Lise Hand: Taking the minister to task in the most polite way possible
Published 09/04/2015 | 02:30
It was the noisiest outbreak of mass adulation since One Direction hit town. There was a cornucopia of cheers, oodles of ovations and an avalanche of applause. The audience were up and down out of their seats so often for a string of standing acclamation, that surely someone did their back in.
But the approval wasn't for the Education Minister, no sirree. All Jan O'Sullivan could do was sit on the podium and wonder what it must be like for a politician to be on the receiving end of such rapture from his or her troops of faithful comrades.
One would have to trek back in time to witness such scenes, back to the shiny-suited heyday of Fianna Fáil ard fheiseanna when the party thought they ruled the country, rather than simply ran it on behalf of the electorate.
After getting a reasonably warm reception at the primary teachers' conference in Ennis the previous day, it remained to be seen if the minister would feel more of a frisson at her second teachers' congress in Wexford yesterday. After all, an ongoing war is still raging with the secondary school unions, the TUI and the ASTI, over Junior Cycle reform, as well as increasingly loud demands for restoration of pay, among a litany of demands.
The hall was full by the time the minister arrived just before 12.30pm - fittingly, the hundreds of delegates had been summoned back to the room from their mid-morning coffee-break by the vigorous ringing of a proper school-bell. It was so redolent of long-gone school-days, that several non-teachers instinctively rose out of their seats.
But the minister needn't have worried about her welcome. Before she entered the hall, TUI general secretary John MacGabhann gave a positive pep-talk, advising the members not to send any paper planes whizzing in the direction of the stage.
She was permitted to deliver her almost 30-minute speech in polite silence - even though she bravely gave the delegates a bit of a skelp for their failure to participate in training for the new Junior Cycle - she declared their action "sits uneasily" with their commitment to education.
And still they sat quietly, with not a boo or heckle to be heard. It was impressive - but it transpired that they were saving all their energy for the reply by their president, Gerry Quinn.
Aided perhaps by a sugar-rush from the glass bowls of sweeties arrayed along their tables in the hall.
Before nine minutes had elapsed, Gerry Quinn had sparked 11 outbreaks of clapping and one standing ovation from the hopped-up delegates. He was very polite to the minister, and tempered his criticism by pointing out that many of the policies which annoyed them had been devised before she took over the department last summer.
"But those policy makers were badly mistaken, minister, as the current industrial unrest proves - and if these policy-makers under your direction don't learn from their mistakes, then there will be more trouble on the horizon," he vowed vigorously, prompting the first of no less than a dozen standing ovations.
It was more akin to a PE class of Jumping Jacks than a conference speech. In fact, during one ovation, an unfortunate chap perched on a chair at the very edge of the podium, toppled off.
Understandably, Mr Quinn basked in the reaction, wandering off-script on a few occasions as the oratorical muse took him, invoking a few more roars of approval by having a go at those with the temerity to stick their nose into the business of education reform.
"Shame on those who talk down to us about how to teach and who couldn't survive for five minutes in some of our classrooms," he thundered.
They were almost swinging from the chandeliers.
Of course they are right. Teachers know best.