Mick Clifford: Madigan must be true to her word for the Milnes and other families  

The junior minister for special education has engaged in strong rhetoric over the last 24 hours — now vigilance is required in all sections of society to ensure 'substantive action' is taken on the rights of autistic children
Mick Clifford: Madigan must be true to her word for the Milnes and other families  

Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan said she would ensure that schools are forced to accommodate children with additional needs. File picture: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

At 9.35pm on Tuesday, RTÉ’s Prime Time began broadcasting an item about the Milne family. Darren and Gillian Milne can’t get an appropriate education for 11-year-old twins Ryan and Kyle, who have severe autism. 

Just under five hours earlier, at 4.39pm, Josepha Madigan, the junior minister for special education, tweeted about the issue that would be aired on the programme.

“In my duty as minister, I feel I must take substantive action now,” Ms Madigan tweeted. 

By that time, she would have been briefed on the family’s horrendous circumstances. Yet she wasn’t available for interview on the programme some hours later. 

The Milnes, private citizens, were forced by their circumstances to open up their home to television cameras in an attempt to appeal to have their children's rights vindicated. Yet the Government minister who oversees special education couldn’t bring herself to account for the failure to do so.

Kyle Milne, 11, with his mum Gillian, from Glasnevin in Dublin, who is pleading to be heard to get supports for Kyle and his twin brother who both have autism. 
Kyle Milne, 11, with his mum Gillian, from Glasnevin in Dublin, who is pleading to be heard to get supports for Kyle and his twin brother who both have autism. 

The family, from Glasnevin on Dublin’s northside, were on Prime Time three years ago with the same issue. Yet here they were again, still fighting for their kids and against the system, indifference, and their enveloping despair.

Two elements of the professional and sensitive report by Conor McMorrow on Prime Time leaped out. Firstly, why does a family that has experienced exhaustion, trauma, a lurch towards penury and even primal survival issues have to reveal their innermost lives in an attempt to get an education for their children? That is, in an alleged republic, an abomination.

Heartbreaking

Secondly, Gillian Milne’s anecdote about one of the boys showing the smallest signs of progress following minimal and hard-won intervention was heartbreaking. She related that he actually addressed her as “mama” last Christmas, prompting joy and tears at the manifestation of this nugget of progress.

“I can only imagine how far on they would be if they did have the therapy they need,” Gillian Milne said of her sons.

Ryan Milne 11, with his mum Gillian.
Ryan Milne 11, with his mum Gillian.

What kind of an indictment is that? It is well-established that children like the Milne twins can reach far towards their potential with proper education and care. Are they to be denied arriving at those distant peaks simply because the system can’t or won’t perform its duty to cherish all the children equally?

“They’re not being given a chance,” Darren Milne said. “Just because they’ve autism doesn’t mean they don’t matter.” 

By Wednesday morning, Ms Madigan had her ducks in a row. She went on Morning Ireland to state she would ensure that schools are forced to accommodate children with additional needs. 

Unfortunately, for parents who get up every morning to fight, they’ve heard it all before. While everybody would fervently wish that the Milnes receive some respite and a proper education for their children, transformative change is going to take more than one emotional appeal on television.

Josepha Madigan was as moved, I am sure, by the struggles of the Milne family as anybody else. Politicians of all hue are affected by personal stories of families struggling to have a loved one properly accommodated. 

Last month, at a packed meeting organised by Involve Autism in south Dublin, politicians from all parties and none were present. Some even stayed until the end of the meeting. 

They were all moved by what they heard and undoubtedly privately resolved to effect change if they are ever in a position to do so. But then, when power beckons, office holders are faced with the question that explodes much of their earnest resolve: how much political capital are you prepared to spend to do the right thing and assert the rights of the most vulnerable?

Resources are a major issue but it goes way beyond that. Nowhere is the task more evident than in invoking the law as it pertains to children with additional needs. 

In her pre-programme tweet on Tuesday, Ms Madigan related that at this this point in time she is “of the view that I have no other option but to issue Section 37a notices to schools in areas which desperately need SEN [Special Education Needs] school places across the country”.

Section 37a of the Education Act confers on the minister the power to force schools to provide places for children with additional needs. The law has been in place since 2018, yet despite a dearth of places it has only been invoked on a handful of occasions for primary schools and never at second level. 

Graham Manning, an autism class co-ordinator in Cork, told Morning Ireland that schools which will be asked now to provide special classes have been asked in the past and refused point blank.

“It is nationwide and has been for years,” he said. “Every special class I am aware of is heavily oversubscribed. There are more secondary autism classes in Cork than in Dublin. There are 75 classes in Dublin this year and 81 in Cork. It makes no sense.” 

Such is the reality that any minister must tackle. Opposition to the law comes from many quarters, principals, boards of management, patrons, communities, parents who don’t want what they perceive as too much focus on accommodating children with additional needs. 

Some schools are undoubtedly more receptive than others, but why should it be a battle to have all children accommodated in their own communities?

The law is only as robust as the willingness and commitment to enforce it. The required political will has not been present. Central to this issue is the matter of rights. 

In a liberal democracy, personal rights are highly valued, but some are more valued than others. The rights of children with needs, and their parents, have been consistently abused.

Every now and again, the mind-numbing despair with which these families are forced to live is presented to the public and for a few fleeting days, everybody is appalled and even angry. 

Then the family in question retreats into the darkness and society tells itself this is all somebody else’s problem. Ms Madigan has engaged in strong rhetoric over the last 24 hours. Now vigilance is required in all sections of society to ensure her Government finally does assert that we are all equal before the law.

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