Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Orangemen in first official meeting with Irish government

Leaders of the Orange Order are to have their first official meeting with the Irish Government, it was announced today.

It's not parades or violence that takes them to Dublin tomorrow - but the education of Protestant children in the Republic.

Senior members of the Order said they were meeting Irish Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe to discuss proposed cuts in grants to Protestant schools.

Private fee-paying Protestant schools in the Republic face a cut in their grants - in the same way state schools, including special needs schools, are suffering cuts - in the face of a government determination to cut spending because of the recession.

The delegation, including Grand Master Robert Saulters, Grand Secretary Drew Nelson and senior Orange officers from the border counties of Donegal, Monaghan, Cavan and Leitrim, are also having a separate meeting with Fine Gael Education spokesman Brian Hayes.

Mr Nelson said: "We are extremely concerned about the future of education for Protestant children in the Republic.

"Last autumn's budget in the Republic proposed the removal of the Special Service support grant from Protestant fee-paying schools. This is totally unacceptable and would have a major effect on the education of Protestant children."

The Protestant population wanted to play their part in civic society in the Irish Republic , but such cuts would send out all the wrong message to the Protestant community, was the message they would be taking to Dublin, he said.

"The Protestant population - particularly along the border counties - are isolated and vulnerable and there has been a tradition amongst them to keep their heads down, but this is an issue they feel obliged to highlight.

"The Orange Institution speaks for a great number of Protestant families and we feel it is our duty to speak up about these proposed cuts."

Protestant fee-paying schools receive a 6.25 million euro (£5.7m) bloc grant to cover capitation, tuition and boarding grants for the year.

A spokesman for Mr O'Keeffe said: "The Protestant bloc grant is being retained, there is no change to that position. It was retained after the Budget and that remains the position.

"They (Orange Order) asked for a meeting and we have obliged them and we are quite happy to have done that."

"The minister has always recognised the importance of ensuring that students from Protestant backgrounds can attend a school that reflects their denominational ethos."

The department said the Protestant block grant was introduced along with the free education scheme to enable children from different backgrounds to attend fee-paying schools.

However the Irish Government dramatically cut ancillary grants, which cover expenses for caretakers and secretaries, shaving off 2.8m euro (£2.56m)in last year's Budget.