Byline: Senan Molony Political Editor
THE launch of a new education strategy was marred yesterday by a 'schoolboy howler' from accident-prone Tanaiste Mary Coughlan.
The Minister for Education blundered while extolling Ireland as a destination for international students, announcing a drive to increase their numbers significantly in the next five years.
Miss Coughlan publicly thanked the Taoiseach for giving his 'alma mater' to the project - when she meant to say 'imprimatur'. Her intention was to indicate that Mr Cowen, her political patron, had given his seal of approval to the plan, but instead she said he had donated his boyhood school to the initiative.
Some officials winced at the glaring misuse of a common Latin phrase by the minister, but Brian Cowen failed to notice, while Justice Minister Dermot Ahern maintained a straight face.
Members of the high-level group which developed the plan were present yesterday in the Government press centre as the Tanaiste boobed with her Latin allusion. They included senior representatives from the universities, institutes of technology, private higher education colleges and English language schools.
The Taoiseach controversially kept Miss Coughlan as his deputy prime minister last March while reshuffling her to the Department of Education from the Enterprise and Employment portfolio - where she had been widely perceived as a disaster.
Her most notorious foot-in-mouth episode came last year at an IDA 'smart economy' launch when she seemed to suggest that Albert Einstein was behind the theory of evolution instead of Charles Darwin.
Yesterday, the minister rose to speak after Mr Cowen had first emphasised the need to make Ireland an international centre for education excellence .
She blithely declared: 'First of all, I just want to reiterate thanks to the Taoiseach, that he has given his alma mater to the importance of the internationalisation of education from a Government perspective.'
Mr Cowen's alma mater is Mount St Joseph school in Roscrea, which is privately owned and operated.
The school boasts on its website that it is 'the only fully fledged secondary school in the world established by and still connected with the Cistercian monks of the Strict Observance (Trappists).'
Fine Gael education spokesman Fergus O'Dowd quipped yesterday: 'As Mary herself would say, carpe diem. I'd say that's quid pro quo, but it may be sub judice.'
Independent TD Finian McGrath, a former school principal, said: 'I think the Tanaiste should consider returning to school, as she clearly didn't pay attention first time around. Maybe she could get grinds to brush up on her Latin.'
Labour TD Ciaran Lynch said: 'There is a serious issue here. The minister for education, above all, should not resort to Latin phrases if she doesn't know what they mean.
'She is meant to be advertising Irish education abroad - and she's proving a bad advertisement.
'She has the political version of Tourette's Syndrome - you don't know what is going to come out of her mouth.'
Ironically, Miss Coughlan has seemed happier in the Department of Education since her switch, even after Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar accused her last March of being a national embarrassment.
He repeated a public TV claim by a businessman that Miss Coughlan was an international 'cringe-factor' for Ireland .
Days before Miss Coughlan was moved from her position, Mr Varadkar insisted that the Industrial Development Authority, the State's main agency for pursuing international investment and jobs, was 'embarrassed by you'.
He told her publicly in the Dail that it was being widely said in business circles that she used language that was 'inappropriate and vulgar' when meeting even top executives abroad.
The latest own-goal by the minister, who had earned the nickname 'Calamity Coughlan. …