It’s a tale of spin and of a political culture that reacts not to those in need, but to those who wield the power.
The thorny issue was fees for second-level schools. There are 56 fee-paying schools in the State, with 26,000 pupils. Twenty of the schools are of one of the Protestant faiths. The schools receive €95m from the State, most of it going on paying teachers.
In most developed countries, private education is paid, more or less, exclusively by private interests. Not so here, largely due to a historic commitment to subsidise Protestant schools to ensure their survival. Constitutionally barred from distinguishing between religions, the State is thus obliged to provide the subsidy to all fee-paying institutions.
In these austere days, when some schools operate out of leaky pre-fabs, and others make do without special needs assistants, the subsidy for fee-paying schools is under the spotlight. Already, it has been reduced from €100m.
Last Sunday, junior minister Alan Kelly told the Week in Politics programme that he would be in favour of a further reduction. The Department of Education is earmarked for savings of €70m in the budget, and some say you can’t expect the poor to bear the brunt of all the cuts.
By Monday, the spinning was in full flow.
The principal of Wesley College, Christopher Woods, was on the radio, foretelling a massacre. Wesley is a Methodist school, and Mr Woods says it and its fellow Protestant fee-paying schools are “under attack”.
“I’m not worried about Alan Kelly’s proposal to wipe us off the map,” he told Matt Cooper.
“I’m more worried that the department will incrementally destroy Protestant schooling in the State.”
Well, Holy God. I thought the Good Friday Agreement had brought an end to religious strife on this island.
Now, we are hearing that a government minister wants to “wipe out” the Protestant way of life. Is that a flaming pike I see in Alan Kelly’s hand, as he chases the Prods into the sea?
Woods said 13 counties have no secondary school to cater for their Protestant minorities. Somebody should explain to him that those who want a secular education for their children have even less choice, and nobody is offering them a subsidy.
Mr Woods then called to arms backbench Fine Gael TDs and up popped Eoghan Murphy, a past pupil of exclusive St Michael’s College. Mr Murphy represents Dublin South East, an area teeming with fee-paying schools.
Mr Murphy said that cutting teachers’ increments would make huge savings, which suggests he hasn’t heard about the Croke Park Agreement.
More likely, he just wanted his constituents to hear his name associated with defending the fee-paying sector, irrespective of how stupid his comments might sound.
Some time after Mr Woods’s doom-laden predictions, another defender of the subsidy took to the airways.
Ken Whyte is the principal of Presentation Brothers Cork. (Declaration of interest: I spent two years in PBC, back in the day, and I have nothing but good memories of the place).
On RTÉ’s Drivetime programme, Mr Whyte declared that “equality” was the strongest argument in favour of maintaining the full subsidy.
Mr Whyte says the subsidy should remain, in the name of fair treatment, which is a novel idea, and should be put forward for some spin award.
Then he said: “The worry is that if you are now looking for a good education for your child, in a Catholic ethos like we have, and if you were willing to make the sacrifice, you are being targeted by the Government for some reason.”
Oh no. It’s not just the Protestants they want to wipe out. The Catholics are going to be targeted, too.
Mr Whyte may not realise it, but you don’t have to pay fees to find a Catholic school in Cork.
The majority of schools come under that ethos. He may not be aware, but the majority, if not the vast majority, of parents who send their kids to his school do so on the basis of the educational advantages conferred, rather than fidelity to some nebulous, fee-paying Catholic ethos.
Then he said: “Rather than blowing their [the parents’] money on something or other, they have decided to invest [in fee-paying schools] … Labour are saying if you want to spend your money on education rather than blowing it on holidays, you’re going to be penalised.”
I’m sure he didn’t know what he was saying, but Mr Whyte actually insulted huge numbers of parents with that statement.
In the real world, most people who have the money, and live in cities like Cork or Dublin, attempt to get their kids into fee-paying schools for the advantage it confers. Suggesting that other parents “blow” their money, and, by inference, are less concerned about their children’s welfare, is grossly insulting. The reality is some have the money, and most have not.
Despite the waffle heard last week, fee-paying schools are, by and large, bastions of privilege. The school league tables suggest so. The provision of resources and subject choices suggests so. The ranks of the so-called professional, and upper echelons of most walks of society, suggest so.
That’s the nature of the world. Parents pay for the privilege, and nobody can be blamed for wanting to give their offspring the best possible start in life. A minority, a relatively small minority, of these parents do make real sacrifices, but on the whole, precious few do.
Last week’s spin and waffle wasn’t about massacring Protestants, or parents who “blow” their money on holidays. It was about “what we have, we hold”.
It was about telling the department to get their cuts elsewhere, maybe in the disadvantaged enclaves where parents don’t vote, or don’t engage with the political process. Maybe the department can further squeeze education provisions for children with disabilities, who don’t have access to powerful advocates or voices in the political establishment. Or, perhaps, they can look for their cuts in school-building programmes. Sure, a freezing, leaky prefab never did anybody any harm, especially if they’re availing of so-called free education.
All that matters in this society, which is devoid of any solidarity, is that you shout loud, with all your power, to ensure that what you have you hold.
In such a culture, it is those who are genuinely the most vulnerable, the weakest, those with no voice, who end up getting it in the neck. The name of the game is spinning the living daylights out of any material you have to portray yourself as vulnerable, irrespective of how ludicrous that might be.
Towards the back end of the week, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn had slapped down his junior colleague, Kelly. Nothing was decided yet, the Blackrock College old boy declared. He’ll have to get his savings somewhere. Let’s see how this old socialist goes about his work.