thought she had been demoted.
Mr. Bannon: I support the motion and join with my colleagues in calling on the Minister to rescind her predecessor’s decision and to restore full status to St. Catherine’s College of Education in Sion Hill. Given the Minister’s speech this evening, it is clear that even though it would be in the interests of her constituents were she to rescind that decision, she will not make a U-turn in that regard.
Recently released documentation from the Department of Education and Science under the ruling of the Information Commissioner has shown that the former Minister made his decision regarding the closure of St. Catherine’s College against the advice of consultants and officials from his Department. He then compounded his mistake by trying to hide details behind an error of judgment. It is obvious there was no co-ordination within the Department of Education and Science. I again ask the Minister to reconsider the consultants’ recommendations, in particular the proposals in the O’Brien report referred to earlier by the Minister, that St. Catherine’s College be merged with a Dublin-based university and to bring some cohesion into a Department which appears to be dangerously out of control. The Department is now in new hands and, hopefully, the Minister will improve on what was there before.
I would be astonished if the Minister were to hide behind the former Minister’s extraordinary muddled and incoherent reasons for closing St. Catherine’s College, reasons which strangely related to trustees and, as Senator MacSharry stated, a national spatial strategy. There is no doubt this Government has been a spendthrift one. It has perfected the art of spending by, on the one hand, squandering money and, on the other, taking from the most vulnerable among us. Enormous sums have been spent on building and refurbishing hospital wards which never opened.
Mr. Bannon: Some €1.4 million was spent on upgrading St. Catherine’s College which was, upon completion of work, promptly closed by the former Minister. This is not an isolated incident. Dunbeg national school, County Donegal, a fully-equipped school — a rarity these days — was recently closed by the former Minister because, technically, it was one pupil short of the required number despite the fact that more students were expected to enrol. I understand my colleague Senator McHugh intervened with the Minister to ensure the school remained opened. The people of Donegal owe a debt of gratitude to him in that regard.
Mr. Bannon: I am sure the Minister will bring her own thoughts to her position. I ask that she imbue our education with all the benefits of a little common sense, something which is important in politics today. I admire the Minister’s tone in answering the questions posed today. However, her answer was unsatisfactory to Members on this side of the House and to current and future pupils and teachers at St. Catherine’s College. Common sense is lacking in terms of the closure of the school being discussed this evening. Common sense tells us St. Catherine’s College is a valuable education facility to its community. It is one of two home economics teacher training colleges, the other being St. Angela’s in Lough Gill, County Sligo, which caters for the western and northern regions. St. Catherine’s College has traditionally catered for students from Leinster and Munster. Access to a range of second level schools for teacher work placement during their training will be limited and will incur significant costs for students from a Sligo base. Senator MacSharry referred to the cost of student accommodation. The placement of students in other colleges will prove costly. They will have to come back to Dublin, the east coast, the south coast and Munster eventually.
St. Catherine’s College has operated under the ownership of the Dominican Order for the past 90 years and we must not forget the immense debt of gratitude we owe the nuns for their valuable work. We must also remember that the nuns have invested a significant amount of time and money in the college. Can we let that investment go to waste?
We have all received letters from constituents, concerned students, parents, teachers and past pupils of St. Catherine’s earnestly asking us to save this college. With current lifestyles, young people need to be educated to be responsible and well informed in their dietary and exercise choices. Last year, 15,000 students sat the leaving certificate examination in home economics, far higher numbers than in physics or chemistry. The demand for this course exists so we must provide the teachers to meet that demand.
When Deputy Noel Dempsey was asked to reconsider his decision on the closure and to meet the board of the college, he sent it a letter stating that the decision was final and there was no point having a further meeting on the matter. His door was closed, as it was when he decided to close St. Joseph’s secondary school in Newtownforbes, County Longford. There is significant demand for facilities in this area and it will come back to haunt the Minister because there is a shortage of secondary school places in County Longford. I hope she will be willing to meet teachers, parents’ groups and school boards of management. To do otherwise would be a bad start to her tenure as Minister for Education and Science. I look forward to meeting her to discuss Lanesborough Community College. I am sure she is aware of the shortage of funding and will deal with the issue.
Ms O’Rourke: I welcome the Minister to the House. I have no doubt that her style, acumen and manner of dealing with people will stand her in good stead. Speaking from five years’ experience in that Department, I know it requires partnership with people. It is apparent in every line of the Minister’s script that that is the way she is setting out her agenda for her tenure in the Department of Education and Science. Listening, reflecting and responding are vital to the job. There will be 40 files on the Minister’s desk every morning, each of them with a problem that must be worked through. There is no problem that cannot be solved by listening and talking to people. Discussion is the panacea to all difficulties. The Minister’s speech is redolent of the way in which she intends to carry out her business. That is good for education because it is not a snap, crackle and pop system. The Minister must listen, talk and reflect.
Ms O’Rourke: The numbers enrolling are small and the curriculum is being broadened to include nutrition, obesity, anorexia, bulimia and the other ills of modern Ireland that will be part of a comprehensive curriculum advance in the home economics debate. I remember having an interesting 8.30 a.m. meeting with the board and the then principal of St. Catherine’s when those ideas were beginning to flower.
