The Government is facing an immediate multimillion-euro bill to fix life-threatening safety problems at up to 42 Celtic Tiger-era schools because any lawsuits against the firm responsible could drag on for years.
Education Minister Joe McHugh admitted the situation as he said “a number” of schools will be shut in the coming days — affecting thousands of children after the Halloween break.
Mr McHugh said the crisis is likely to deepen after revelations that three Dublin schools have been closed with immediate effect due to safety concerns uncovered in emergency construction audits, Mr McHugh said the crisis is likely to deepen.
Noting that the construction audits come in the wake of 55 other fire safety audits, none of which have been published, he said further closures are inevitable over the coming days.
Mr McHugh said four cases are already being taken against Tyrone-based Western Building Systems (WBS) and that if the firm does not accept the need to pay for repairs, “then obviously we’re going down a different road there again”.
When it was put to him that the cost is likely to reach into the millions of euro and that the State will have to pay for immediate repairs while cases take place, he said that “if money is needed, it will be provided” by taxpayers.
In a damning media briefing which underlined the scale of the crisis, Mr McHugh also revealed: 42 schools built by Western Building Systems between 2008 and 2017, the names of which are detailed in today’s Irish Examiner, will be examined by independent engineers KSN (Kerrigan Sheanon Newman) before the end of the Halloween break.
There are “indications” a number of the WBS schools will be shut in the coming days; Emergency construction audits on one school, which has now been closed, found that in storm-force winds, sections of the building’s walls had “an 80% chance” of falling down or dislodging; 55 “urgent” fire safety audits of the same schools launched last year have yet to be published despite “significant” issues being found; Confirmation WBS is still receiving State contracts to build schools, houses, and health facilities because only firms with a “criminal conviction” can be banned.
Mr McHugh said he is discussing this issue with the attorney general Seamus Woulfe
Mr McHugh said an emergency group has been set up within his department to communicate with the affected schools and to try and find alternative accommodation for them should the facilities be shut.
Despite saying the Government wants to resolve the issue “as quickly as possible”, he admitted there is no clear plan on where thousands of children will be housed if the safety problems escalate
As previously reported by the Irish Examiner, the school safety issues include major fire-prevention problems such as lack of fire-retardant paint to prevent steel girders from bending, the non-existence of some internal fire cavity walls, and other related matters.
A 2014 Dublin Fire Brigade report warned the department that in one since-fixed school, these issues meant the building would burn down completely in 20 minutes, a third of the time needed to evacuate.
Other issues uncovered in the emergency construction audits which began last week include serious fears that walls could collapse because they were not connected properly to other sections of the buildings.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to visit one of the affected schools in his constituency this morning in a bid to calm growing fears to attempt to calm growing family fears.
He said it is the Government’s “paramount consideration”.
However, Mr Varadkar was criticised by Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne over the failure to address a crisis he said was known since 2014.
In a statement last night, WBS repeated the view that it is not responsible for any potential errors and said the firm has written to Mr McHugh seeking a meeting on the crisis.