Delegates hope cool reception teaches Quinn a lesson


WHAT A difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn managed to elicit a warm reception from Teachers’ Union of Ireland delegates in Tralee when, despite bringing the same message as his predecessor Mary Hanafin that there was no cash in the coffers, he told them Ireland owed them a debt for their sterling work.

A year on, and the same message was greeted with tepid politeness as the 450 or so delegates sat through Quinn’s recounting of Ireland’s economic woes with the bored resignation of sulky teenagers who want to be anywhere but hearing some well-meaning teacher drone on.

In the circumstances, ennui wasn’t a bad response as, earlier in the day, Dublin delegate Finbarr Geaney had castigated the union’s national executive for its “phoney militancy”, while another Dublin delegate, Eddie Conlon, had accused Quinn of “hypocrisy and deceit” in his approach to career guidance teacher provision.

Tony Deffley, a delegate from Co Mayo, had accurately predicted what delegates were likely to hear from the Minister. “Quinn will tell us: ‘Wake up – smell the recession.’ Well, we’ve been smelling the recession all week and it stinks,” Deffley said to tumultuous applause.

In such a climate, it was perhaps not surprising that union general secretary John MacGabhann took the precaution of reminding delegates that Quinn was a guest of the union, and the union had a tradition of showing courtesy and respect to its guests.

Quinn duly covered the State’s woeful finances and the EU fiscal treaty before turning to education. It was notable that the only time he received what proved to be an almost hesitant round of applause was when he pledged to roll out broadband to schools by 2014.

In contrast, union president Bernie Ruane received ovation after ovation as she lambasted the Government for the impact of its austerity programme on education, warning Quinn he was in danger of being remembered as the Minister who adopted a scorched-earth policy in education.

But every congress must have a happy ending, and when Ruane reminded the Minister that proper investment could result in Ireland becoming the rock stars of the educational world with perhaps him as the lead singer, even Quinn managed to smile. But then perhaps it was a smile of relief that his ordeal was over – for another year.