He was not. I would point out that when I talk about an all-Fine Gael committee it was not a Coalition committee, as both Fianna Fáil and Labour representatives were banned from this committee by the previous Laois County Council where Fine Gael had a complete monopoly. Therefore, Labour did not need to be incorporated into the movement at that stage as far as Laois was concerned.
Arising from the selection board reviewing of the nine applications, they reduced the candidates for the position to a first and second choice.
The order in which these two candidates were placed by the four nominees of the vocational education committee on the selection board was not acceptable to the other three members of the board, namely, the vocational association representative and the two nominees of the Minister for Education, because the candidate placed first by the vocational education committee nominees did not have the minimum of five years' whole-time teaching experience required by the terms of paragraph 12 (b) of Memorandum V.7, whereas the candidate placed second by the vocational education committee nominees complied with this and all of the other requirements for the post.
In the event, the report of the meeting of the selection board on the 17th May, 1974, was signed only by the four nominees of the vocational education committee and also by the committee's chief executive officer as secretary of the selection board, but not by the other three members of the selection board.
The first choice candidate of the members of the vocational education committee on the selection board was a permanent full time teacher of English and history and had been in the whole time employment of the Laois Vocational Education Committee from September, 1971. He was previously employed on a temporary basis as a teacher in Terenure College, Dublin, from September, 1970 to June, 1971. He had not, therefore, the minimum of five years whole time teaching experience required by the terms of the Memorandum V.7. On the other hand, the second choice candidate of the members on the selection board, was a permanent whole time teacher of science and mathematics who had been in the whole time employment of the County Laois Vocational Education Committee from October, 1963.
He was, therefore, fully qualified with his teaching experience as prescribed in Memorandum V.7. On 20th May, 1974 the chief executive officer of the committee wrote to the Department of Education indicating, notwithstanding the views expressed by the IVEA representatives and of the views expressed by the Minister's two representatives at the meeting of the selection board on 17th May, 1974 that the Laois Vocational Education Committee members of the board had selected as their first choice the candidate who did not fulfil the requirement in respect of teaching experience.
The CEO requested, in that letter, an indication from the Department of Education of their view in the matter in time for a proposed meeting of the Vocational Education Committee on 9th June, 1974 at which the selection would be considered. The Department replied to the CEO on the 30th May, 1974 stating that the first choice candidate was ineligible for appointment as Principal of the Portlaoise Vocational School.
Nonetheless, at the meeting of the Vocational Education Committee at which the appointment was considered and which was held on the 10th June, 1974, the report of their selection board signed only by the four members of the vocational education committee on the board was before the meeting as, of course was the Department's letter on the 30th May, saying that the candidate was ineligible.
At this meeting, made up of a completely Fine Gael appointed committee there were two proposals. The first was that the report of the selection board be adopted and that the full committee now approve of the appointment of Michael Parsons as principal of Portlaoise Vocational School as from the 1st September, 1974.
There was an amendment. The amendment was, that the selection board named second choice, William Phelan, be appointed to the post as principal of Portlaoise Vocational School as from 1st September, 1974. The amendment was put and defeated on a show of hands by eight to four. The original motion was carried by the same majority. The chairman who was then Deputy Oliver J. Flannagan, accordingly, declared the first choice candidate appointed to the post as principal of Portlaoise Vocational School with effect from 1st September, 1974, subject to the sanction of the Minister for Education.
The Department of Education informed the vocational education committee, by letter dated the 5th July, 1974, that it was not open to the Department to sanction the first choice candidate's appointment for the reasons set out in their letter of 30th May, to which I have already referred.
The Laois Vocational Education Committee met again on 8th July, 1974, to consider the Department's reply of 5th July but this was a meeting with a difference.
Between 12th June and 8th July, the local election had been held and a new committee had been appointed. Fine Gael had failed to hold their overall majority of the Laois County Council and a Coalition grouping had taken over. By agreement, however, four places were conceded to Fianna Fáil representatives on this new committee, but the vacancies for those four placings had been created by the removal from the Fine Gael group on the old committee of the four Fine Gael members who had opposed the dictatorial action of the majority led by Deputy O.J. Flanagan, the chairman.
Those four people, including Deputy Charles McDonald and three colleagues of his on the outgoing vocational committee who agreed with the Minister at that time and had proposed and supported the amendment that the properly qualified man should be appointed principal, were all removed from the committee.
