FINE GAEL has accused Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe of using the school building programme as a Fianna Fáil electioneering machine after the Irish Examiner revealed he had two schools added to a building announcement at the last minute.
Mr O’Keeffe’s policy adviser was made aware of concerns in the Department of Education building unit in February about adding two primary schools in Clare and Dublin to a list of 41 which were proposed to go to tender and construction this year.
According to documents released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, it was felt that the schools would not be ready for work to begin until later this year or in 2010 and that carrying the funding commitment into next year could put pressure on urgent building projects in 2011 and 2012.
But the minister still had the two schools, Barefield National School near Ennis and Inchicore National School, included in the announcement two months ago to begin work on 16-classroom and eight-classroom extensions, respectively.
Fine Gael’s education spokesperson Brian Hayes said the FOI documents put the minister in a very difficult position.
“I have always argued that the school building programme is a slush fund for the Fianna Fáil party and this material highlights the degree of political interference involved,” Mr Hayes said.
There is no suggestion that either school was involved in any politicisation but the questions surround the minister’s addition of two schools when civil servants suggested the money wasn’t available. Both Barefield NS, whose pupil numbers have doubled to 370 in less than a decade, and Inchicore NS were previously in top priority lists.
Clearance for them to begin construction in November 2006 fell through because of funding delays when then education minister Mary Hanafin prioritised new schools in areas of rapid population growth last year and local government party candidates might have been under political pressure in the June elections if those promises remained unkept.
Mr O’Keeffe insisted at the weekend that he had a sufficient building budget to allow 43 schools go to tender and construction and that there was no political motive for their inclusion.
Mr Hayes had raised the issue with Mr O’Keeffe in the Dáil in late February, after becoming aware of a message appearing briefly on the department website indicating that the minister was going to announce 41 schools instead of the 43 which were actually announced.
“It’s clear that he did not inform the Dáil what was known and the full extent of the political interference in this case. He needs to immediately clarify the position in the Dáil,” he said.
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