Once again this Fianna Fáil / Green Party government shows us how completely out of touch it is with the country.  In a truly astonishing move education minister, Batt O’Keefe, today announced that funding for special teacher support for children with mild general learning disabilities in 119 primary schools throughout the country is to be withdrawn.  How this move could be seen as anything other than an attack on the most vulnerable children in our school system is beyond me.  The Irish Constitution demands of the state that it provide an education to all children.  The right of an Irish child to be educated is enshrined in the most solemn document of this republic.  Nowhere in article 42 of the constitution is there any reference to how children might qualify for different standards of primary education.  One would have to accept that, based on the rights enshrined in article 42, children with mental handicap, emotional problems or any other kind of educationally disadvantageous condition are as much entitled to primary education as any other children.  Nowhere in the constitution is there a reference to the state’s ability to provide financially for the education of any child.  The withdrawal of this necessary teaching aid to an estimated 534 children would appear to be a dereliction of the state’s constitutional obligation to children’s education.

This is not, of course, how Minister Batt O’Keefe will see it.  “There isn’t any massive change.  There are hundreds of similar kids right around that have been integrated into mainstream classes,” he said today.

It would seem that the minister believes that the provision of special teacher support for special needs children up to now has been an unnecessary luxury.  A luxury which, in times of serious financial hardship, such as the country now finds itself in, is a profligate waste of taxpayers’ money which is among the first of the unnecessary luxuries to be axed as the government seeks to cut €2 billion off the budget spend for 2009. 

Since Brian Cowen told us last week that serious cuts in public spending were needed we have seen a pension levy imposed on the salaries of public sector workers and a freezing of previously agreed public sector wage increases.  This savage cut in funding for special needs teachers is so far the only other announced budget cut.  The department of education estimates that this measure will save in the region of €7 million.  As I write this the following budget provisions are still in place.

Local Authority Swimming Pool Programme: – €18 million, Irish Sports Council: – €53.026 million, National Sports Campus: – €4.403 million, Lansdowne Road: – €1.5 million, Horse & Grey Hound Racing Fund: – €69.719, Grants to support sport in disadvantaged areas: – €1.35 million.

Yes, you did read that correctly, €69.715 million in grants to horse & greyhound racing for 2009.

We still have 20 junior ministers earning in excess of €140, 000 per annum. We still provide a car costing over €100,000, each one equipped with two full time Garda drivers, to each of our 15 ministers. We have just given a €1,000,000 severance package to a financial regulator who had to resign because of his incompetence. Each of 165 TDs ‘earns’ a basic salary of over €100,000, which rises, when membership of committees and various unvouched expenses are added on, to over €250,000.  Tonight we spent €7,000,000,000 to recapitalise two of the largest private institutions in the state and most analysts reckon that a further €13,000,000,000 will be required to do the job properly.

The list of places where cuts could have been made before attacking vulnerable, defenceless children who, through no fault of their own, face serious challenges in accessing primary education is almost endless.  The proposal to end the universal medical card for over seventies could be justified on grounds of ability to pay.  A proposal to introduce university fees could be defended on the same grounds.  One was reversed when the political heat got too much and the other will see massive student demonstrations if it is introduced.  The public sector pension levy can be justified when compared to the required contributions to attain a comparable pension in the private sector.  It remains to be seen if this government has the stomach for a fight when the students and the unions take to the streets as the pensioners did last autumn.  Will they stand up to these groups or simply turn tail and put the boot in to another vulnerable but less vocal section of our society?

This government shames me and shames my country.  That I did not vote for them is no consolation to me whatsoever.

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