Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue, which was brought to my attention by parents and teachers and which has been commented on publicly by both Church of Ireland and Catholic clergy. The many fine Protestant schools in Cork, including Ashton School, St. Luke’s national school, St. Michael’s national school in Blackrock, St. Fin Barre’s national school and St. Mary’s national school in Rockboro, have made a valuable contribution to education in this country.
I am curious to find out why the Attorney General has supposedly given sudden advice to the effect that the Protestant ancillary grant should be withdrawn, after 43 years. Why is it suddenly proposed to stop a grant that has been provided for so many years? Senator Ross and I previously raised on the Adjournment our concerns about fee-paying schools. In this instance, we are talking about €2.8 million.
Is it the case, as Bishop Colton of Cork, Cloyne and Ross suggested in an interview with the Irish Examiner last week, that the Minister is hiding “behind secret advice about the document”? As the bishop said, the document in question is not the Minister’s “alone, but the charter of the people of this country — our Constitution”. As Bishop Colton put it:
It is clear that we are facing a crisis because the two sides are on a collision course about the withdrawal of this grant. I understand that the Department is struggling to fund the education system, which is at the centre of everyone’s thinking on the matter. Surely we have an obligation to protect the rights of all religions, including the minority religions. We need to guarantee the right of Protestant schools to provide education. If we are concerned about €2.8 million, we are concerned about a very small amount of money.
I wish to repeat some of the questions asked by Deputies Kenny and Brian Hayes in the Dáil last week. Who sought the advice of the Attorney General in this regard? When was that advice sought? Why was this advice suddenly given, after 43 years?
Many of my friends in Cork went to Protestant schools. I went to St. Finbarr’s in Farranferris, the Catholic seminary, and many of my friends went to Ashton School. I know from the education my friends got that it was good and wholesome. We have an obligation to a new generation of students to allow the Protestant educational tradition to continue. The financial pressures on some schools in Cork are unnecessary and unfair. I look forward to the Minister of State’s reply.
Senator Shane Ross: I thank Senator Buttimer for sharing time. There is a very strong campaign to reverse the proposed decision to withdraw the grant for Protestant schools. I endorse what Senator Buttimer said. It seems extraordinary that the Attorney General has suddenly found that the grant may be unconstitutional. It might be unconstitutional to withdraw it when it has been in place for 40 years.
I normally protest about having the wrong Minister in the House but it is a great opportunity that we have the wrong Minister here today. I hope the script of the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, does not conflict with his faith when he reads it. Am I correct in saying he is associated with the synod of the Church of Ireland? He should be naturally sympathetic to my point of view and I will be particularly interested when he departs from his script.
I acknowledge the contribution of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who very recently stated in an extraordinarily helpful intervention that the ethos of the Protestant schools ought to be defended. That was an unusual intervention in a controversy and it was brave and helpful. The Government should note it in that this is not purely a denominational issue. Religions other than the Protestant religion believe the Protestant ethos ought to be protected and that it adds to the general mosaic of Irish life.
It would be fair to say there are those from across the Border who monitor issues such as this very closely and how this nation treats its minorities. They watch and make judgments accordingly. This case is very high profile and people in the Protestant community feel strongly about it. They have run an extraordinarily passionate campaign to ensure the grant will not be withdrawn. The Government should take notice. It is a question of very small money in the overall scheme of things. We are not even talking about a decision that will necessarily save money. It may well be that the poorest members of the Protestant community will suffer, not the better off. This should be borne in mind by the Minister when he makes his decision.
Deputy Martin Mansergh: On behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, I am pleased to be given the opportunity to confirm to the House the Government’s continued commitment to Protestant schools and to clarify the position on the funding arrangements for fee-charging Protestant schools. I assure the Senator that the Minister and his colleagues in Government recognise the importance of ensuring students from a Protestant background can attend a school that reflects their denominational ethos.
Since the changes in the October 2008 budget, the Minister has had several meetings with representatives of the Protestant community, as has the Taoiseach. Just last week, the Minister had a constructive meeting with representatives of the Protestant education sector. These meetings have outlined the background to the changes in the October 2008 budget, and have explored future funding arrangements. Concern has been expressed over two aspects of the budgetary changes.