The vocational committee have continued since then to be in breach of their statutory responsibility. This committee, which the present Minister for Education has stated here in this House were properly constituted, have continued to carry on in a manner of complete opposition to their statutory responsibility.
In the minutes of the committee's meeting of 8th July, 1974, it is stated that the committee would not accept the fact that the first choice candidate was ineligible in accordance with the terms of Memorandum V.7. A motion of the meeting that the first choice candidate be appointed as principal in charge was carried by nine votes to two and an amendment that the second choice candidate be appointed teacher in charge was defeated by the same vote.
There followed a further letter from the Department to the VEC on the matter dated 29th August, 1974. This letter made it clear that there was not included among posts of responsibility in vocational schools a post carrying the title of principal teacher in charge and again pointed out that the first choice candidate was not eligible for appointment as principal. You will see that this committee, led still by Deputy Oliver J. Flanagan, were insisting on not acceding to ministerial and departmental directives.
The Laois VEC met again on 9th September, and a proposal was carried by nine votes to five, the five being made up of four Fianna Fáil nominees and a Labour county councillor, and those nine supporters of Fine Gael at this stage, on 9th September, decided to appoint their non-acceptable nominee as acting principal, without remuneration, as from 10th September, 1974.
An amendment that the second choice again be appointed to the post of principal as advertised was defeated again by the same majority of nine votes to five and that has been the consistent vote ever since. The committee were informed in writing on 18th September, 1974, by the Department of Education that this new proposal could not be sanctioned by the Department.
The Department stressed in the same letter that it was essential in the interest of the pupils concerned that the vacant post of principal of Portlaoise vocational school should be filled immediately in accordance with the provisions of Memorandum V.7, with particular reference to paragraph 12 (b). It was stated too by the Department that they considered that the first choice candidate was not eligible for the post but that the candidate placed next in order of choice should be appointed since he was fully qualified and eligible for the position.
In a letter of 5th September, 1974, the then Minister for Education endeavoured to get the message across straight and fair to the chairman, Deputy Oliver J. Flanagan, and to his maverick committee. The letter stated that, notwithstanding the availability of the candidate who fulfils all the requirements for the post of principal in accordance with the committee's own advertisement and in accordance with the relevant terms of the Department's Memorandum V.7, Laois VEC had persisted in proposing that the post be filled in some form or other by a candidate who did not comply with the requirements applicable to the Portlaoise vocational school—that the person appointed should have not less than five years' whole time teaching experience.
The letter went on to state unequivocally to the committee that, while there was a candidate available who satisfied the conditions for appointment as principal in accordance with normal procedures, the Minister for Education would not sanction the filling of the post on any other basis.
All of the above particulars which I have given to this House are taken from a statement made by the then Minister for Education, the then Deputy Richard Burke, in a contribution which he made in the Dáil in reply to an Adjournment Debate in which I raised this matter on 11th February, 1975. All the facts stated by me already are contained in the Minister's statement on that occasion, so none of those factors can be contradicted or will be contradicted by the present Minister.
Arising from that letter from the Department of Education to the Laois Vocational Education Committee and from correspondence between the Minister at that time and the chairman, Deputy Oliver J. Flanagan, this rebellious VEC sought legal advice as to how they could force the Minister for Education to sanction their proposals. They failed to get legal opinion which would justify their conduct and continued to carry on and refused to nominate the qualified candidate who at all stages, from their point of view, was placed No. 2. The vocational committee were clearly conscious of the fact that they have been out of order since June, 1974, but the maverick majority of this committee have been consistently flouting the rules and regulations laid down by the Minister and it is because of this that I am seeking the inquiry.
I asked the Minister for Education by way of parliamentary question on 20th May, 1975, if he had as yet studied the legal advice which had been offered in March to the Laois County Vocational Education Committee in relation to their dispute with him and if he could now announce his decision in the matter. By way of reply, the Minister said that he had seen the legal advice in question. It had been discussed at the meeting of the County Laois VEC on 14th April, 1975, and their views thereon had been conveyed to him in the minutes of that meeting.
He pointed out that he was then considering the views of the committee and would be in touch with them in due course. On that occasion I drew the then Minister's attention to a statement which had appeared in The Irish Times of 19th May in which Deputy Flanagan had claimed that there was confusion regarding the regulations contained in Memorandum V.7 covering this particular instance.