Ms O’Rourke: I was back there lately with some of my colleagues on an historic occasion. There is no doubt that young people enrolling in the college will find it a happy environment for their studies.
The Minister stated that she intends to work out the ramifications for the staff now that a year has passed with no intake and as there will be no students after next year, it is important that staff considerations be taken into account. The Minister and I had a brief conversation before we came in and I was surprised by how quickly Deputy Hanafin has grasped the main elements of the Department of Education and Science.
Ms O’Rourke: Staff considerations are important. People have partners, houses, children, mortgages or aged parents. All of those issues must be addressed to ensure a successful working through of the details. I urge the Department to put those considerations to the forefront of its decision making. Young people are adaptable, as I know from my own family, but teachers and lecturers are grown up and have a stake in society. They must see that stake valued and given further consideration. Their role must be affirmed and the Minister will do that.
I spoke tonight because I wanted to wish the Minister well. I also spoke because progress can be made in this case, not in what is already laid out, but in making arrangements for those involved in the transfer.
Mr. U. Burke: I thank the Minister and all the Senators who contributed to the debate. I want to repudiate the idea that anyone on this side of the House feels that St. Angela’s is in any way inferior, as was intimated. No one on this side of the House implied that.
The Leader of the House recently inferred that Members on this side of the House regard Sligo in isolation. Nobody made those inferences and that perception should be scotched immediately. The Leader or anyone else on the other side who wishes to put a spin on those issues and create a divide between St. Angela’s and St. Catherine’s is mistaken. That is not the purpose of this debate and it never was.
The Minister stated that the previous Minister examined all the options and arrived at his decision. There is no indication that the Minister made the decision for anything other than political reasons, as stated in the motion.
Mr. U. Burke: The Minister said she will meet the staff. Does the Minister know the reason the previous Minister ignored the governors, staff and students of St. Catherine’s? The Minister will meet them with one purpose which is, as the previous Minister said, to offer her condolences and to help them relocate and redeploy. This is a matter to do with people’s lives and they cannot relocate at certain stages. The Minister should not come to the House with the mother mo chroí attitude, that she will resolve the matter——
Mr. U. Burke: The Fine Gael motion asks the Minister to meet with the staff, governors and students with a view to rescinding the decision. The previous Minister said something was in place. The one focus was to facilitate an easy redeployment or early retirement scheme. Minister, your reply is useless and disappointing.
Mr. U. Burke: In the context of a fundamental appraisal by the Dominican congregation of their role as trustees in educational institutions generally, the trustees of St. Catherine’s decided that, for personal and financial reasons, they were no longer in a position to fulfil their role as trustees of the college. That did not necessitate closure but that is what came through in your speech as I interpreted it.
Mr. U. Burke: I am addressing the Chair. That did not necessitate the need for closure. The reports by the professionals within the Department clearly indicated that there were alternatives, provided the opportunity was given to explore them. It could be the continuation of the current situation by arrangement with the trustees or, as recommended in the report, the college could be subsumed into other institutions, such as UCD, which is preferable because of its geographic proximity and convenience.
The Minister is only three days in office. I agree with the Leader that it is difficult to comprehend the seriousness of this situation. I acknowledge the Minister’s understanding of the situation at St. Catherine’s. For such a monumental decision to be taken and endorsed is very serious. I hope that even at this 12th hour the Minister will reconsider that decision. The Minister should not blame the Dominican Sisters for the fact that they said they were unable to continue as trustees and cite that as the reason for closure.
Mr. U. Burke: I will conclude by saying it is regrettable that on her first day in this House the Minister cannot come in, look at an issue anew and be her own mistress from here on in. I ask her to bear in mind the professional reports produced by her Department.
|Bohan, Eddie.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Cox, Margaret.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Fitzgerald, Liam.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Kenneally, Brendan.|
|Kett, Tony.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Leyden, Terry.||Lydon, Donal J.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Minihan, John.||Morrissey, Tom.|
|Moylan, Pat.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Walsh, Jim.||Walsh, Kate.|
|Bannon, James.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Browne, Fergal.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Coonan, Noel.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Finucane, Michael.|
|Hayes, Brian.||Henry, Mary.|
|McHugh, Joe.||Norris, David.|
|O’Meara, Kathleen.||Ross, Shane.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||Terry, Sheila.|
|Bohan, Eddie.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Cox, Margaret.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Fitzgerald, Liam.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Kenneally, Brendan.|
|Kett, Tony.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Leyden, Terry.||Lydon, Donal J.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Minihan, John.||Morrissey, Tom.|
|Moylan, Pat.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Walsh, Jim.||Walsh, Kate.|
|Bannon, James.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Browne, Fergal.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Coonan, Noel.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Finucane, Michael.|
|Hayes, Brian.||Henry, Mary.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McHugh, Joe.|
|Norris, David.||O’Meara, Kathleen.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
An Cathaoirleach: Arising from the failure to record Senator Ryan’s electronic vote as “Níl”, the result has been amended to: Tá, 27; Níl, 19. The tellers have agreed that the question is carried.
|Last Updated: 09/09/2010 07:19:06||Page of 13|