Silence in class as TUI gives Ruairi a fairer hearing
The TUI's head muinteoir John MacGabhann was having no messing down the back of his class. Especially not after seeing the disruptive and rude carry-on of their colleagues in ASBO (the union formerly known as ASTI).
There were well over 400 second and third-level teachers crammed into the slightly oddly-configured hall in Kilkenny – it was wider than it was long – and they all received a pre-Ruairi pep-talk from the general secretary.
"There's a difficulty for everybody because of the two very large wings," he began. "A bit like the Government," suggested one delegate to chuckles all around. "We're waiting in the wings," muttered another teacher, but quietly.
"We are a union of professionals," John reminded them, adding that they had indeed important messages on pay and conditions to convey to the minister, "and it's in your hands as to whether those messages get across, because there's an alternative message, which is chaos".
And so the loneliness of the long-distance Education Minister continued as he entered the room to the sound of silence, although there was a small scattering of polite applause as he began to speak.
His third and final keynote address of conference week was in a similar vein to those delivered to the other conferences – a mix of praise, new initiatives, vows of No Surrender on plans to overhaul the Junior Cert, and criticism of the union.
However, there was an extra care not to put out raging fires with a live grenade, and while repeating some of the same criticisms he levelled at the ASBO, he omitted one line which had started the metaphorical paper planes whizzing around the room the previous day when he asked the already-livid crowd: "Does your union have less faith in the professional capacity of you as teachers, as I do?"
And the TUI audience remained quiet, even when he floated that day's bombshell – a call to move non-university third-level education and training courses to a year-round basis. There were sharp intakes of breath and the odd murmur, but no paper planes.
However, then up stepped their president, Gerry Craughwell, to respond to the minister. Now Gerry is a chap of such garrulousness that he makes Graham Norton akin to Sam Beckett. At last year's Congress he spoke for a whopping 51 minutes and once again, like an unscrupulous cabbie, he took the scenic route from start to finish.
He even apologised to Ruairi for the length of his 2013 oration. "I know it's not easy to sit through a long period of time you are not paid for, feeling trapped, and perhaps even feeling that advantage is being taken of your goodwill and professionalism – if you felt that way, minister, my colleagues and I can empathise with you, we know those feelings all too well," he declared.
There were cheers and applause from delegates only dying to vent some pent-up feelings after sitting like an classroom of angelic cailini agus buachailli when an cigire comes calling.
For 53 full minutes the president energetically took Ruairi to task, and the delegates were up and down out of their chairs like a pub-full of fiddler's elbows, cheering and clapping excitedly.
They hurrahed when Gerry called for the cutting of the lecturing hours in Institutes of Technology, and when he declared that this current Government's slogan is "Much undone, more to undo" and when he issued a call for the equalisation of pay scales for new entrants into teaching – "after all, there's no newly qualified Dail deputies," he chided Ruairi.
Inevitably he and his compadres were up in arms over the minister's latest surprise wheeze, with Gerry dubbing him "the Minister of Announcements" to noisy approval from the floor.
But he did offer a few olive-branches – after insisting the union wouldn't co-operate with some of the proposals to reform the Junior Cert, he urged the minister to try to work with the TUI – "I think we should think twice before we consciously decouple, like Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow," he suggested to a startled Ruairi.
But one part of his speech did sound awfully like bits from the addresses to the minister at the INTO and the ASBO conferences this week – the section where Gerry warned that now economic green shoots are sprouting like weeds from the lawns of Government Buildings, the teachers would be lodging pay claims forthwith. "I am telling you now, minister, and your colleagues Ministers Howlin and Noonan – that we'll be calling on you to meet that demand," he vowed.
And this is a major headache hurtling down the tracks towards the Coalition; having busily talked up (and taken credit for) a revival of the prostrate economy, hands are now out all over the place, demanding recession refunds.
Surely that's a dire prospect for the Government akin to double maths on a sunny Friday afternoon.