The Minister refused to be drawn on this for fear of condemning his colleague, Deputy Flanagan, at that stage, except to say that there was no confusion in regard to teaching regulations. I asked the Minister if he was not aware that the majority of the Committee of the Laois VEC were playing ducks and drakes with him and that the situation had been shown in this light in the national and provincial press. I even went so far as to suggest that by dallying in his decision the Minister was suffering the ignominy of having those members of the committee laugh at him. The then Minister accepted this and said that he was prepared to endure the laughter of people provided he got the right decision in the end.
The situation that ultimately transpired was one whereby the Laois Vocational Committee realised that the Minister for Education could not force them to appoint a headmaster and could only recommend to them that they obey the rules. As long as they continued to disobey the rules and as long as they refused to submit the name of the qualified man, Mr. Phelan, for this appointment, they could keep kicking for touch and avoid making the appointment and the Minister could not force them. The only option open to him was to dismiss the committee as such. They played on the strength of their political power in this regard, in the knowledge that no Fine Gael Minister for Education could possibly disband a Fine Gael controlled VEC. In the event they have won the battle, despite promises made in the debate on 22nd May, 1975, by the then Minister for Education. I was satisfied at all stages about the integrity of the then Minister for Education and I feel that if he was still Minister for Education he would have by now taken the appropriate action. He indicated he would do so in reply to my contribution on 22nd May, 1975. In the time at my disposal in the presentation of this case I do not expect to have sufficient opportunity to quote extracts from the Minister's statement on that occasion but such quotations would justify the claim I have made. That Minister was conscious of the position he held and conscious of the challenge which had been thrown down to him. He was determined to make the right decision.
The majority of the Laois VEC have played this particular card to the ultimate and when it became so obvious that there was going to be no other reaction from the Minister for Education and that it appeared that the Minister for Education was not going to perform his duty and dismiss the Laois VEC, the unfortunate victim of the whole affair, Mr. Phelan, decided to go to court and ask the High Court to issue an ultimatum to the Laois VEC to give him fair play and his just deserts which was his appointment as headmaster in Portlaoise vocational school.
The outcome of the High Court hearing came to light on 28th February last, when Mr. Justice McWilliam held that the Laois Vocational Committee were bound immediately to take such steps as might be necessary to have the appointment made to the position of principal of the Portlaoise vocational school and also ruled that the committee were and are in breach of their statutory duty. The High Court judge deliberately did not give any directions as to who should be appointed and in this regard, as I see it, Mr. Phelan did not get the decision he was expecting to get. Nonetheless, it was open to the Laois Vocational Committee to mend their hand and appoint him as they should have appointed him earlier on, but, instead of that, the committee, despite the decision of the High Court which stated that the committee were and are in breach of their statutory duty, still refused justice to Mr. Phelan and readvertised the position. It is in the consciousness of the fact that this position has been readvertised and a brand new interview arrangement is being set up that I raise this matter.
I have no reason to think that the present Minister is anything but a decent man and he decided to instruct the committee not to go ahead with advertising this position until he had an opportunity of studying the High Court judgment. Since then, during the Easter holiday period, his Department indicated to the CEO that the advertisement could be inserted.
I still feel that Mr. Phelan will prove to be the best qualified, but incorporated in the advertisement is the standard statement that canvassing will disqualify. A member of the committee has already stated publicly at committee level that if anybody opens his mouth in favour of Mr. Phelan— even my raising this tonight—he will see to it that Mr. Phelan is disqualified as having canvassed for the position or arranging to have canvassing done on his behalf. If Mr. Phelan applies for the position of headmaster it is my personal view that he will not receive justice from the interview board dealing with this appointment. I should like to state categorically that Mr. Phelan has made no effort to contact me in relation to this motion. I am saying this in the consciousness of the fact that despite the fact that the Teachers' Association of Ireland and the new Minister will have two members on that selection committee they will prove once again, as they did in June, 1974, to be ineffective against the powers of the four members of the Laois VEC who have been nominated to hold the interviews.
What hope has Mr. Phelan of being appointed by this committee? Surely, his chance of appointment has in no way improved over the last three years. That cannot be fair play and there cannot be a just recommendation from such a loaded interview board.
I feel, (1) that the advertisement should never have reappeared and (2) that the Minister should have dismissed this committee altogether on the basis that it is impossible to get fair play from them and because of their non-conformity with their statutory obligations.
