Cowen faces pressure for education cuts U-turn

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen faced growing pressure to climb down on another budget front last night after angry teachers and parents united to condemn “immoral” education cutbacks.

They plan to follow the lead of the country’s senior citizens and descend on the Dáil in their thousands next Wednesday to protest.

Making matters worse for Mr Cowen, the Green Party has betrayed its nervousness about the education cuts by discussing alternative proposals to put to its coalition partners.

The pressure is a further blow to the Taoiseach, who admitted yesterday that the medical cards fiasco had damaged his authority.

The decision to remove the automatic right to cards for over-70s saw 15,000 pensioners protest at the Dáil this week and 10,000 students campaign against third-level fee increases.

The focus will now turn to the country’s teachers and also farmers, who plan to hold a series of meetings over the next fortnight to voice their anger at agriculture cutbacks.

Already, the Government has caved on two key elements of the budget — widening income thresholds so that 95% instead of 70% of over-70s will retain their medical cards, and exempting minimum-wage earners from the 1% income levy.

Mr Cowen has insisted, however, that there will be no more U-turns. Speaking in China, where he is on a trade mission, the Taoiseach said he would not back down on the decision to increase class sizes, adding: “We have to hold firm in budgetary provisions.”

He apologised again for the distress caused to pensioners, but said he hoped his response would be seen as an example of leadership.

“And therefore one’s authority, while it’s not as high as if you didn’t have the problem, it does mean that people will say he used his authority to come up with a solution in double-quick time that met with broader public acceptance,” he said.

But the campaign to reverse the education cutbacks will further test Mr Cowen’s authority, as it is likely to further spook anxious Fianna Fáil backbenchers.

Teaching unions have placed adverts in national newspapers today calling on people to join Wednesday’s protest. The same day, the Labour Party will table a Dáil motion calling on the Government to reverse its decision on class sizes.

The goal is to place the same kind of pressure on Fianna Fáil backbenchers that forced them to rebel over the medical cards issue.

One Fianna Fáil TD admitted she will seek the reversal of some cuts.

“I will be voting with the Government but I will be seeking changes in the meantime,” said Áine Brady, who was a primary teacher for almost 30 years.

Similarly, Independent TD Jackie Healy-Rae, who supports the Government, said: “I am meeting the Minister for Education next week to voice my concerns to him and inform him that, in order for my support, radical changes have to be made.”

It is understood senior officials in the Green Party will also hold talks with their Fianna Fáil counterparts to discuss possible changes.

The party’s education spokesman Paul Gogarty has already written to Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe on the issue.

Elsewhere, the bodies representing boards of the country’s 3,300 primary schools labelled the cutting of grants and teaching support for Traveller children and those with English language difficulties as “discriminatory” and “immoral”.

Principals have warned that average classes in some primary schools will jump by five or six children as a result of the cutbacks.

In a separate development, social welfare recipients face an anxious wait to see if they will get their traditional Christmas bonus after the Department of Social Affairs said it had not yet made a decision on the issue.

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, says it will picket the constituency offices of government ministers this weekend to demand that the savage budget cuts be reversed.


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