Former Labour Party Education Minister Niamh Breathnach passed away on February 6th 2023, aged 77.
In 1993, Breathnach became the first Labour Party TD, and only the third female TD, to become Minister for Education, a role vehemently sought after by the Party, as it was seen as a place where solid foundations for change could be introduced.
In a statement released after Breathnach's death, President Michael D. Higgins said, “In her time in office she would go on to leave an extraordinary legacy of educational reform.” Breathnach will be remembered for her many substantial accomplishments while acting as Minister for Education, accomplishments which have lasting impacts on the lives of people within the Irish education system to this day.
In 1995 Breathnach introduced the first White Paper for education in Ireland, setting out an educational development plan. In her own words Breathnach stated, “It is my earnest and confident hope that this White Paper is a visionary testament to a new partnership approach to educational provision and practice, and that it lays a solid foundation upon which we can build confidently for future generations of students.”
There was a focus on disadvantaged pupils and areas during Breathnach’s term, resulting in the implementation of the Leaving Cert Applied Programme, Transition Year being made available in all schools, and her ‘Breaking the Cycle’ programme. This programme was centred on targeting disadvantaged schools, and saw the student-teacher ratio reduced significantly. It would later evolve into the Deis programme.
Breathnach is most well known for abolishing college tuition fees, making third level education accessible to a much wider range of the population, at a time when only upper-class families could afford to send their children to University. She introduced the Irish University Act, 1997, detailing the legalities of the University system in Ireland. One significant requirement of this act was transparency in University spending of public funding. Acknowledging the importance of technology, Breathnach upgraded the Regional Technical colleges to Institutes of Technology.
Female representation in Dáil Eireann in the 1990s was averaging 12%, a number which had only increased to 22% by 2016. Despite the underrepresentation of female TDs, Breathnach acted as a formidable force in government, implementing multiple impactful changes during her time as Minister from 1993-1997. President Higgins, referring to her multitude of achievements, acknowledged that, “any of [them] on their own would reflect a significant term of office.”
In her later career Breathnach worked within her locality with Dún Laoghaire County Council. She continued her work surrounding education, acting as 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.
Breathnach was a politician who embodied what it truly means to be one. She served her country with an innate sense of development and inclusiveness. Many of us have her work to thank for the educational opportunities we have received throughout our lives, and her legacy will live on in the heart of the Irish education system for decades to come.