The first aspect relates to the allocation of teachers to all fee-charging schools. By making the changes to the pupil-teacher ratio, the Government recognised that such schools, regardless of religious ethos, have extra income which they can use and have used to employ additional teachers. If the Minister had not made this change, he would have been faced with making a more severe change to the staffing position of all schools. The measures that differentiated between those schools with fee income and those without were fairer to all schools. The case that has been made is that this change should not apply to Protestant fee-charging schools.
The second aspect is the withdrawal of certain grants that had been paid to Protestant fee-charging schools that were not paid to Catholic fee-charging schools. The argument has been made that the grants should be restored. There may be an impression among the general public, as supported by media comment, that the block grant has been abolished. No changes have been made to the block grant, which has amounted to €6.5 million in 2009. The Minister has made a commitment that the block grant will remain in place. The block grant covers capitation, tuition and boarding costs and is distributed through the secondary education committee established by the churches concerned. This fund ensures that necessitous Protestant children can attend a school of their choice. This grant remains in place.
The Constitution, in Article 44, permits State aid to denominational schools, but only on the basis that there be no discrimination between schools under different religious management. The Department has legal advice on this matter, including advice from the Attorney General. The Minister is satisfied that the budget changes are consistent with the Constitution. If resources are provided to Protestant fee-charging schools as a special case, there is a constitutional difficulty.
The Minister has consistently expressed his willingness to consider any proposals that would enable the available funding to be focused and adjusted to meet more effectively the twin objectives of access for individuals and sustaining the schools that they wish to attend, particularly those in rural areas. The Minister for Education and Science will continue to work with representatives of the Protestant educational sector to ensure State funding made available to the Protestant community is targeted in the fairest way possible to meet the needs of their children and their schools.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I thank the Minister of State for his remarks. I made no reference to his faith, as he knows. His reply is wholly unsatisfactory given that the block grant is not the issue. An ancillary grant is being paid. Why is the advice of the Attorney General suddenly being sought on it? I hope we can have this clarified.
Deputy Martin Mansergh: With the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach, I will give a more personal view and analysis which I hope will none the less be consistent with the position of the Government and the Department of Education and Science. Historically, the State has treated favourably Protestant schools and pupils of those schools. It has allowed small schools to continue in existence that might not otherwise have been allowed to do so.
I interpret the equality provisions in the Constitution to be not inconsistent with positive discrimination. A global understanding of equality is that, in order to establish it, positive discrimination may be necessary in certain circumstances. That may have been the case in the past and may still be the case in some, but not all, instances. The Government is faced with severe financial constraints the consequences of which are bearing down on everybody, with complaints from almost every sector.
I was a member of the board of a Protestant secondary school in Dublin city for almost 20 years. Shortly before departing last year, I inquired about the number of block grant pupils among the school population of 630 and was told it was in single figures. However, in other areas, including Senator Buttimer’s county, the proportion may be 30% or 40% and, in one or two instances, even higher. The case can be made that the cutbacks announced last October bear more heavily on such schools than on those with no substantial disadvantaged intake. The Taoiseach, the Minister and his departmental officials have made it clear in discussions that they are prepared to consider targeted assistance to schools most in need.
Based on the personal experience I have cited, I am not overly sympathetic to an undifferentiated case which does not incorporate recognition of the differing situations of schools. On the question of why this change is being instituted now, the answer may well be that the composition of these schools has evolved. What was equitable and correct 40 years ago, given the composition of the schools in question, may not necessarily be so to the same extent today. I personally regret that a type of religious emotional charge, which sometimes arises in controversies of this type, such as that relating to Tallaght hospital, has entered the debate. I am certain there is no ill will on the part of the Government towards Protestant schools. The only fault I have found in this regard in more than 30 years of public administration is that officialdom, sometimes even new Ministers, may not initially be aware of the different arrangements that have been in place since the late 1960s and the rationale behind them.
I hope a resolution can be found to this problem in the context of next year’s budget. It is not in the public interest that this type of public stand-off, which does not offer a sufficiently differentiated and nuanced representation of the nature of the problem, should continue.
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