Irish diplomats – who are paid to talk for Ireland – have been stunned into silence by proposals to remove a free education perk for their children
The Department of Education, under pressure from foreign multinationals to give high-flying executives on secondment here the same perk, have decided to remove it altogether.
The special exemption, enjoyed by the diplomatic corps as well as executives from the IDA and Enterprise Ireland who are sent to work outside the EU on Ireland's behalf, was granted when then-Education Minister Niamh Breathnach introduced the third-level free fees scheme in 1997.
To avail of the free fees scheme, students must have spent three out of the previous five years in Ireland or another EU country before they entered third-level education here.
It was recognised that the children of diplomats and other state executives sent outside Europe to the US, the Far East, Africa or Australasia would be at a disadvantage, so they were given an exemption from the 'three out of five years' residency rule for free fees.
It's worth an average of some €4,500 in saved fees per year, sources say.
However, in recent months the Department of Education have come under pressure from a well-organised lobby representing international firms from the US, Asia and Australasia who have established operations here and want their staff who have not been based in Europe before to have the same free fees perk for their children.
However, the Department of Education says they cannot afford to give executives from foreign firms the same exemption.
Now, in the interests of fairness, they are going to abolish the perk altogether.
Officials from Iveagh House met with the Department of Education on Friday to be given the news, which according to one source did not go down well.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the issue "was still at the discussion stage".
Diplomatic sources said the issue was much broader than fees and raised issues in relation to residency which would also impinge on other state officials who travel overseas, including gardai sent on peacekeeping missions.
Officially a department spokesman told the Sunday Independent: "This was unexpected.We have received correspondence from the Department of Education and we are formulating our response."
The problem of third-level fees is also an issue for the children of non-EU nationals who have come here in recent years and are faced with huge bills for their third-level education.
According to the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, many of these children are forced to turn down and defer college places.
Despite having lived here for many years, some students find themselves without enough time to qualify as Irish citizens before they are due to start college and, as a result, have to pay fees three times higher than those facing their Irish classmates.