O’Dowd rejects ‘sectarian decision’ claim

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The Education Minister has been accused of “sectarianism” in closing a state secondary school in Fermanagh while keeping a similar Catholic school in the county open.

John O’Dowd said his officials advised him to close St Mary’s High School at Brollagh, but claimed there was an “underhand agenda” against him on the matter and said that he considers every case on its own merits.

Lisnaskea High School was closed despite requests to consider shared education options for its 107 pupils, while St Mary’s has been allowed to stay open while cross-border sharing alternatives are considered for its 120 students.

Fermanagh DUP MLA Arlene Foster said: “The concern with John O’Dowd’s decision-making process is not that he has allowed this school to remain open, but that he was happy to see another school close despite virtually similar arguments being put forward. These glaring inconsistencies raise questions over exactly how and why decisions are taken by the minister.

“The fact that the other school closed by the minister was a controlled high school in Lisnaskea and this case is a Catholic maintained high school wishing to pursue a cross-border education policy will smack to many people of sectarianism.”

Fermanagh UUP MLA Tom Elliott congratulated the Brollagh school on its campaigning.

“This is obviously a long way from the lack of support from the minister towards the controlled education sector in Fermanagh,” he said. “Just last year Lisnaskea High School was closed, even though those involved in their campaign had positive ideas about working in co-operation with other schools.”

But Alliance education spokesman Trevor Lunn welcomed the minister’s decision.

“St Mary’s is extremely isolated in Northern Ireland terms being 25 miles from the nearest alternatives in Enniskillen, but only three miles from Ballyshannon or six miles from Bundoran,” he said.

Mr O’Dowd told the BBC that his officials had advised him to close St Mary’s.

He said St Mary’s faces “unique challenges due to its isolated rural position and setting along the border”.

“I totally refute all accusations of sectarianism,” he said, and also takes “great offence” at the suggestion. “To act in such a way would be in breach of my own personal values and the ministerial code.”

Lisnaskea High School was not sustainable in a shared model and its pupils have several choices of where to travel to school, all of which involve much less travel than St Mary’s pupils. Each case is considered on its own merits, he said.