Congress is not a whinge-fest


LEFTFIELD:I SUPPOSE as good a place as any to start is with the facts. The annual congress of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) is the governing body of the union. It is a meeting that is more than usually democratic and one that is always robust. It is not, in spite of the tabloid terms used far too frequently to characterise it, a whinge-fest. Nor is it a gladiatorial contest where limbs are severed. It is blunt; sometimes inquisitorial, but it is always about the core business of the union. It addresses the concerns and aspirations of the almost 15,000 members of TUI. Its purpose is to serve them and they are represented at the congress by over 400 delegates.

The delegates are the congress. These are people whose working lives are dedicated to the betterment of our society. These men and women give their time freely and generously to union activity in order to provide advice and assistance to colleagues and to ensure that Ireland continues to enjoy a high-quality public education service.

Annual congress brings them together. Old friendships are renewed and new ones forged. Ideas, anecdotes and stories are exchanged. The hugely positive contribution made by union activists in every hamlet, town and city in this country is affirmed and celebrated.

What oils the wheels of Irish society is volunteerism and union activists are volunteers.

The schedule of annual congress is packed. A wide range of topics is covered. Our members work in Institutes of Technology, vocational, community and comprehensive schools, adult and further education centres, prison education units, youthreach centres, and wherever learners, particularly those on the margins of society, need a high- quality education service. Therefore, our concerns are broad societal concerns. TUI congress, in terms of organisation, is, relatively and deliberately, old school. We have not gone “IKEA plush” as Fine Gael recently did at their ardfheis.

What the media see at our congress – and it is excluded from none of our proceedings –is democracy in the raw. It is organised but not stage-managed. On occasion, we may suffer in televisual terms because of this but better that than the sleek, greased and artificial.

Delegates engage, participate, and decide. They are not merely an audience. Of course we deal with conditions of service of our members. That is our business. To highlight the income poverty of serving teachers and, particularly, of those new to the profession is not to whinge, rather it is to focus on an issue of systemic and societal importance. When we state that maintaining the quality of the teaching profession involves paying teachers and lecturers a proper salary, we are defending the interests of our members but, equally, defending the quality of our public education system. Of the many resolutions considered at TUI congress, year by year, the great majority have this valid twin purpose. This is not whinging. This is professional discourse.

Each year we are pleased and honoured to welcome to our congress the Minister of Education of the day, whatever his or her political persuasion. We respect and prize the democratic mandate that the minister has. The minister typically outlines the plans and aspirations of government in regard to education and the democratically elected president of the TUI responds to the minister on behalf of our members.

Oh yes – TUI Congress takes place when schools are closed, an element of tradition which, interestingly, does not characterise most management bodies. Perhaps the most important, ingrained and endearing aspect is that at TUI annual congress, almost without exception, everybody recognises that business is business, that hard knocks are given and taken in the right and intended spirit and that, when business is over, it’s over, and friendship, camaraderie and solidarity hold sway.

TUI congress is by no means perfect and can be improved but it is necessary, real and its imperfection has a knotty elegance.

John MacGabhann is general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland