Wednesday 18 September 2019

Quinn reversed €120,000 school aid refusal after Kenny pressure

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn overturned a decision to refuse funding for a €120,000 special needs school project in the Taoiseach's constituency following pressure from Enda Kenny.

The Holy Family National School in Newport, Co Mayo, spent six years campaigning for the replacement of a prefab building with a new state-of-the-art classroom and sensory room for pupils with autism.

But the cash-strapped Department of Education shot down the school's funding bid several times, describing the plans as "not absolutely essential" just last May.

In September, Mr Quinn wrote to Mr Kenny himself to say he was refusing funding.

However, within a month, he had changed his mind, saying the school may need additional accommodation.

And the department then awarded the cash in February this year -- although the rules under which funding for special needs education is granted have not been changed.

Letters obtained by the Irish Independent reveal Mr Kenny sought to influence the decision on at least three occasions by asking Mr Quinn to have the school's case reconsidered.

While 13 similar plans for sensory rooms and ASD units were approved in schools around the country last year, Holy Family's funding request was rejected at least three times in 2011.

Mr Kenny last night denied that it was his interventions that had influenced the U-turn.

And Mr Quinn has claimed that he had no role in the ultimate decision to grant the funding -- which he says was taken by department officials.

Records released by the Department of Education reveal Mr Kenny repeatedly sought to use his influence as Taoiseach to get money for 32 school projects in his constituency.

While he sent just one such letter in 2010, since becoming Taoiseach Mr Kenny has written an average of three letters a month, more than all the other TDs in Mayo combined.

In the representations he requested everything from a new footpath to roof repairs and the building of school halls.

The Taoiseach wrote three letters to Mr Quinn on behalf of Holy Family National School since it had its application for funding refused in May -- when a department official wrote that replacing the existing prefab, while "desirable", was "not absolutely essential".

In June Mr Kenny asked the Education Minister to "reconsider" the school's case.

In September Mr Kenny wrote again, sending a letter from the school's principal Brid Chambers that highlighted her concerns about behavioural problems in autism class.

On September 30, Mr Quinn replied to say that funding was being refused but that "all large-scale projects, including this project" would be considered in the future.

Rejection

But he pointed out that following advice from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), it was the department's opinion that "there is no deficit of special needs' accommodation at the school".

Despite this rejection, by October 28 Mr Quinn had changed his mind.

He told Mr Kenny that "severe behavioural issues" in the autism class had been brought to his attention and that there "may be a requirement for a 'withdrawal room'".

He said the school should apply to rent more temporary accommodation for this purpose and that a permanent structure would also be considered as part of that application.

Mr Kenny wrote to the Education Minister again in January prior to a final decision on funding asking him to "re-examine" the school's case.

Mayo TD and junior minister Michael Ring also wrote to Mr Quinn asking him to "prioritise approval" for the funding, which he said would be cost-neutral when the fee for renting the current prefab was taken into account.

The department finally approved the funding for the school's plans last month.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the approval was given following the new application and recommendations from a number of organisations including the HSE which had also backed the original application.

Last night a spokeswoman for Mr Quinn said: "He had no influence on the decision in relation to that school.

"He did not ask for anything to be changed, the decision ultimately lies with the planning and building unit."

She added: "The Taoiseach and Minister Ring are perfectly entitled to send representations on behalf of their constituency.

"That does not influence the decision-making process at the department."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Taoiseach denied that Mr Kenny tried to influence the decision saying: "The decision by the Department of Education to grant funding was made on the basis of the particular needs of children in that school."

He added: "As a public representative, the Taoiseach does make representations on behalf of the public" and said the number of people seeking Mr Kenny's help had "increased significantly" since he became Taoiseach.

Mr Ring said: "I have always been open about the fact that as a public representative, I make and receive representations on behalf of the public."

He said the decision to provide the funding was "a matter for the department" and added that he understood the final decision took account of "recommendations from "expert bodies in the field".

Irish Independent

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