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Primary School in ‘electioneering’row

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Primary School in ‘electioneering’row thumbnailThe SF letter and school note.

THE Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has denied claims that an Assembly candidate has used one of their schools for a form of "electioneering".

St Francis Primary School, Derrylatinee in the Brantry Parish, has become the centre of a political tsunami when its principal allowed envelopes containing a letter from Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew to be given to pupils to deliver to their parents.

Inside the envelopes was a letter, penned by the Fermanagh/South Tyrone candidate, reminding parents she was behind negotiations that would oversee faster broadband in the area.

The letter included a Sinn Fein letterhead, Michelle Gildernew's name and her Sinn Fein office address written on it.

A concerned parent, who did not wish to be named, told the Courier: "Just as the pupils were preparing to go home from school for their mid-term break on Wednesday afternoon, February 15, one of the teachers presented them each with envelopes asking them to give these to their parents.

“The envelopes were found to contain a letter written on official Sinn Féin logo headed paper with Michelle Gildernew's name and SF office address on it.

“In it the local MLA, who is currently running in the upcoming Assembly election, made a number of bland observations about the poor broadband service in the area.

"Accompanying the letter were sheets of paper mostly taken from the internet making broad references about Eglish village planning and a BT questionnaire.

“There was also a cover note from the school stating that it had been asked to distribute the material."

According to the parent, many parents were outraged by the letter, which they saw as blatant electioneering in the run-up to a poll and a violation of the school's neutrality where politics is concerned.

Added the parent: "We send our children to school to get an education, not for them to be manipulated into being unwitting canvassers for a political party at election time".

"I would be equally livid if the school sent home a blatant electioneering letter from an SDLP or DUP political candidate using their party logo on a letter head. Our Catholic schools are neutral venues and should not be used for partisan political purposes."

The CCMS confirmed they had knowledge of the incident but denied that there was any wrongdoing.

A spokesperson for the CCMS told the Courier: "CCMS are aware of this matter and have taken legal advice. Our solicitor has considered the documentation and is clear that the purpose of the documentation and enquiry is for the benefit of the school and that it was an appropriate exercise by an elected representative of a constituency function."

St Francis' Primary School confirmed that no parents had been in touch with them to complain about the letter.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone Assembly candidate Michelle Gildernew, in a statment to the Courier, said that the letter needed to be distributed in the hope of securing faster broadband for the school.

"I have been trying for years to get better broadband provision in rural areas and recently came across the Community Fibre Partnership scheme," said Michelle.

"I contacted BT to investigate the matter. At a parents support group meeting in January I brought BT's response with me and it was well received.

"I was then told shortly before the mid-term break that the scheme would close in March.

"I knew then that I had to get the word out quickly. I have also been around the community talking to people, both Catholic and Protestant, about this issue."

Despite acknowledging the timing of this matter is not perfect, Michelle remains adamant she did the right thing.

"It is not ideal timing; we are in the middle of an election, but I have a duty to support local schools, she said.

"The letter went out to see if better broadband could be secured for the school, my children's school, and I offer no apologies for that."

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