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Nicola Anderson: In times of anger, sincerity goes a long way

THE teachers could not have been more inspired if the music from 'Chariots of Fire' blared out from the conference room Tannoy system. For Ruairi Quinn, it had been a gamble but it was one that paid off and as the Education Minister finished his speech he poured himself a glass of water with a hand that trembled in relief.

He hadn't attempted to soft-soap them: things were tough and likely to get tougher -- less money about, less jobs. He was honest, "authentic", as the next speaker, filmmaker David Puttnam -- of 'Chariots of Fire', and 'The Mission' -- urged his audience to be.

The opening day of the ASTI conference in Co Cork yesterday started out with fire and brimstone and the gnashing of teeth. The subject of their ire were "yellow pack teachers", the plight of new teachers, the lack of funding for education and the bad times afoot in general.

In low tones, a small knot of teachers outside discussed the possibility of "throwing eggs" at the arriving minister.

But an early bird by nature, Mr Quinn arrived three hours ahead of schedule despite his arduous trek from Sligo, where he addressed the INTO conference the previous day.

Not that "egg-throwing" looked likely in any case -- they were hardly going to symbolise the Easter "break" on the shoulders of Quinn, a man the teachers actually respect for his -- shock -- interest in education.

So there wasn't even a flicker of protest as he arrived at the conference hall. He didn't offer them one jot of consolation or a crumb of hope and he said it would be "dishonest" of him to diminish in any way the difficult road ahead.

Some sensitive souls may even have been a little offended by his words when he said we had been "codding ourselves for years" that we had one of the best educational systems in the world when in fact we do not.

However, he sounded very sincere indeed in "saluting" them as public servants, and reminding them of their fundamental role in the education system by quoting the words of Martin Luther King: "Only when it is dark can you see the stars."

That swung it for him and the applause was as warm for him as it was for Puttnam, who is also passionately interested in education and who, having lived in this country for 22 years, knows what has been going on.

Young people no longer trust their elders, he declared. Their pensions, their food and their future job prospects had been stolen from them and this has led to "inter-generational alienation".

The biggest cheer of the evening was heard when the former Hollywood film producer referred to the "choices" made in the last few years to spend billions of euro on buildings in the private and public sector that now lie either empty or under-used. Quinn himself nodded emphatically at that.

With the lofty words of an Indian poem testifying to the power of a mind without fear and a head held high still ringing in their ears, the teachers rose in a standing ovation, inspired to fight another day.

Irish Independent