Niamh Bhreathnach, best known as the minister for education who abolished third-level fees in 1996, has died at the age of 77.
Ms Bhreathnach, a former Labour Party TD for Dún Laoghaire, was also among a select number of deputies who was appointed as a senior minister on her first day in the Dáil.
President Michael D Higgins paid tribute, saying she had left “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 one their own would reflect a significant term of office,” he said.
“Her period as Minister for Education saw marked reductions in the pupil teacher ratio… 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.”
Born in 1945, she was one of five daughters born to civil servant couple, Dubliner Breandán Breathnach and Clare-born Lena Donnellan. Her father was the driving force behind the establishment of Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU) in Henrietta Street and founder of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Merrion Square.
Their family of five girls grew up in Blackrock and attended Carysfort National School and Sion Hill Secondary School. Ms Bhreathnach went on to train as a Froebel teacher, enjoying a career in teaching in Cook Street in the inner city, followed by running a busy remedial practice up to her election to Dáil Éireann in 1992.
On the day of her appointment as minister in November 1992, Labour leader Dick Spring asked her “to do something about disadvantage”.
She drew on her experience from her time in Dublin’s inner city by setting up programmes such as “Breaking the Cycle” and “Early Start”. The aim was to make meaningful changes in the educational experience of poorer families.
Her time in the department was characterised by radical initiatives in education. Her record places her in the company of Paddy Hillery, who was associated with investment in education; and Donagh O’Malley, who introduced free secondary school education, as pioneering ministers in that department.
Ms Bhreathnach was elected the first woman chairperson of the Labour Party in 1990. During her time as minister she also introduced the RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) programme, which provoked controversy at the time; Social Personal and Health Education programme; the new examination subject of Civic Social and Political Education; and Leaving Certificate Applied.
She addressed structural issues in regard to school governance, certification of further education; standardisation of the school year; the extension of the support teacher service and the school psychological service; and the designation of the Regional Technical Colleges as Institutes of Education.
Ms Bhreathnach will forever be associated with two university related initiatives: the Irish University Act of 1997 and the abolition of third-level undergraduate tuition fees. The latter was intended to provide greater equity, but has remained controversial.
While fees were abolished, subsequent governments in more straightened economic times increased the annual student contribution charge to €3,000 today.
Following her defeat in the 1997 election, Ms Bhreathnach continued to be active in local politics and represented Blackrock Ward in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council. She was also a member of the board of governors of Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability.
Labour leader Ivana Bacik said she was “deeply sad at the loss of our dear friend, comrade and ally” who “leaves a tremendous legacy”. She extended the party’s sympathies to Ms Bhreathnach’s family, friends and community.
Former Labour adviser Fergus Finlay described Ms Bhreathnach as “one of the two or three best ministers for education that the country has ever seen”.
She is survived by her husband Tom Ferris, the couple’s two children Cliodhna and Macdara, son-in-law Bryan, grandchildren Tom and Alice, sisters Síghle, Fionnuala and Éadaoin and her many relatives and friends. She was predeceased by her sister Eibhlín.
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