On Wed 4 July, I made my way to the Dáil in support of our local TD Luke Flanagan’s Education (Amendment) Protection of Schools Bill 2012. The aim of this Bill was to stop the ongoing closure of small, mostly rural, National Schools until such time as a proper review can be done. With the present ultra-right wing government in reactionary mode, this modest proposal was summarily shot down by 84 votes to 44.
Mr Jerome Quinn, Principal of Aughnasheelin NS, led a large crowd of protesters from Co Leitrim and surrounds. Outside the Dáil, he gave a fine, impassioned speech to supporters. It appears to me that many quiet, kindly country people are now beginning to get a clearer view of how their civil rights and their need for equality of services are being rudely brushed aside by those who wield power.
To me, the way the government side dealt with this Bill was a disgrace. Opposition deputies rightly questioned the absence from the Dáil of Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn. The speakers from the government side were poor and seemed to be rationalising quite a bit. (On the orders of the Troika?). They lamely defended the increased pupil/teacher ratio. By contrast, the members of the Technical Group sounded like real heavyweights and they got through a number of telling blows. Government deputies had stated that Ireland cannot afford to keep these small schools open. Richard Boyd Barrett countered by saying “A recent report by Revenue Commissioners states that if they were allowed €6m to employ staff they could bring in €100m per annum of uncollected taxes. This alone would mean there would be no need for cuts”.
Deputy Shane Ross pointed to the disadvantages which will face many Church of Ireland primary schools if the closures continue without review. He quoted 130 of their 171 National Schools as being “small”. At the recent Synod, the worry was that these cuts will undoubtedly “dilute their ethos”. Similar cases were made for retaining small Gaeltacht and island schools. Others stated that there is no real net gain in closing schools but the whole fabric of rural Ireland will be eroded and forever destroyed if the cuts continue unabated. Some schools that seem to be strong could, in a matter of seven years, with continuous emigration, etc, find their numbers dwindling in a dangerous manner. There is also the cost of transporting pupils to the newly amalgamated schools.
Deputy Luke Flanagan gave a really great speech, full of humour and full of bright ideas. He said if the government parties did not like the Bill in its present form then, instead of shooting it down, they should have the courage to propose amendments to it. He will be carrying on this fight for rural areas, small towns and communities irrespective of the vote. He pointed to the intimate link between the local school and the welfare of the community. He said they are systematically closing down rural schools. He agreed with the earlier proposal of Claire Daly TD that schools should be put at the centre of rural regeneration. “If there are already dwindling populations in some areas”, he said, “someone should ask “Why?”
TD Flanagan stated that good early education is vital. Failure to fund it now will mean the cost to the country will increase to five times as much --- when the irreparable damage is already done. He called for a tax on the super rich which would pay the cost of all schooling. What is to be implemented by the government will bring a useless, dangerous homogeneity to schoolchildren. He added “Homogeneity is for milk and not for schools. We don’t want a bland society”.
Deputy Flanagan finished by saying that what has gone wrong and what will continue to go wrong, unless the Dáil changes it, can be summarised by quoting the title of late John Healy’s landmark book No One Shouted STOP (The Death of an Irish Town). He was showing a real willingness to debate issues in an open respectful manner. There was no reciprocation from the government. That intransigence is one of our greatest national problems and a real shame.
Des Guckian, Dromod.