Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd hits back after 'sectarian' accusation on school places in Northern Ireland
Education Minister John O'Dowd has rejected an accusation of "deeply sectarian and offensive politics" after he allowed a Co Armagh Catholic school to take in more pupils while denying a nearby state school that is over-subscribed.
In a heated debate at Stormont, UUP MLA Danny Kennedy questioned why Mr O'Dowd had blocked Markethill High School's bid for a temporary increased enrolment - yet granted more spaces to St Paul's High School in Bessbrook.
Markethill principal James Maxwell has said he has had to turn away 19 children this year. He had applied to increase his enrolment from 93 to 100.
Mr O'Dowd refused this request, but granted an extra 24 spaces to St Paul's.
A spokesperson for the minister said there were places available at other schools closer to the children than Markethill High.
In an Assembly debate yesterday on area planning - the policy by which the Department of Education decides on school provision - Mr Kennedy challenged Mr O'Dowd over his refusal to allow Markethill High an extra seven places.
He described the school as having a "deservedly high reputation for educational outputs and quality" and as being popular.
He said the school was left "very disappointed" by not being allowed the extra numbers to accommodate interest, and that the disappointment was "compounded" by St Paul's being granted 24 more places.
"These are two successful non-selective schools within a few miles of each other, both serving their local community very well, yet Markethill High School has been denied its request," he said.
"The Minister should also know that the situation has been compounded by the very unhelpful comments made by his party colleague Mickey Brady, who, in welcoming the St Paul's decision said: 'This is a perfect example of team Sinn Féin delivering for people on the ground'.
"I believe that such comments are not only disgraceful in themselves but give rise to the very deep suspicion felt by people and parents in my community that there is more than a whiff of party politics being played out here - deeply sectarian and offensive politics, too."
But Mr O'Dowd hit back, saying he found Mr Kennedy's remarks "astonishing", and said he had made "serious accusations against me as Minister about a school where his wife works".
Meanwhile, speaking for Markethill High, Mr Maxwell said Mr O'Dowd's decision has left a lot of families feeling "very angry that their children can't get to their first school of choice".
A Department of Education spokesperson said the minister "strongly refutes allegations and suggestions that he acted in an improper manner".
"The temporary variation request from Markethill High School was refused because all of the children within the request lived closer to other schools that still had places available," she said.