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Statement by President Michael D. Higgins on the death of Niamh Bhreathnach

Date: Mon 6th Feb, 2023 | 13:24

“It is with a deep sense of sadness that so many people, former colleagues and particularly those who will have benefited from the inclusive reforms she initiated in terms of our education system, will have learnt of the death of Niamh Bhreathnach.

Niamh became Minister for Education on the same day that I became Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and we were two of a number of people appointed to first Ministries on that day. I can recall that we were all possessed of a great sense of anxiety that we must take our opportunity to get changes done and Niamh set about that task with gusto.

Niamh was the first Labour politician to hold the post of Minister for Education, something which had historical significance in its own right. In her time in office she would go on to leave an extraordinary legacy of educational reform.

That legacy includes the abolition of third-level undergraduate tuition fees and significant increases in education spending, the introduction of the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme, and making the Transition Year Programme available to all second-level schools, any of which on their own would reflect a significant term of office.

Influenced by her training as a teacher of those with special needs and drawing on her practical experience as a teacher in the Oliver Bond Complex in Dublin, Niamh emphasised a child-centred approach and her introduction of the ‘Breaking the Cycle’ programme led to targeted supports for urban and rural schools in disadvantaged areas. This would later becoming the Deis programme. Her period as Minister for Education saw marked reductions in the pupil teacher ratio.

Working with her Secretary General, Don Thornhill, and very conscious of the importance of the value of published research and policies from those such as Professor John Coolahan, Niamh published the first White Paper on Education in the history of the State, ‘Charting Our Education Future’, and introduced the Education Bill 1997, described by Professor Coolahan as ‘the most radical overhaul of the administrative structure of first and second level education ever achieved in Ireland’.

Her period as Minister for Education also saw appropriate recognition of the importance of technology and technical training and, as Minister, Niamh oversaw the upgrading of Regional Technical Colleges to Institutes of Technology.

She was also a real advocate of the Educate Together movement, at a time when the debate on patronage in Education was difficult but vitally important, and a number of Educate Together schools were opened during her time in office, including the Educate Together School in Galway.

There is no doubt that Niamh was influenced in her public service by the work of her parents, Breandán and Lena, both of whom worked as civil servants. The fact that we have a traditional music archive owes much to the contribution of her father Breandán Breathnach as a music collector. Through his bilingual periodical ‘Ceol: A Journal of Irish Music’, as chairman of Na Píobairí Uilleann, and author of a range of books including ‘Folk Music and Dances of Ireland’, ‘Dancing in Ireland’ and ‘Ceol agus Rince na hÉireann’, Breandán was recognised as one of the foremost authorities on Irish traditional instrumental music. This is a legacy of which Niamh was very proud and one which we often discussed.

Niamh Bhreathnach’s deep commitment to serving the public was given evidence by her returning to Dún Laghaire Rathdown Council and her continued work as an activist in the decades following her term as Minister. She remained deeply interested in the education sector and broader public affairs up to recent weeks. She will be deeply missed.

May I express my deepest sympathies to her husband, Tom Ferris, to her children Clíodhna and Macdara, and to all her wider family and many friends.”