Bishops up pressure on Cowen after poll plunge
THE Catholic hierarchy last night threw down the gauntlet to Taoiseach Brian Cowen over education cuts as support for Fianna Fail slumped to an all-time low.
Mr Cowen returned home from China yesterday as a devastating new poll revealed that, for the first time, Fine Gael has overtaken Fianna Fail as the most popular party in the country. The bishops' intervention -- in which they express their "dismay" at the cuts -- will come as a major blow to Mr Cowen.
He is also facing growing backbench unrest over the Government's disastrous handling of the medical card issue -- and its Budget plans to save money by increasing class sizes and cutting teaching posts.
In a hard-hitting joint statement, the Irish Catholic Bishops' Commission for Education and the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) said: "We are dismayed that the Budget for education hurts the most vulnerable people in society.
"We call on the Government to revisit this Budget, bearing in mind that it is education that guarantees the future of the nation. It is how we deal with the most vulnerable that defines out society."
In an extraordinary turnaround, support for Fianna Fail has plummeted to just 26pc, with the fallout from the Budget threatening to tear the party apart. Meanwhile, Fine Gael has jumped to 33pc while Labour has gained five points to 15pc.
Mr Cowen was staying silent on the poll findings last night. Government sources said he was going "straight to bed" after a 15-hour flight back from the trade mission to China.
But he will have to brace himself for a fresh political storm this week, including:
l A Green Party meeting on the education cuts tomorrow.
l A massive rally by primary teachers and parents outside the Dail on Wednesday.
l Lobbying for more Budget changes from his own backbenchers.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern last night attempted to hold the party line by declaring the Government could not be deflected from making "unpalatable decisions" by the results of opinion polls.
"If we avoid these difficult decisions we are going to go down the road that governments of every hue and cry did in the 70s and 80s and put us into bankruptcy," he told RTE's 'Week in Politics'.
But Fianna Fail TDs made it clear that they, along with Green Party backbencher Paul Gogarty, wanted changes to the education cutbacks. If the party does not improve its performance it faces the loss of up to 30 seats in a general election.
Tipperary South TD Mattie McGrath said there had to be "leeway" on the class-size issue to make up for the "monumental error" on the medical card issue in the Budget.
"If you have 81 pupils in a four-teacher school and it goes to 82, you lose a teacher, that's ridiculous. There has to be a bit of room for some retraction there," he said.
As well as claiming that the Fianna Fail organisation was "seething" at the way the Budget was handled, he also called for Health Minister Mary Harney to be moved to another department.
Fianna Fail Cork North Central TD Noel O'Flynn also said party members were "fuming". He said Fianna Fail had learnt an expensive lesson from the "disastrous" handling of the medical card issue.
Although Fine Gael finance spokesman Richard Bruton welcomed the result of the opinion poll, he cautioned that talk of an early election was premature.
"I don't see an election immediately on the horizon."
The Labour party, which is bringing a private members motion calling for the class size increases to be reversed, said its 15pc rating was the highest it had ever received in a Red C poll.
"We think it reflects the strong performance of our party leader Eamon Gilmore and the parliamentary party in recent weeks," a party spokesman said.