Our school buildings crisis shows what happens when government is unwilling to tackle an issue until it becomes too big, or too dangerous, to ignore, writes Michael Clifford
Leo Varadkar was outraged. So it appeared on Tuesday when he addressed questions in the Dáil about the audit to be conducted on 40 schools built over the last 15 years or so.
An audit last week resulted in the closure of one school. That prompted further examinations in two other schools which concluded that they also should be closed for remedial work. Now the Department of Education has concluded that the safety of children demands that a wider audit be conducted.
Mr Varadkar spoke for many when he told the Dáil: “It does certainly appear to be that corners were cut back in the Celtic Tiger period when it comes to the building of some of these schools which is truly disgraceful.”
It was unclear whether he believes that the corner-cutting was confined to school building or whether he has formed the view that it went on right across construction during that time of frantic excess. Whatever the case, one might well ask where he has been for the last five years?
This newspaper has highlighted over that period the recurring discoveries of dangerous work done during the Celtic Tiger years. Many of the buildings involved here were built after the collapse of the boom, but prior to 2014 when regulations were tightened somewhat.
Map by Marita Moloney
But let’s just look at the issue around schools for it is a salutary example of what appears to be a willful reluctance in government to join the dots until a problem becomes too big, or too dangerous, to ignore.
The initial problem with schools was uncovered in 2014. An architect was called into Rush and Lusk Educate Together in north county Dublin following concerns about building work. As with all the schools currently under the microscope this one was built by Tyrone-based Western Building Systems (WBS).
The architect concluded that should a fire occur the building would collapse in 20 minutes. Remedial work was ordered by Dublin Fire Brigade and undertaken at a cost of €800,000, which was paid by the Department of Education.
The matter was kept quiet. It didn’t occur to anybody that this could be indicative of similar problems in other schools built under the same programme. Joining dots might have opened a wider problem. Everybody left well enough alone.
A year later, Irish Examiner journalist Fiachra Ó Cionnaith uncovered the story. The publicity alerted parents in other schools built at the same time that there might be further issues. Parents apparently joined dots where state agencies couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Fire safety audits were ordered on five other schools. These were conducted in the first half of 2016.
For the best part of a year thereafter the results were kept secret. There were attempts by a number of parties, including parents and one principal, to gain access to the results. The patron body of most of the schools, Educate Together, applied seven times for access to the results.
It was only in September 2017, following a decision by the Information Commissioner, that the results were released. All five schools audited were in breach of fire safety regulations.
As a result of that information coming into the public domain, fire safety audits were ordered on 25 other schools built by WBS. Out of that emerged the news last week that one of these, Ardgillan Community College in North Dublin, was found to have structural problems which have necessitated closure.
Two more schools have been similarly deemed off limits this week, prompting the full audit of all schools built by WBS, numbering 40. So far an estimated €1.3m is believed to have been forked out from state coffers to address various deficiencies in different schools built by WBS.
The company, for its part, is adamant that its work was properly inspected by the State at every stage of construction.
“Until now, our integrity has never been questioned,” according to a statement from the company issued on Tuesday. The statement pointed out that all its school projects were inspected during construction. “Each was certified as meeting compliance standards,” the statement read.
What is also now known is that the quality and frequency of inspections by building authorities across the State was appalling during the period in question. This was light-touch regulation in action.
There are quite possibly specific issues with WBS as many of its school builds were done under a rapid design and build programme. But there is a common theme running through this unfolding scandal and other discoveries from the past.
In each case, urgent action has to be dragged from a government which can’t or won’t join the dots. There is a patent reluctance at official level to embark on a mission to discover the real extent of deficiencies from the Celtic Tiger era.
After a fire levelled a terrace of six houses in Newbridge, Co Kildare in 2015, the Government ordered a limited inquiry. Even then, the result of the inquiry was not released for 15 months after it was published.
Following the Grenfell tragedy in London in June 2017, the Government here ordered a narrow inquiry into potential fire hazards in high-rise buildings here.
Architect and academic Orla Hegarty recently gave evidence before the Oireachtas Housing committee on the dangers of such a limited exercise.
One could surmise that the State is simply missing a trick. Far more likely is the reality that joining the dots could lead all the way to a big, black hole where the mistakes of the past lurk. To officially acknowledge the extent of those mistakes could be very expensive.
Leave it until after the next election appears to be the subtext of this failure to find out the whole truth of what went on during the building boom.
Such a strategy is predicated on the assumption that tragedy won’t intervene in the meantime.
Hopefully, that continues to be the case, but it’s no way to run a State, no way to treat those who have been affected.
It shows scant regard for the possibility that others may suffer far greater consequences than anything that has so far emerged.