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Nicola Anderson: Deja vu all over again as Quinn sticks to the script

ANOTHER day, another conference -- but the same speech. Teachers at the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) conference in Tralee, Co Kerry, yesterday asked one another if they noticed how the Education Minister kept repeating "the same phrase" over and over, to the point that it "was driving them mad".

Try listening to the repetition of the thing in its entirety -- three times.

Not alone that, but he even delivered what was pretty much the same speech to school principals at the JMB/AMCSS conference in Killarney last month. Four times, then.

So nobody can accuse Ruairi Quinn of failing to drive home the message that we're broke, we've lost our economic sovereignty and that our education system isn't as good as we've led ourselves to believe.

Yes, we get it, and, yes, we also know that repetition is an effective learning method used in all the best classrooms. It's just that the news doesn't get any easier to swallow the more often you hear it. In fact, it's a little worse.

Given that TUI members were the ones who booed and jostled Mr Quinn's predecessor, Mary Coughlan, when she attended their conference in Ennis last year, their reception of the new minister was always going to be interesting.

Certainly their general mood -- along with that of the rest of the nation -- has not improved.

One delegate summed it all up when she despaired: "God, we're beaten -- we're on the floor. It's like sitting on the beach watching the wave go out after the tsunami."

Outside, awaiting the minister's arrival, delegate Marie Humphries, from the College of Further Education in Whitehall, Dublin, was a solitary protester adorned in a life buoy scrawled with the words: "Education is a life saver."

Her nautically striped jacket was a happy satirical coincidence. She was out to express her concern about the €200 fee being levied on the students of PLC courses, for what is often their last chance at education.

Students such as single mothers were able to change the future of their entire families by enrolling, she said.

"Once we start introducing fees, we will turn away the most vulnerable, who won't even bother to apply," she warned.

Reminded of the fact that Mr Quinn is a sort of colleague in arms who had even addressed their conference in the past, the TUI posse were warned to be on their best behaviour and the ripple of applause was polite as he took his seat on the stage.

After he delivered "the speech", TUI president Bernie Ruane arose with an equally polite, though firm, rebuttal.

"The new Government has not yet completed 100 days in office so we will be patient for a while," she said pointedly, as the delegates smiled.

While there might be no money, the only way out of recession is to invest in education, she told him. And while we need to balance the books, we also need a "balanced society".

Donogh O'Malley changed lives forever by introducing free second-level education in 1967 and Niamh Bhreathnach did the same with the abolition of third-level fees in the 1990s.

Figuring she could catch more flies with honey, Ms Ruane beseeched Mr Quinn to become the third Education Minister who would be remembered "for all the right reasons".

This time, it was the minister's turn to feel the lash of an inspiration speech. And he was right to look fearful.

Irish Independent