Wednesday 18 July 2018

Teachers writing their own history

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (Into) is 150. A new book detailing its journey to the position of influence it holds today is reviewed by John Walshe

Niamh Purseil
Niamh Purseil
Kindling The Flame

John Walshe

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) is the most successful lobbying machine in education. It could teach other sectors how to make their case for more public funds effectively and efficiently.

If proof were needed, all you have to do is recall what happened in 2011 when the newly elected Coalition was facing into an economic abyss. Cuts were the order of the day to keep the Troika on board and the 'bail-out' loan money flowing.

Primary schools were not supposed to escape the axe but, at the last minute, the Government baulked at worsening the pupil teacher ratio (PTR) in that sector for fear of a backlash from the public. It had fewer concerns when it decided that guidance counsellor posts would be hit in second-level schools. And fewer still when higher education faced devastating cuts - student numbers have rocketed by 18pc but State spending has plummeted by 28pc between 2008 and 2015 - with little or no public outcry.

When the good times began to roll again with the recovery, and the cuts started to be reversed, who benefitted first? It was primary schools, through an improvement in the PTR. It was another triumph for INTO.

But it was not always thus. In fact, INTO spent many years in the wilderness before it began to develop its political nous, as illustrated in a fascinating history to mark the 150th anniversary of the setting up of the union in 1868. Kindling The Flame by historian Niamh Puirseil, whose father Séamus is a former INTO president, traces the history of the body set up to fight on behalf of male and female teachers, Catholic and Protestant, who were subject to "poor pay, dire conditions and no job security".

In the beginning, they were effectively ignored by the powers-that-be in church and State, and were banned from speaking publicly about their plight. A rule prohibited their attendance at meetings, particularly political meetings, but this was judiciously side stepped by gathering in secret in the early days. Care was taken not to stray too deep into the turbulent political waters of the late 19th century. One of its first big achievements was securing pensions for teachers and it began campaigning on the notion of equal pay for equal work, very much a new concept at the time.

The role of women surfaces regularly throughout the book and the author has a few sideswipes at the macho culture that used to dominate the union congresses and leadership. Even though they long outnumbered men in INTO ranks, women were not always treated as equal. One former general secretary, TJ O'Connell, opposed the idea of a women's advisory committee and offered the opinion that women members would not stand for election to the executive because they were not "sufficiently thick-skinned".

However, INTO appointed its first equality officer, Catherine Byrne, in the mid-80s and its first female general secretary, Sheila Nunan, in 2009.

The pages of this well-researched book are peppered with personalities who put their own stamp on the organisation. In 1978 there was the election of two such strong characters - Fiona Poole as president and Joe O'Toole as a member of the executive. Later, as general secretary, he famously described the benchmarking process of pay determination as being "no more than going to a different ATM; we will punch in the formula and collect the pay-out".

There are great many other tales of battles long, and not so long, ago in this narrative, describing how the 'Sleeping Giant' in Parnell Square woke up to fight successful pay and other campaigns, such as the marriage bar, which forced women to retire once they were wed, degree status for primary teachers and pay parity across the profession in the face of stiff opposition from the Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI).

But there were also failures, such as the unsuccessful merger attempts with ASTI and Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) and needlessly expensive rows, such as the lengthy Drimoleague school strike in Cork. And its lack of support for John McGahern who lost his teaching job after publishing The Dark is rightly condemned as "shabby and unedifying".

Relations between the union and the Catholic Church as managers and owners of most of the country's primary schools have chilled and thawed many times over the past century and a half.

There was the occasional bitter public dispute, as in Ballina, Co Mayo, when, in the words of Executive Member Dave Kelleher, the "pot had boiled over" because a lay school was handed over in 1956 to be run by the Marist order.

It took some time for INTO to realise that the media could help get its messages across. Effective communication, whether via the media or through political channels, has, by now, become a hallmark of the union. Over the last 16 years, the role of media officer has fallen to Peter Mullan, whose own history with INTO hits a milestone today, when he officially retires.

Irish Independent

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