FINANCE Minister Michael Noonan yesterday bluntly warned Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney to stop publicly opposing changes in student grant rules.
The warning came after Mr Coveney had joined Fine Gael backbenchers in expressing fierce opposition to the prospect of farmland and business premises being included for the first time next year in the means test for student grants.
And it had pitted him in direct opposition to Minister Ruairi Quinn, who insisted again yesterday -- in his first public comment on the controversy -- that including assets in the means test was the "right way to go".
Mr Noonan said he understood that Mr Coveney had a special relationship with the farming community and that they expected him to protect their interests.
But he warned that it was a "little premature" to be taking up positions when Mr Quinn's review group had not even published its report.
The student grant is only assessed on the income of a student's parents rather than the assets they own. Mr Quinn has stated publicly that he believes farmers and self employed business people can "manipulate" their income to secure grants for their children. This has alarmed Fine Gael TDs and farming organisations, who have pointed out that farm families get just 6pc of grants.
Mr Noonan stressed that the current batch of Leaving Cert students would not be affected by the proposed changes to the means test -- which are due to be implemented next year.
It was an attempt by Mr Noonan to defuse the coalition row, which had lead to more than a dozen Fine Gael TDs -- as well as Mr Coveney and Junior Minister Michael Ring -- declaring their opposition to the inclusion of assets in the means test.
But Mr Quinn, who was yesterday congratulating Leaving Certificate students on their results, is pressing ahead with his plans to include certain assets in the means test. He said the technicalities of how assets are assessed and separated from business were technical complexities which still had to be worked out.
"This is not about punishing any one particular section of the community, it is about trying to take the system that is deemed to be unfair by many people and make it more fair. But not to make it more fair in a way that ultimately causes damage elsewhere," he said.
Speaking at Calasanctius College in Oranmore, Co Galway, yesterday, Mr Quinn said he believed he had the confidence of his cabinet colleagues in the matter. However, he added that he understood the concerns raised by Mr Coveney, who previously said he had "a difficulty" with the proposals.
"He is Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries and he wants to ensure that the productive capacity of the agriculture sector is not damaged in any particular way, and I would feel the same," he said.
Journalist: Caroline Crawford and Ralph Riegel