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Madigan withdraws 'normal children' comments and issues apology for mother and baby home comparison

Teachers union the INTO has called on the Minister to apologise for her latest comments.

Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan.
Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Jan 20th 2021, 4:25 PM

MINISTER FOR SPECIAL Education Josepha Madigan has withdrawn remarks she made in the Dail in relation to “normal children” and has also issued an apology as she came under fresh criticism for a comparison made on radio this morning. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Madigan said that she was “disappointed” in what she called the unions’ “unreasonable stance” on the ongoing closure of special needs schools. 

“We’ve spent the last week talking about mother and baby homes where our most vulnerable were left to their own devices in less than satisfactory conditions and we’re now allowing further anxiety and upset to be placed on the shoulders of parents whose children desperately need to go back to school,” Madigan said. 

One of the two unions representing teachers of students with special educational needs released a statement this afternoon calling on the junior minister to apologise.

The INTO said that the Minister’s comments are “unhelpful, unnecessary and grossly offensive to our members”.

“We call on Minister Madigan to immediately apologise for her insensitive comments this morning, comparing Special Education issues to mother and baby homes. We are determined to continue working towards a safe reopening of schools and ensure pupils with special needs education return to in-school teaching and learning as soon as possible.” 

Madigan’s comments were also criticised in the Dáil today by opposition politicians, with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald calling them “crass and clueless”. 

Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin also raised her comparison, saying that Madigan and Education Minister Norma Foley “are now part of the problem” of school closures because of their comments in the media. 

He said both ministers “are not in control of the situation” and asked for the Taoiseach to become “centrally involved”. 

Clarifying her comments this afternoon in the Dáil, Madigan said they were meant “as nothing more” than speaking about vulnerable people in society. 

“I want to clarify that my early comments on media and reference them in this chamber today, they pertained to looking after our most vulnerable in society, which children with special educational needs are,” Madigan told the Dáil.

It was meant as nothing more than that and at no stage, Ceann Comhairle, would I compare these two very different situations.  

Madigan’s clarification came as she also reiterated an apology and withdrew a reference she made in the Dáil last week.  

Speaking last Thursday about what the government had expected to be the reopening of special needs classes tomorrow, Madigan had said: “We all know that even for normal children remote teaching is difficult but for children who have additional needs it is particularly difficult.”

Withdrawing those comments today, the junior minister said he words were “not appropriate” 

I wish to correct the record of the house in relation to the context of a word I used last Thursday afternoon when speaking about students without special educational needs. The word is not appropriate. And I did not use it intentionally and it is not what I meant to say. And while I publicly apologised last Thursday, I wish to restate it today on the floor of this house. I would like to withdraw the remark and to re-emphasise my commitment as always to supporting children with special educational needs and their families, particularly at this difficult time.

In a further statement issued this afternoon, she apologised for the mother and baby home comparison made on radio. 

She said: “This morning, I made comments on how important it is that our children with special educational needs return to in-person learning. As part of these comments, I reflected on how vulnerable people have been entirely let down in the past, and I made a reference to mother and baby homes. I sought to clarify these comments in the Dáil today.

“I in no way intended offence towards anyone who works with children with special educational needs. I am, as are all involved in supporting these children, passionate about vindicating their rights and in reaching for an analogy I chose poorly.

“I apologise fully.”

Criticism

mlmd Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Source: Oireachtas.ie

Speaking this morning, the Education Minister said that it “a matter of deep regret” that unions have opposed the phased reopening of schools for children with special educational needs this week, despite it being deemed an essential service.

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During Leaders’ Questions today, McDonald described the minister’s handling of the planned reopening as “a mess” and said she has been on the media “finger pointing and seeking to scapegoat SNAs and teachers”. 

“You failed to put together anything resembling a Plan B. There was no thought given to how education would continue if schools had to close to to high rates of infection,” the Sinn Fein leader said. 

Such a plan B could have been, should have been, on the shelf  having been discussed with all stakeholders, unions, management bodies, students and parents.

mm Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil today. Source: Oireachtas.ie

In response, the Taoiseach said that McDonald was “playing politics with children with special needs” and that it was “absolutely untrue to say there was no consultation”.

“I just don’t understand how Deputy McDonald can stand up and say something like that, so untrue. And it illustrates that this is a partisan political attack by Deputy McDonald, not a helpful or constructive approach to this issue,” he said. 

Labour’s Ó Ríordáin said that the government’s 6 January announcement about schools remaining closed for this month was made “with no consultation”. 

“Please don’t make liars of trade union leaders who say that they weren’t consulted about the 6 January flat announcement. On 14 January, another announcement was made before an education debate in this house about the reopening of special schools and special classes. Again no agreement.”

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha, Sean Murray

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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