Friday 14 December 2018

It is possible - just about - to survive the steep learning curve of the teachers' Easter Via Dolorosa

Teacher union conferences are notoriously difficult, as Richard Bruton found out, writes former education minister Mary O'Rourke

Former minister for education Mary O’Rourke chatting to Bertie Ahern in the early 1990s
Former minister for education Mary O’Rourke chatting to Bertie Ahern in the early 1990s

Mary O'Rourke

I watched on TV last week in news snippets the progress of Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Education, as he went from Killarney (INTO congress) to Cork (ASTI) and on to Wexford (TUI). They call that the 'Via Dolorosa' of Easter week for education ministers.

Why? I'll tell you why. When I went into the Department of Education in early 1987, just in time for the Easter conferences, that was the term put upon those journeys to the various teacher union conferences by some wag in the Department of Education, and the name has stuck since in my mind.

By and large, the members of the teacher unions regard these outings as part of their routine as teacher representatives.

I watched Richard Bruton's face as he went into the ASTI one in Cork last Tuesday night, and I smiled. The teacher protesters with their placards and yellow T-shirts were lined up each side as he made his way, accompanied by the president of the union, into the conference proper.

Richard was abashed by turn, firstly when he met them full on and then as he traversed the lines, with odd smiles right and left and with the president's arm guiding him he made it to the conference room.

There his ordeal was not at an end. The catcalling continued during his speech and it appeared in The Irish Times's photographs that he was surrounded by a ring of the malcontents as he spoke.

Fair dues to you Richard, you put as brave a face as you could on it, and it was difficult enough. Of the three union conferences, it seemed to me that the INTO one was the most civilised, if one can call it that.

They at least mustered up a few rounds of applause for him, and he managed quite well. Not so much at the ASTI or later on at the TUI conference.

I remember my first visit to those three separate conferences. If readers can manage to look back to 1987, we were in a very torrid economic time (whenever are we not?) so I had to go off to each congress armed with a long speech and nothing to give.

Firstly on the long speech bit, very dutiful civil servants toiled away in the Department of Education to have three speeches ready for the minister for that Easter week. I always read them very carefully and never delivered them, and that is one bit of advice I would give to Richard as he surveys what has been for him, I'm sure, a very difficult week.

The delegates don't want to hear a long speech at all; they want to have their bit of fun, as they might call the protest, and they want to get something definite policy-wise from the Minister.

Richard made the mistake, I thought, of delivering the long speech, allowing two delegates talking together to say "that was some long meander of a speech, wasn't it?" and it appears it was.

Anyway, no matter what you said or did, if you were a new Minister you were going to get some kind of a protest. In my case in March of 1987, the protest at the INTO was one of total silence, which in a way was a total relief.

I delivered whatever I had to say, talked about the hard times we were undergoing all round, stood up on my platform and stood down to total silence, with the then administrator in the INTO running around telling people not to clap, even though a brave few Fianna Fail souls tried to do so.

My next visit was to the ASTI, where I was treated, I thought, very courteously as I had been a member of that union prior to becoming a TD, and some semblance of that remained in the way their executive greeted me.

I always thought highly of the TUI conferences at which I appeared.

They usually listened to you, had queries of course for you, had brickbats to deliver, none of them very searing; and I would sit down with them afterwards and have a drink or two and a discussion.

It was often during those discussions that real facts emerged and tentative solutions could be found.

In fact as my tenure at the Department of Education lengthened from year one to year two, three and four, I began to regard them as very enjoyable outings around the Easter period.

I would get one or two new outfits and go off in good form, in the main looking forward to the interchange which increasingly grew between me and teacher union members.

And grow it did. Along the way I was, of course, able to deliver on some of the union queries which they had put to me, and in turn they were able to engender a sense of kinship with me.

And so, in time, the 'Via Dolorosa' ceased to be, whilst I suppose the union members sharpened their tongues and their lungs and their speaking weapons for what would be eventually a new Minister for Education.

So Richard, as I watch you on TV and in the newspapers surrounded by placards reading 'ASTI' and then underneath 'An Pa Ceanna don Obair Cheanna' I cannot but agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments on the placards, and I cannot but sympathise with you as you take your tentative steps into the kingdoms of education.

Well done Richard, you've survived the week and will no doubt live to tell the tales. For me, I've lived to tell the tales too. Heretofore, Richard Bruton's Government portfolios have been of the business variety with very worthy titles, clear-cut objectives, and usually clear-cut results.

He has performed those with considerable aplomb and acclaim. Let me tell you Richard, education is another matter!

Sunday Independent

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