Teachers 'not productive enough'
Ruairi Quinn sets the record straight on Croke Park, religion and college fees to Daniel McConnell
'Look, power is to a politician what water is to a fish. We have been out of the water for far too long, this thing is going to succeed," Ruairi Quinn explained to me as we sat in his office last Thursday. After a flying start last year, the "impatient" former Labour leader and current Education Minister's term in office has become somewhat mired.
At Budget-time, he was left badly exposed by university students who castigated him over a pledge not to increase college fees, which he broke. He has faced a massive backlash from teachers and parents over cuts to disadvantaged and rural school services, and more recently he has been dogged by controversy over the claiming of mileage between his holiday home and Dublin.
Ahead of his party's make-or-break conference this weekend, Mr Quinn sat down to set the record straight on a wide range of topics.
Fine Gael and Denis O'Brien/Michael Lowry
I began by asking Mr Quinn about the furore over Fine Gael's links to businessman Denis O'Brien.
When asked was he comfortable with the image of the Taoiseach standing beside Mr O'Brien, against whom the Moriarty tribunal made adverse findings, on the balcony in the New York Stock Exchange, he replied with a curt but unambiguous "no".
"For exactly the reasons you have stated. This was a man whom adverse findings were made against. We are trying to rebuild confidence in this country," he said.
Echoing the comments by his colleagues, Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton, Mr Quinn said there must be consequences for those who have been found against by tribunals, otherwise investment into Ireland would be jeopardised.
"People wanting to invest in Ireland know there is malfeasance in every society. But it is how you deal with the issue. Those making an investment into this country are going to want to know that the rule of law applies effectively," he said.
He said his views on this apply also to the meeting between his colleague Phil Hogan and independent TD Michael Lowry six days after the Moriarty tribunal report was published.
"My concern is if we're going to sell one of the non-strategic State assets, investors will say, 'who are these guys, how do they do business' and then they'll say, 'these adverse findings and they've had no consequence!' he added.
Absence of criminal charges
Mr Quinn said he was in total agreement with Pat Rabbitte, who said last weekend he finds the "interminable delay" in garda investigations into matters arising out of tribunals "unconscionable".
Responding, Mr Quinn said: "My views would be 100 per cent in line with Pat on this. It's very hard for us to explain how somebody can be in jail for importing garlic and there still hasn't even been a [banking] case," he added.
What about the public frustration that after four years no one is in jail, I asked. "I share that frustration," he replied.
Life in Government
During the Government's first Budget, the Coalition was dogged by continuous rows. Mr Quinn compared it to a husband and wife rowing over the household budget.
"Of course there is bickering between a husband and wife when they decide where they're going to go out for dinner, what they're going to spend, whatever," he said.
He said the fact that many around the cabinet table are
government veterans has been a huge advantage given the difficulties faced by the country.
It has been speculated that Mr Quinn would leave Government next year to take up the position as Ireland's next European Commissioner, but he ruled himself out of the job.
"I have long been an ardent Europhile and committed but I'm not the next European Commissioner for this republic," he said.
Commenting on the perceived tensions between party leader Eamon Gilmore and deputy leader Joan Burton, Mr Quinn said it was simply a matter of Joan being Joan.
"Joan has a strong personality and you know she hasn't changed. She fights her corner, she argues her point, Pat Rabbitte does the same," he said.
He said the key relationship in government is between Taoiseach and Tanaiste and the relationship between Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore is "the best I have ever seen".
On the mileage issue, he said his claims are totally in accordance with the current rules.
As a former finance minister, Mr Quinn is well positioned to understand the gravitas of our economic woes. He disagreed with Michael Noonan's description of the country being "bankrupt," but said Ireland is in "receivership".
He was in agreement with outspoken government TD Peter Mathews that Ireland's debt levels are too high, but he stopped short of saying they are "unsustainable".
But in a harsh warning to those advocating default, Mr Quinn said such a move would "destroy us forever".
Fresh from a bruising round of teacher conferences, Mr Quinn had some harsh words for those delegates he faced down.
He accused the teacher delegates of not adequately representing the needs of their members and of being totally inconsistent in their demands.
"Listening to delegates is a bit like listening to a party political conference. The delegates are activists and don't necessarily accurately reflect their membership. The leadership of the unions have to mediate such extreme threats [of industrial action] from delegates against the likelihood of support in the body of teachers generally," he said.
He noted with some irony how the Croke Park deal has gone from being not good enough for teachers when first agreed to becoming an untouchable 'Holy Grail' now.
Former GAA star Colm O'Rourke, who is a school principal in Navan, has said the Croke Park deal is hampering, not furthering reform, and teachers' pay should be cut to protect subject choices for students.
Mr Quinn was not quite ready to abandon Croke Park but noted the clear shift in the teachers' position since it was first announced.
"Croke Park is part and parcel of the deal, the teachers know where they are. They were iffy about it [at the beginning], now it has become the Holy Grail and it can't be touched. So who owns consistency?" he said.
Controversially, he insisted teachers are not overpaid, but certainly said they are nowhere near productive enough.
"We've reduced entry teachers pay by 15 per cent plus -- they're not overpaid. But still, they could be more productive, we could get greater outcomes from them," he said.
Mr Quinn also acknowledged the huge difficulty faced by young secondary teachers in getting permanent jobs and is proposing banning trainee teachers from going back to their old schools to do their training, in order to level the playing field.
God in the classroom
A self-described "atheist", Mr Quinn is determined to break the education system from the shackles of religious dogma to reflect the "pluralist" Ireland of today. He was adamant that parents, teachers and pupils should not have to endure rituals and activities merely to remain in a particular school.
"Ultimately, parents should be comfortable about being able to send their child to a school whose ethos reflects what they practice at home. Nobody should be forced to participate in rituals or belief systems which they do not hold for themselves.
"What we have is people denying their own religious beliefs to hold a job, parents suffering going through things they don't believe in. All our Catholics are Protestants, it seems to me from this new survey," he said.
This new survey, carried out by the Association of Catholic Priests and published last week, suggested that the majority of Irish Catholics favour married priests and women priests. It also found that the church's teaching on sexuality was irrelevant for almost three-quarters of respondents.
Controversially, Mr Quinn accused the six university presidents and the provost of Trinity College Dublin of "corrupting" the points system for their own benefit, at the expense of young applicants.
"The colleges want the brightest and the best, but only 15 per cent of young people in secondary school have a very clear idea about what they want to study and stick with it. The cost of fallout, the cost of people dropping out of college, the cost of people making the wrong choice and feeling locked into it is very high, emotionally as well as personally and as well as financially," he said.
When it came to the sticky issue of fees, Mr Quinn confirmed that students will face fees of €3,000 by the end of the term of this Government.
"It's going to go up from the current level of €2,250 starting in September up to a maximum of €3,000 over four years," he said.
He was deeply sceptical about the viability of the student loan system adopted in England, and he also ruled out a graduate tax but said he will have his final preferred funding model for third level by the end of next year.
"I don't want there to be a financial barrier at the hall gates of a third-level college for someone who has every other attribute except income to come in through that door," he concluded.