Just 19 days in, new TD may quit on student fees

Niall O'Connor

THREE weeks ago Labour hailed a new TD -- but by Budget Day he may quit the party.

Dail newbie Patrick Nulty has refused to rule out quitting his party if the Government increases third-level tuition fees.

The Dublin TD has only been in-situ for 19 days but hinted to the Herald that he may follow his colleague Willie Penrose and relinquish the party whip.

The news comes as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn was understood to be considering introducing staggered increases to the current fees of €2,000.

Labour leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore as well as Mr Quinn have both refused to rule out the hike in fees on several occasions in the last 24 hours.

Mr Quinn is believed to favour a €500 increase, with more hikes in future years.

The move would be a major U-turn by Mr Quinn -- who in February pledged to reverse the previous government's decision to slap an additional €500 on student fees last year.

An estimated 20,000 students took to the streets yesterday to voice their opposition to any increase in fees.

Union of Students of Ireland President Gary Redmond told protesters that Fine Gael and Labour would be punished by students if fees were hiked.

And although Mr Quinn was the main target of students' anger, his colleague Patrick Nulty told the Herald that he supported the march "100pc".

"I of course support the students in their match 100pc. Education is its own investment. We know the economic value in Ireland of education -- the expansion of 2nd level in the 1960s and 3rd level in the 90s. To row back on that logic now would be a grave error."

When asked directly by the Herald if an increase would result in him quitting the party, Mr Nulty replied: "I'm campaigning as hard as I possibly can against that. I want to see everybody able to go to college."

Mr Quinn is also under intense pressure from university presidents to introduce a substantially larger fee increase.

University College Cork President Michael Murphy warned that fees of between €4,500 and €5,000 are needed to prop up the third-level sector.