Mar 18, 2011

Could Education Bring Down the Government?

Henry Burrows

It has been said that the program for Government approved last week in the Dáil is high on rhetoric but low on detail, leaving the detail to be hammered out at cabinet level. This perhaps was necessitated by the tight time frame that negotiations took place in, but will pose problems further down the road, with major problems foreseeable in education.

The structure of the new government will place a huge emphasis on personal relations, particularly in the economic area. Largely the existing four-year plan has been adopted for its first two years, and its review then will out strains on the personal relationships of the Economic Council of the Taoiseach, Táiniste, and two ministers for Finance. Indeed, it had been suggested that this was the reason Joan Burton did not get the Public Sector Reform portfolio that she had been favoured for, simply that her personal relations with Michael Noonan would have caused problems.


Large majority governments are also problematic; there isn’t necessarily stability in numbers. Large numbers lead to disaffection when promotion is denied, and there aren’t enough committee sweeteners to go around. The perfect number in the Dáil would be 88 or 89, in this case ministers, ministers of state and committee positions would keep them all occupied and satisfied, while allowing for natural wastage. The other issue is our electoral system, oft criticised for encouraging parish pump politics. This is exacerbated when there are government TDs vying for re-election, and so placing themselves closer to or further away from the party line as public opinion demands it. This weakens the government discipline, particularly in constituencies where there is a majority of government TDs.

Labour has been given ministries that will involve huge pain being placed on the heartland their support, and the unions, namely public sector reductions, social welfare, and particularly education.

Ruairí Quinn has a tough task as Minister for Education

The USI made a great deal of Ruairí Quinn’s signing of a pledge that he would not support a government that introduced fees, or a graduate tax as per the Fine Gael manifesto. Now he finds himself in the ministry that will have to decide on the funding of the third level sector. On this the program for government is exceptionally vague, stating that they will:

‘Undertake a full review of the Hunt and OECD reports into third level funding before end of 2011. Our goal is to introduce a funding system that will provide third level institutions with reliable funding but does not impact access for students’

This statement sums up the primary arguments that Fine Gael put forward for introducing a graduate tax, that it was free at the point of entry, did not bar anybody from third level education, and was a reliable form of funding for the third level sector. Quinn’s commitment, coupled with the rhetorical entrapment that the Labour Party have created by presenting this statement as a great concession from the all charging, all privatising blue shirts, will lead to major issues when this comes to be resolved.

The way around this for the Labour party is to delay action for two and a half years until the time for a reshuffle, and Quinn is tipped to become a EU commissioner. Then a graduate tax would be introduced under a new minister, and Labour would seek the moral high ground by claiming they kept the issue off the table.

There is an oxymoron in this government in that it is a socially conservative government (see Kenny, Creighton et al) but also has the first ‘openly’ atheist Minister for Education in Quinn. Primary education and the training of teachers is still vested in the Churches, 95% of schools being under either Catholic or Church of Ireland patronage. This means that bishops are ex officio patrons, and can be held personally responsible for school matters and appointments in the face of law. A recent report shows that in Mary Immaculate Teacher Training College in Limerick, four times the amount of time is spent on Religious Education training as science. There is also the anomaly that while schools are state funded, the churches hold the property on which the school is based. Buying school lands of the churches would be both impossibly expensive, and in the culture post Ryan and Murphy, giving money to churches would be deeply unpopular.

Quinn has promised a forum on the patronage of Catholic schools (no word on schools of other faiths) and Archbishop Diarmud Martin, who no doubt will garner support, had backed this. There is no doubt, however, that denominational schools are part of the Irish psyche, and getting rid of them or reducing them entirely would lead to a sense of persecution, and in rural communities the local faith based school is much valued, particularly smaller schools. One only has to look at the attempts by the previous government to remove some funding from Protestant schools to see the reaction that invoked within that community. If smaller school were threatened under a secularisation of them, this could become an election issue, similar to local hospital closures, and with such a large majority and the multi-seat election system we have, this could cause real rifts in some constituencies, particularly those with only government TDs.

There are of course Constitutional issues surrounding choice of education that could also prove problematic.

Enda Kenny in the process of being made Taoiseach

Gaeltacht and other Fine Gael TDs must have had at least some sense of relief when they failed to get an overall majority, in that it gave them a chance to sweep aside the controversial, Enda solo-run policy of the abolition of compulsory leaving certificate Irish. However, were Fine Gael to pursue this policy in later years, as the option is left open in the program for Government as one of a multitude of reviews, this is the sort of policy that would give the Labour Party an exit strategy. In two or three years time this government will be hated, and the Labour party will have been seen to have abandoned key supporters. They, as the minority government partner will be taking a disproportionate degree of the flack, and the personal relationships discussed above will be strained. The detail of the program for government will have to be fleshed out, and the new government will have emerged from the cosy blame blanket that the outgoing government has provided for them, whereby every decision made can be blamed on the policies of their predecessors. Labour may just have taken a hammering in the local and European elections, and be getting mid term doubts. In this situation, a review of the status of Irish may provide a welcome escape clause, particularly approaching 2016.

The Program for Government is focused mainly on the economic situation, and very light on social ideology. Labour ideology includes legislating for abortion and gay marriage. These will probably fall by the wayside during this Dáil. On economics they can largely agree, or at least until decisions start to fully bite. It is where economics and ideology collide, peacefully in terms of health policy, jarringly in terms of transport and public asset ownership policy, conflictually in education policy. In health there is enough money, it is a question of value, in education more money needs to be invested, and therefore raised. The personal relationships of this government will be tested by the economy, the ideology, Albert Reynolds’ ‘little things that trip you up’, and Harold Macmillan’s dear boy’s events, of which education are sure to be part.

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