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Tuesday 24 January 2017

Analysis: Breakthrough is good news, so let's hope for lasting deal

Published 09/11/2016 | 02:30

Richard Bruton Photo: Tom Burke
Richard Bruton Photo: Tom Burke

The posh term is serendipity, the occurrence of happy coincidence.

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So, first off it was Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, and now Education Minister Richard Bruton, who belatedly got out of the gap of danger.But the developments mean the bigger issue of public pay looms ever larger for the entire minority hybrid Coalition.

Just as this Government showed signs of digging in for a longer, grimmer war with the secondary teachers, work stoppages were suspended and the disputes were forwarded to arbitration. It is a good outcome for the Education Minister and the Government, not to mention the secondary students and their parents.

There were always a few brutal realities at work. First is that the only teachers' union traditionally feared by any Government is the primary teachers' INTO, which is present in every parish in the country.

The presence of the other second-level teachers' union, the TUI, along with the INTO, within a refined version of the Lansdowne Road Agreement, also augmented the Education Minister's political cover. But he could not expect that luck to last indefinitely as 220,000 school pupils were deprived of schooling. Parents were not particularly supportive of members of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI). But that did not mean parents would largely support the Education Minister.

In the Dáil yesterday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin asked why special arrangements could not have been made for students preparing for State examinations due next June. Mr Martin stressed the plight of Leaving Cert students. The assertion that something special could have been done for Leaving Cert 2017 candidates may be a bit of a stretch. True, this action, based on two parallel ASTI disputes, had been flagged for a long time.

But the ballot result by the ASTI only emerged three weeks ago and the union forbade principal teachers to hire and train non-teacher supervisors. In this era of the 'points race', however, the pressure is intense and students and parents will not be interminably patient. Up to last night, signs were that this school week was a write-off with little chance of a re-opening even by next Monday. There was an increasing likelihood of parents turning on Mr Bruton.

Ministers do not get involved in detailed negotiations in industrial disputes. But the minister does set a tone and the buck stops on his or her desk.

This breakthrough is good news for everyone. All will hope a lasting deal can be done. Then things move on to the bigger dilemma of public service pay for all 300,000 public service workers.

Irish Independent

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