When I raised this matter previously I said I did not want the Minister to dismiss the committee because I was conscious of the important part a vocational committee play at local level but this committee have gone too far in their attitude. I note in fact, the Minister for Defence, Deputy O. J. Flanagan, has arranged to have himself appointed to this interview board. I frankly think that this is disgraceful. I have never heard before in the history of this State of any Minister of State holding on to a position as a member of a county council in the event of his being appointed a Minister. Deputy Flanagan has and he has held on to his position as a member of a subsidiary body of that county council in order to use undue influence on that committee and on fellow-members on that committee.
Apart altogether from the outcome of my request for an inquiry in this regard the Taoiseach should have called on the Minister for Defence, Deputy Flanagan, before now to give up his positions on the county council and the vocational committee. He has already done so on the county committee of agriculture and on the Midland Health Board, but not on this committee where he and a particular colleague exert more than undue influence on the other members who are afraid—I say that deliberately— of both Deputy Flanagan and his sidekick who shall be nameless. I know every member of this maverick committee and I am satisfied that the vast majority of them are decent men, I cannot understand why they have so consistently been a party to the victimisation of William Phelan.
It was stated at one stage that one of the reasons why Mr. Phelan was not the number one choice was that he was not a "leader". If I might digress, I should like to point out that Portlaoise senior footballers won the Leinster Club Championship title this year. They were beaten ultimately in the All-Ireland semi-final by Austin Stacks of Kerry, who won the All-Ireland and who stand head and shoulders above the rest. The man mainly responsible for organising, leading and cultivating the young people of the Portlaoise football team to win the Leinster final and go within a few points of becoming All-Ireland champions was William Phelan.
All of us know how difficult it is in a chief town in a county to keep young men together, to keep them organised, to keep them disciplined. This, in fact, is what Mr. Phelan did and everyone in Portlaoise is proud of the achievement of that aspect of Mr. Phelan's work. He has the same capacity for leadership which could be ideally operated at vocational committee level and the man preferred to him will not hold a candle to him from the point of view of leadership. That is my view of Mr. Phelan's qualifications for the headmastership, apart altogether from his academic qualifications and his experience to which reference has already been made. It has never been suggested that this controversy has been engaged in because of the fact that Mr. Phelan is politically associated with Fianna Fáil because this is simply not so.
In fact, the active members of the committee opposed to the appointment of William Phelan were the very people who supported his appointment as vice-principal some years previously. He had been vice-principal and, if we had a normal committee, one would have expected Mr. Phelan to have been automatically promoted to the vacant principalship when that vacancy arose. When the vocational committee recently, following the High Court decision, decided to re-advertise the position the immediate pupil and teacher reaction was to strike and refuse to attend the school. Now I have, as I said before in this House, met representatives of the student group who were protesting at the committee's decision. They stressed that the administration and discipline in the school were chaotic and they instructed me to ask the Minister to examine the results achieved by the students in all examinations in 1976 as an indication of the inadequacy of the education being offered. This, they stressed to me, was not because of any incapacity on the part of their teachers but appeared to arise from a widespread lack of dedication within the school establishment itself.
Following on the student strike a short time ago, things have improved in that the Minister instructed the committee not to readvertise the post the day after my raising the matter in this House on 9th March last. On his instructions the committee appointed the CEO, Mr. O'Connor, as principal pro tem. The result of this was that Mr. Phelan, as vice-principal, became responsible for administration and things began humming immediately. Unfortunately, however, during the Easter break the Minister, to his everlasting shame, sanctioned the readvertising of the position. If the overall situation were not so frighteningly serious one could be excused for joining with so many Laois readers in laughing scornfully when they read in our local paper—The Leinster Express—an account of a contribution made by the Minister for Defence, Deputy Flanagan, at a recent vocational education committee meeting. The following quotation from The Leinster Express reads:
Deputy Flanagan described the school as one of the best and finest in Ireland and said there was a grave responsibility on the members of the Committee to do what they could to end the dispute.
This was a reference to the students' recent strike.
But the good name of the school has been dragged irresponsibily across the floor of Dáil Éireann by some public representatives. I hope that those who want to be criticised by Portlaoise Vocational School will be silent from here on. I deplore the small group of public representatives who have been decrying the service of this school.
Here, once again, was a further example of the master of hyprocisy stating his claim for appointment as chancellor of its university.