The education minister has been slammed for approving an Irish language school with 38 children – on the site of a high school he closed for only having 140 pupils.
It was reported in local media this week that Irish medium primary school Bunscoil an Traonaigh in Lisnaskea had received ‘an early Christmas present’ with news it would be moving to the former Lisnaskea High School site.
Following the reports, Mr O’Dowd issued a statement on Thursday confirming that he has agreed to release “a portion” of the site to the primary school, which is currently based mainly in Portakabins.
Sources have claimed the move will cost £1m – however, Mr O’Dowd has said costs are not yet known.
Fermanagh & South Tyrone MP Tom Elliott said the decision raised serious questions over the minister’s judgment.
“I am concerned that the Sinn Fein education minister has once again gone on a solo run and announced the opening of an Irish language school with very limited numbers of pupils,” Mr Elliott said.
The fact that the former state high school has been closed and will now be seen to be replaced by a tiny Irish language school has particularly rankled with the MP.
“He did the same thing this time last year when he gave the go-ahead for an Irish language school in Dungiven with an intake of 14 pupils.
“Lisnaskea High School was closed by John O’Dowd in 2013.
“His justification at the time was diminishing numbers, yet when the consultation was ongoing there were proposals for a shared education project and the school had well over three times the number of pupils that this new school will have.”
In addition to the moving of Bunscoil an Traonaigh, Mr O’Dowd revealed terror victims group South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) had also expressed an interest in the location “and will now have the opportunity to acquire the remainder of the site”.
It is understood SEFF await confirmation that they may also be able to share the location.
Mr O’Dowd said Mr Elliott “should check his facts and know his constituency better”.
He added: “Bunscoil an Traonaigh has been in operation for over 10 years and has been growing which is why it needs new premises.
“I have a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education and this is a duty I take seriously. Bunscoil an Traonaigh is moving onto a part of the old Lisnaskea High School site, with the majority of the site being used by the SEFF.”
In June last year Fermanagh DUP MLA Arlene Foster accused the minister of “sectarianism” in closing Lisnaskea High School while keeping a very similar Catholic school in the county open.
Mr O’Dowd conceded his officials had indeed advised him to close St Mary’s High School at Brollagh, but claimed there was an “underhand agenda” against him.
However newly-elected DUP leader Mrs Foster hit back that there were “glaring inconsistencies” in his decisions which would “smack to many people of sectarianism”.
She said yesterday she would meet the minister to discuss the matter.
“As a strong supporter of Lisnaskea High School I was obviously very disappointed when the Board of Governors took the decision to close the school,” she told the News Letter.
“I have not had any discussions with the Department of Education in relation to the financial requirement for the site of the former Lisnaskea High School.
“However, I will be meeting with the education minister on this issue after Christmas.”
On Thursday Mr O’Dowd released a brief statement about the issues, confirming that “the site of the former Lisnaskea High School will be used to meet the needs of a local school and the wider community”.
He said he had agreed “to release a portion of the site to accommodate Bunscoil an Traonaigh”.
He added: “The current premises occupied by Bunscoil an Traonaigh is not suitable for the permanent location of the school and this new site at the former Lisnasksea High School will allow the school to grow and develop.
“I am also pleased to be able to meet the needs of South East Fermanagh Foundation.”