O’Dowd ‘had powers to merge Fermanagh schools’

John O'Dowd
John O'Dowd
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Education Minister John O’Dowd acted under broad discretionary powers when he approved the amalgamation of two Co Fermanagh grammar schools, the High Court has heard.

Counsel for Mr O’Dowd also insisted his decision to close Collegiate Grammar and Portora Royal in Enniskillen, and merge them into one new school, was based on an “array” of expert information.

The minister is facing legal action in a bid to have the proposals declared unlawful.

Lawyers for a pupil at Collegiate claim the decision was both irrational and unreasonable.

Mr O’Dowd announced the closures last November, insisting his focus was on the needs of children rather than the institutions.

A petition against the plans, signed by 7,000 people, was handed in at Stormont in an effort to preserve the schools.

The battle to stop the merger, planned for September next year, has now moved to the courtroom.

Lawyers for the Collegiate pupil seeking a judicial review claimed there was a failure to carry out a proper economic appraisal.

The impact on children having to operate on a split site also features in the case.

It was claimed that it could be at least five years before any new school is built.

But Tony McGleenan QC, for Mr O’Dowd, told the court there was no statutory requirement to carry out an economic appraisal or cost assessment before reaching a decision.

“The discretion of the minister is at large,” he argued.

“The minister taking his decision is informed by an array of considerations from expert bodies such as the relevant board, the education training inspectorate, his own finance teams and the officials who work in area planning.”

According to Mr McGleenan the courts are not always best placed to “second guess” decisions made by those “steeped” in all the factual and policy issues.

Mr O’Dowd met with representatives of the schools and attended two Assembly debates on the plans, the barrister said.

He told Mr Justice Colton: “It’s not enough even if Your Lordship thinks some more things should be done.

“The applicant must persuade the court that the minister was acting perversely or irrationally in reaching the conclusion that he reached.

“We say when one marries that with the breadth of the discretion (under legislation) the applicant has set herself a very stiff challenge.”

The case continues.