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Swim School’s campaign group to ‘make their voices heard’ at special Council meeting

Representatives from the Save Our Swim Schools campaign group hope to make a presentation at tonight’s (Monday) special meeting of the Council in Downpatrick which is set to debate the issue of the dismissal of the private swim schools from both Newry and Downpatrick pools.

A protest to demonstrate the strength of feeling against the council decision to revoke the licences of private swim schools at Newry Leisure Centre is also set to take place.

The Council meeting follows a successful public meeting on the contentious issue, which took place in Newry Arts Centre last Thursday and was attended by concerned parents, swim school representatives, instructors, and community group representatives as well as Councillors Davy Hyland, Jarlath Tinnelly and Downpatrick councillor Patrick Brown.

Brendan O’Hagan, a swimming instructor who has taught with El Sol for over 30 years, delivered an impressive presentation outlining the impact their dismissal has had on everyone from the Council itself to the swim schools and the 800 children still on the waiting list for council run lessons at the new pool – a demand he says the Council cannot possibly meet.

In a revealing talk, which the group hope to replicate at tonight’s special Council meeting, he set out to dispel some myths around the private swim school arrangements including the fact that, contrary to popular belief, the swim schools did not operate for free and that the council made almost £12,000 per year in pool hire fees paid by Swimfit and El Sol – money Mr O’Hagan said was extra revenue for the Council as the swim schools only operated outside the pool’s normal working hours.

He also disputed the notion that the public are not being disadvantaged by the absence of El Sol and Swimfit, arguing that the 800 children on the waiting list are missing out on vital life saving swimming lessons and highlighting the “shocking” fact that the new council run lessons do not accommodate disabled children or adult learners – which were always available with the private swim schools.

GCSE students who were undertaking “Swim Survive Save” awards have also been left “high and dry” according to Mr O’Hagan, as these are also not accommodated at the new leisure centre and the Council is suffering a loss of revenue during closing hours which is compounded by the fact that it is running up heating and electricity costs while the pool lies unused during these hours.

He also stressed the inconvenience to the public with lessons impeding on public swimming times and cited a recent instance where only 37 members of the public could access the pool during swimming lessons while extra numbers were turned away.

As tensions ran high among members of the floor who were vociferous in slamming the council decision as a “money making exercise”, one audience member said he had been privy to an official council document which confirmed that Newry, Mourne and Down Council stood to make £50,000 per annum from council run swimming lessons.   Questions arose as to how a public body providing a service would be interested in making such profits to the detriment of the general public and many asked to know exactly who had sanctioned the decision to remove the private swim schools – a question which remained unanswered despite the presence of councillors.

Rostrevor councillor Jarlath Tinnelly said that councillors were assured that “what has happened, would not happen,” and that if the council could not meet the demand for swimming lessons, the remit for private provision remained but it was argued from the floor that this was only on a one-to-one basis, and at an extra cost to the private one-to-one instructor.

Amid uncertainty that Newry would be given a voice at tonight’s Council meeting, questions also arose as to why the Council had advised that only Downpatrick representatives would present at the meeting and why Active Health Committee Chair, Sinn Fein’s Liz Kimmons had previously confirmed that she saw “no merit in a presentation to the Council” from Newry representatives.

Despite this uncertainty the campaign group were encouraged to attend tonight’s meeting in Downpatrick to make their voices heard and received strong support from a Downpatrick representative who pledged to back the group in their bid to present its case to Council officials.

Martin McKeown, spokesperson for local trade Union, Unite, spoke to The Examiner following Thursday’s meeting.

Mr McKeown reiterated the Union’s support for the Save Our Swim Schools’ campaign, as 12 of their members are employees with the two swim schools and said that seeking the reinstallation of the swim schools could not be deemed as “privatisation” as the lessons would not be run in competition with the Council but outside of the pools normal opening hours and would generate extra income for Newry Council.

Unite chairman Christopher Morley welcomed the council’s decision to hold a special meeting and said,

“The swim schools have been a massive part of our community for years and have taught a lot of children the vital life saving skill of learning how to swim. I hope that the issue with the council can be resolved at Monday’s meeting and that the council will vote to reverse their decision.”