Two Celtic Tiger-era schools have been shut immediately and 40 more are undergoing emergency structural examinations amid real fears their ongoing use is putting thousands of children and teachers’ “lives at risk”.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Education Minister Joe McHugh confirmed the decision last night as it emerged they have asked Attorney General Seamus Woulfe about widescale legal action against the firm involved.
On Monday , the Department of Education confirmed it has launched an urgent structural review of schools developed under the rapid build programme at the height of the Celtic Tiger era by Tyrone-based firm Western Building Systems (WBS).
The review was launched in the aftermath of serious structural problems which were uncovered at Ardgillan Community College in Balbriggan, Dublin, leading to the facility’s partial closure.
Yesterday, a second WBS school — Tyrrelstown Educate Together in Dublin — was also told it must shut, while 40 more schools built including one in West Cork are also being examined.
An Irish Examiner expose in 2015 and 2016 found the department had been told of serious fire safety warnings three years ago. This led to a full fire safety audit of all WBS schools being launched last year. However, despite the reports being completed for a number of months, none have been published.
Addressing the the Dáil yesterday, Mr Varadkar said the investigations will take place over the Halloween break and the first week of November. He said it will be “in some cases necessary to partially or entirely vacate” the sites — meaning thousands of children may need to find new schools — and that the Government “will pursue legal action” if errors are found.
In a separate Dáil debate last night, Mr McHugh said “student and teachers’ lives have been put at risk”. He said his officials will brief opposition education spokespeople on the situation today, and that he and Mr Varadkar have discussed the matter with the attorney general, adding: “Coming from me personally I just could not stand over this.”
Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne, who has repeatedly raised the issue over the past year, said last night what has happened has “put a shiver down the country’s spine”.
A WBS spokesman said the firm “are responsible, solutions-focussed professionals” and “always” ensure “compliance with regulatory requirements”.
The spokesman said all of its work on the schools was certified by the department and met regulations at the time, and that “until now our integrity has never been questioned”. He added that the firm is “interested in getting to the bottom of this”, will write to Mr McHugh and “remain available to meet with him and his officials”.