Ruairi gets off to flyer by keeping his feet on the ground
IT was such a lovely sunny day in Sligo for the opening day of the INTO conference that the temptation to ask Education Minister Ruairi Quinn if we could all dul amach and sit on the grass while he spoke was almost overwhelming.
One of the sure signs that Easter is at an end is the start of the triumvirate of teachers' conferences, a weeklong talkfest of debate, workshops, speeches and synchronised moaning.
And the 700-plus primary school teachers who packed into the Radisson Blu Hotel in Sligo yesterday for the opening of the congress had a schoolbag-ful of grievances to present to the new boy, Ruairi, who was embarking on his first round of conferences -- a sort of post-Easter Stations of the Cross.
There was quite a smorgasbord of concerns: the lack of work for newly qualified teachers, the employment of unqualified teachers in schools, the reduction in the numbers of special needs assistants, pupil numbers, classroom sizes, and the state of uncertainty over how the IMF/EU bailout will affect the education sector, to name a few.
Out in the sunshine a group of youthful protesters -- first-year and student teachers -- donned blue T-shirts daubed with poster-paint slogans: 'I Didn't Bankrupt the Country', 'You Paid to Train Me... Now Let Me Work', while a co-protest group of parents of children with special needs arrived with kiddies and balloons in tow.
However, Ruairi received a good welcome in the hall which was packed to the rafters with delegates.
The first address was a marathon affair that left some delegates gazing wistfully at the sunshine outside the door like a classroom of children stuck in double maths on a Friday.
INTO president Jim Higgins spoke for almost an hour and defended the public sector.
"Trade union members who have done so much to advance equality, reduce poverty and secure decent standards of living will not be cowed by this propaganda fuelled by people with vested interests, many of whom were cheerleaders for the ruinous policies pursued by the financial sector," he said.
Ruairi declared himself wowed by what he hailed as a "tour-de-force" speech.
"I'm going to give copies of it to three primary school teachers I know -- Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin," he joked.
And then the minister waved both the carrot and the stick. "I actually got the job that I wanted, it's an incredible honour," he told the delegates. But he didn't sugar-coat the bad news either.
"I'm not going to pretend that the resources that are available for education can be improved, or that further difficult measures can be avoided," he stated. That's that, then. No apples for teachers. But no false promises either.
However, Ruairi did garner a decent round of applause at the end -- his two predecessors in the ministry, Mary Coughlan and Mary Hanafin, both experienced exiting stage left to deafening silence.
Today, Ruairi heads to Cork for the ASTI conference -- but there's another difference from his predecessors. He chose to drive to all three conferences rather than commandeer the government chopper. "It's about saving costs," he said simply.
One down, two to go. But he's off to a flying start.
Metaphorically, of course.