Wednesday 17 July 2019

An Education Minister is sent to the naughty step - but it's not Jan

John O Dowd, Minister for Education Northern Ireland
John O Dowd, Minister for Education Northern Ireland

Lise Hand

The Education Minister rose to speak, and all of a sudden the hall was awash with placards protesting swingeing cuts to education. The forest of signs held up silently were inscribed with slogans deploring the slashing of budgets to a whole assortment of areas, from early years funding and to school maintenance.

However - mirabile dictu - it wasn't Jan O'Sullivan who faced the ring of ire from the Irish National Teachers Association (INTO) in County Clare yesterday, but her counterpart from across the border, Northern Ireland's education minister John O'Dowd. In contrast, the local (in every sense of the word) minister received a welcome which teetered perilously towards being (ahem) classed as 'warm'.

Now this was a bit of a turn-up for the exercise-books. For in recent fraught times Education Ministers doing the Easter Stations of the Cross around the Synchronised Moaning circuit, aka the teachers' union conferences have been awarded welcomes spanning from torrid (and not in a good way) to arctic.

Five years ago, the then-minister Mary Coughlan was roundly heckled in the same venue in Ennis at a stormy TUI congress, and only last year, Ruairi Quinn was subjected to a spot of megaphone non-diplomacy during his speech to ASTI delegates in Wexford.

But this time around, Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd found that the anger caused by the loss of over 2,000 teaching positions in the North (with more to come) as part of massive cuts to its public sector, has spilled over the border into the Republic (the INTO has 7,000 members in Northern Ireland). Inevitable perhaps, given Sinn Féin is playing senior hurling in Stormont as the budget axes fly about.

But John O'Dowd is made of stern stuff. "Those opposed to austerity need to come up with the answer. So folks, what we need to do is go home and draw placards with the answer," he declared, to his unimpressed audience, reminding them if the Executive were to collapse, it'd be "Tory or Labour ministers" running the show, and that, he implied would end in tears before bedtime for all concerned. "I acknowledge the education budget is going to cause huge problems," he said, adding "but what I have to do is lift my eyes out of my navel and look forward". That kept the crowd quiet for a wee spell.

Beside him, Jan O'Sullivan quietly thanked her lucky stars that it was her colleague who occupied the naughty step this year. It was her first of two conferences - the ASTI threw its rattle out of the pram and declined to issue an invitation to the minister. And she sailed through her debut speech - with one small but significant exception.

The minister's speech was peppered with progress in various education initiatives; she got a big and sustained cheer when she called for a 'Yes' vote in next months' marriage equality referendum, and an even bigger cheer when she grasped the perpetual nettle of class-sizes, vowing, "I want you to know that reducing class sizes will be a personal and political priority for me now". And the roof looked poised to lift right off when she hinted that the locks were coming off the goody-box, with all sorts of stuff "worthy of greater funding" - including "teachers salaries".

"Hurrah!" went the múuinteoirí.

Alas, before the West County Hotel bar was taxed by demands for their finest bubbly, Jan promptly added, "But we will need to be realistic about how much can be delivered immediately."

"Bah!" groaned the múinteoirí.

Still, their mood was somewhat restored by the reply of the INTO's general secretary, Sheila Nunan, who is something of a dab hand at delivering feisty ripostes.

The designated Buachaill Dana got a few raps of the ruler. She warned John O'Dowd that "the INTO is a force to be reckoned with and will oppose and challenge every cut and every poor decision until education is funded to the level it needs to be".

That got a robust cheer, but it was one particular statement from Ms Nunan which got the teachers out of their seats in the first of three standing ovations.

"It's time to restore pay levels so that primary teachers are paid their worth," she declared. "This executive makes no apology for looking for our money back."

For a moment, it looked as if the general secretary would be carried aloft in triumph from the hall. There was a note of steely determination to the noisy acclaim which suggests that teachers aren't prepared to wait in line with the myriad working stiffs in dire need of a few extra quid.

If Jan (and her Cabinet colleague Brendan Howlin) don't deliver the goods to the L'Oreal Profession (because they're worth it) - they'll be on the naughty step beside John O'Dowd faster than you can say Double Maths.

Irish Independent

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