Megaphone man unapologetic yet shaken by furore at teacher conference
IT was a somewhat sheepish Andrew Phelan who was still looking for his megaphone on the closing day of the Asti teacher conference.
The young Dublin-based teacher made national headlines after using the megaphone to shout down Education Minister Ruairi Quinn as he delivered his keynote address at the conference in White's Hotel last Tuesday afternoon.
A few minutes into using the megaphone, Mr Phelan voluntarily surrendered it to an Asti usher and it was removed from the conference hall. But two days later, he was still looking for its return.
Photographs of Mr Phelan on his megaphone made virtually every Irish newspaper, while footage of his intervention during the speech made both the RTE and TV3 news. Audio of the incident appeared on national and local radio stations for two full days and sparked a national debate over whether ministers should in future bother to attend conferences.
However, Mr Phelan's intervention during the minister's speech was far from the most heated – with dozens of other delegates repeatedly heckling, jeering and even booing the Labour TD, who had to pause five times during his speech.
Asti general secretary Pat King, who had desperately made repeated pleas for Mr Quinn's speech to be received in a respectful manner, later personally apologised to the minister for his treatment at the conference.
Mr King later said the incidents on Tuesday were "nothing short of a tragedy".
National Parents Council Post-Primary president Don Myers said he was "appalled" by what happened and by allegations of online abuse against the Asti general secretary.
But Mr Phelan felt that his point about the consequences of education cutbacks simply had to be made.
If the Lucan-based teacher was unapologetic for his actions, he was clearly taken aback by the sheer scale of the row he had triggered.
"I won't be giving an apology to Ruairi Quinn – none whatsoever," he told the Sunday Independent.
"I think I spoke for a lot of Irish teachers who are struggling to pay their bills. They are struggling to mind children with all the extra hours they have to do and also pay a mortgage. Why on earth should we apologise for putting up opposition to someone who is causing all of this?"
Mr Phelan also took issue with the apology issued by Mr King to Mr Quinn.
"Who is he to apologise to the minister on my behalf?" he asked.
Yet privately, Mr Phelan's friends admitted he was totally taken aback by the sheer scale of the furore over last Tuesday's ministerial address.
Several were so concerned at the way the row was escalating that they rang him at the Wexford conference to voice their support.
Matters reached a head on Wednesday when Mr Phelan was barracked by other Asti delegates as he was speaking to the media in the lobby of White's Hotel. Several complained that the scenes which greeted Mr Quinn were not representative of them or of their union.
Mr Phelan countered by vociferously insisting that what had been done in Irish schools over the past five years represented "a dismantling" of the traditional education system and its values.
Both sides later insisted that the confrontation was not a dispute but "a strong exchange of words".
Mr Phelan, who is in his late 20s, is a physical education teacher based at Colaiste Phadraig in Lucan. Friends describe him as totally dedicated to his profession and his students.
Mr Phelan is a former member of the Socialist Party and has numerous friends involved in the People Before Profit Party in Dublin.
Mr Phelan is also friendly with a number of Asti members who, frustrated at repeated education cutbacks, founded a group called Asti Fightback.
This group was at the centre of a controversy when it emerged that comments on one of its websites had been highly critical of the union leadership and the stance on controversial edu-cation changes demanded by Mr Quinn.