Autonomy battle for Eire

November 10, 1995

The Irish government faces parliamentary defeat over proposals for legislation seen to limit university autonomy, even though the details of the Bill have not yet been officially published.

A vote on the principles of the proposal is due to be held within the next fortnight in the 60-member senate. If the six senators who represent university graduates join with the main political opposition parties the government could be defeated.

One of the six, Shane Ross, is a member of the main government party, Fine Gael. He represents the graduates of Trinity College Dublin and has stated that he will defy the party whip if there is any threat to the traditional autonomy of Trinity. He rejected as "totally unacceptable" the notion of government nominees on the board of the university.

Describing education minister Niamh Bhreathnach, a member of the Labour party, as a "loose cannon", he said that she was cloaking her plans for state control of the universities in fine language. "Everyone knows what she really means. State control under the Labour party jackboot is a menace," he said.

The motion before the senate will call for rejection of any attempt by the minister to interfere with the governance or charter of Trinity College, which is governed by a charter dating back to 1592, or to weaken the autonomy of the colleges of the National University of Ireland.

Initially the chairs of governing bodies were to come from outside the university community, selected by the minister from lists of three submitted by the universities. Now universities will be offered the choice between governing bodies chaired by the university president or provost as now, or by outsiders appointed by the government from names submitted by universities.

In an attempt to secure agreement with Trinity the minister has agreed that appointment of its provost through election by its staff can remain. Initially she wanted the post filled by a selection board which would have outside representation. The minister has also agreed not to force Trinity to appoint local authority representatives to its board, but she wants to appoint four nominees herself.

She is still insisting on a gender balance on the governing bodies of the seven state university institutions. In addition she is seeking the right to dissolve governing bodies for a period not longer than a year.

The latest proposals are still unacceptable to Trinity and to a lesser extent to the other institutions.

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