Behind the scenes at the Department of Education

Joe Carroll


John Walshe had been the most experienced education correspondent in the Irish media when Ruairi Quinn asked him to join his team as a special adviser when he took over as Minister for Education in 2011.

Walshe could not resist becoming poacher turned gamekeeper and now he gives an entertaining insider’s view of his time in Tyrone House, the department’s headquarters directly opposite St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral on Marlborough St in Dublin.

The Catholic Church was keeping a close eye on the new minister who openly proclaimed his secularist agenda in a post he knew would be his last in Government. Walshe has had access to Quinn’s personal diary for his book and this adds spice to his revelations. Quinn records soon after taking office: “I intend to make the reforms and changes that the country needs.”

Quinn in opposition had offended senior staff in his department by implying that some of them were members of the Knights of St Columbanus or Opus Dei and were ready “to protect the interests of those clerical orders” or else the then-minister, Batt O’Keefe, was “politically incompetent”. 

At his first meeting with his senior staff, the new minister told them he hoped they would prove him wrong. Walshe comments that Quinn found out that his stereotypes about the department “were well out of date”. He was also intrigued to discover that the minister had a “high regard” for the teacher and The Irish Times columnist, Breda O’Brien (whose name is also familiar from the pages of this paper).


High on Quinn’s agenda was the reduction of the number of primary schools under Catholic Church patronage and he soon set up a forum to discuss it. One bishop asked Walshe: “What are you working for that atheist for anyway?” But Quinn, a former Blackrock College pupil, was very interested in religion and could discuss Hans Kung with priests over lunch.

The forum’s report on divestment of Catholic schools was criticised by various Catholic clerics as leading to the destruction of the Catholic ethos in schools and Quinn made little progress in the area.

Walshe also points out that Quinn was the first Minister for Education in 30 years to sanction a new Catholic second-level school. “He ended up approving three of them and one Protestant school because that’s what parents in the area voted for in surveys he had introduced. Not bad for a secular atheist!”

Fine Gael advisers also kept a close eye on Quinn’s secularist agenda and one of the Taoiseach’s aides one day tackled Walshe asking: “Are ye trying to take down the crucifixes from schools now?” Quinn was pleased with the Taoiseach’s speech in July 2011 highly critical of the Vatican over the handling of child sexual abuse.

Walshe was one of the advisers present at the subsequent meeting between Cardinal Brady and members of the hierarchy with the Taoiseach and several Fine Gael ministers.

The subjects discussed included the closure of the Vatican embassy and proposed legislation on abortion. The Church representatives apologised when the Taoiseach told them he had been described as worse than Herod and asked where he would spend eternity.

Student grants

Church-State matters were a minor problem compared with the ones Quinn encountered in the areas of student grants, university fees, fee-paying schools – a particular target for the Labour Party – school enrolment system, Junior Certificate reform, rural school closures, teachers’ conferences and so on.

Walshe gives an enthralling account of the in-fighting behind the scenes between the coalition partners on these and other sensitive issues.

In the end you get a grasp of how important both permanent officials and political advisers are in the lead-up to the final Cabinet decision.

Ministers are overwhelmed at the amount of paper-work generated and depend on their officials to keep them on the right track. Dáil debates, though they look lively on television, don’t count for much in decision-making.