Analysis: Divisions within the ASTI reflect deeper rift between older and newer members
Major cuts in entry salaries and casualisation have radicalised some
Delegates voting at the ASTI conference in Wexford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Having turned on the Minister for Education in a controversial display of disorder on Tuesday, the ASTI yesterday turned on itself. Allegations of bullying and smear campaigns flew back and forth between delegates as the union argued over who was best placed to speak for teachers.
The prime movers behind Tuesday’s rowdy scenes were confirmed as the ASTI Fightback group, which is loosely allied to left-wing political campaigns.
The man with the megaphone, Andrew Phelan, was back on the offensive.
“They dress the same as the Government Ministers; they talk the same as the Government Ministers; they eat in the same restaurants as the Government Ministers; it reminds me of Animal Farm when the pigs took over and just turned into them [the humans] themselves.”
He said the union leaders “are just effectively another arm of the Government.”
The Waterford man, a former Socialist Party member who teaches in Lucan, was responding to criticism yesterday of the Fightback group’s tactics.
First came a strong ticking-off from ASTI general secretary Pat King, and then other delegates turned on Phelan and his colleagues in the ASTI splinter group as they gathered in the White’s hotel lobby in Wexford.“We are sick of you. You are ranting and raving,” said Mary Lysaght, from Tipperary. She told the media present: “These are six people; they are not representative of my view or anyone else’s view.”
Dundalk delegate Elaine Devlin said teachers were a “moderate group” and the disruption to Ruairí Quinn’s address on Tuesday was “not a reflection of what’s happening upstairs today”.
But Mark Walshe, a teacher from Swords, in north Dublin, who heads the ASTI Fightback group, said it was speaking up for a large body of teachers who were afraid to raise their heads because of job insecurity.
While he confirmed there were only about “six or seven” key activists, he said they had a growing mandate and Walshe had been elected last year to one of the nine seats on the ASTI’s education committee from a field of 21.
The dispute highlights a deeper rift in the ASTI between older and newer members. This, rather than the left-right divide, is the real fault line in a profession that has seen major cuts in entry salaries and increased casualisation.
Theme of unity
The irony was that King’s keynote address to delegates yesterday was on the theme of unity. Warning that “sniping from the wings” was undermining the union’s leadership and weakening its hand in negotiations, he said “the media world is far from sympathetic to teachers’ interests” and it was important for members to act together rather than alone. Teacher disunity is music to the ears of our opponents.”
But a day that began with the union chief apologising on the national airwaves for his members’ abuse of Quinn ended with a collective heave against the Minister’s Junior Cycle reforms.
Teacher after teacher took to the podium to draw a very clear line in the sand. They won’t be assessing their own students for the planned new Junior Cycle certificate.
Whether that unity will last remains to be seen as the ASTI leadership is due to report on a request for an emergency motion which would bring it closer to strike action.