Stephen Donnelly dropped a bombshell on RTÉ's Claire Byrne programme last night. Just as the picture on school reopening seemed to be becoming clear, that the cautious phased reopening was to begin from next Monday, 1 March, and all that was left was the formal agreement and announcement by Government, he indicated there seemed to be a last minute spanner in the works - and it was coming from the trade unions.
His inaccurate comments caused bafflement among those who had attended talks, which concluded yesterday between the trade unions, the Minister for Education, her department and other education partners.
This is what the Minister for Health said: "Coming on the show I just checked as to where exactly we were and... now what I was told as of just two hours ago was actually that Minister Foley is still in negotiations with the unions on this and Cabinet hopes to be in a position to announce something tomorrow."
Claire Byrne reacted with surprise, "you’re saying that’s not a done deal?", she asked.
"All I can say", the Minister for Health responded, "is I wanted to double check before coming on the show as to what I could say and what I was told was that talks are still ongoing and certainly Minister Foley and what Cabinet really wants to announce is the reopening."
Asked by a shocked Claire Byrne why had Josepha Madigan told RTÉ Radio’s Drivetime programme earlier yesterday evening that the schools were going to reopen, if this was not now the case, Stephen Donnelly defended Ms Madigan.
He said: "I think this might have happened very, very recently, potentially even after Josepha Madigan was talking." He went on to say that "hopefully those talks can conclude in a positive way tonight or tomorrow morning".
"So it’s the unions again is it?", asked Claire Byrne.
Minster Donnelly responded as follows: "Well my understanding is, concerns have been raised and yeah that those talks are still going on.
"So I’m frustrated, your viewers are frustrated and I have no doubt that Minister Foley will be frustrated but will keep going as she has."
Asked again about the fact that Josepha Madigan had said at teatime that the schools would reopen, Mr Donnelly said; "Josepha Madigan will have said that in good faith. My understanding is that recently, before I came on the show, that something will have happened, and those talks are ongoing, so that’s not Josepha Madigan’s fault."
Yesterday, RTÉ News reported on two meetings that took place on Monday afternoon between the education partners, including the trade unions and the Minister for Education together with department officials.
There was a final hour-long meeting with second level partners, followed by another hour-long meeting with primary school representatives. Those meetings took place at 2.30pm and 3.30pm respectively.
Last night and today there is bafflement in both teacher and school trade union circles as to what Stephen Donnelly might have been referring to. He painted a dramatic picture of unexpected 11th hour negotiations.
RTÉ News has checked with all the three teacher trade unions and with Fórsa, which represents Special Needs Assistants, and they have all confirmed that there was no additional contact between them and the Department of Education after the meetings held yesterday concluded. "Zero contact", as one source put it.
The Minister for Health’s comments have been described as "ill-advised" and "very unhelpful" by others contacted.
RTÉ News asked the Department of Education if there was any truth at all in what Stephen Donnelly had been referring to. A spokesperson confirmed what the trade unions said, that there were no negotiations taking place yesterday evening or night.
On Twitter later yesterday evening, Stephen Donnelly clarified his lengthy remarks on the show with a brief tweet: "Clarification re return of schools – Meetings with the teaching unions concluded early this afternoon. Government intends making an announcement after Cabinet in line with plans as already outlined."
All this is the latest and perhaps most extreme example of what the INTO called "wildly inaccurate and sometimes contradictory statements from Government".
The INTO and the other unions have said that once plans are announced, clear and factual communication will be vital in building confidence in school communities and more widely. The Minister for Health's performance on Claire Byrne last night was not auspicious.