Mighty Quinn gives masterclass in placating militants

 

Minister got applause, even though he will be pursuing the previous government’s policies

WHAT A difference a year makes. When Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn addressed the Teachers’ Union of Ireland annual congress in Tralee yesterday, he received a politely warm reception.

Just 12 months ago in Ennis, his predecessor, Mary Coughlan, felt the ire of the most militant teacher union when delegates gave her the silent treatment and the sound of her departing heels from the podium further highlighted their contempt for her government’s treatment of them.

Perhaps it was unsurprising that union general secretary Peter MacMenamin cautioned delegates before Quinn’s arrival, pointing out the union succeeded in getting its message across in the media about funding cuts and the danger of sending out the wrong message with unruly scenes.

Thankfully, his members were on their best behaviour and willing to give Quinn a chance to put his arguments across.

Although there wasn’t anything new in Ruairí’s message, he put it across with skill and it pressed all the right buttons. He may have been a radical in his student days in UCD during the 1960s, but Ruairí knows how to work an audience and he wisely began with a reminder of Labour’s links to the trade union movement.

Less than 10 minutes later, he achieved what few observers would have thought possible for a Minister who effectively confirmed he will pursue the same fiscally stringent education policies as Fianna Fáil and the Greens – he got a warm round of applause.

He achieved this by rallying the troops with an evocation of the contribution the public service made to Ireland’s development and a declaration of his own commitment to it. It may not have been “Wrap the Red Flag Round Me Boys”, but it was as effective.

“I will defend your role and so will the Labour Party against the ill-informed and ignorant attacks from some commentators in the media who think you are people who make no contribution.”

But some harsh truths had to be told. He repeated the line about the IMF-EU and the ATM but later reminded them they were “the best-fed, best-educated, most liberated generation” to walk on Ireland’s green shore. As befits any 1960s radical, he ended on a note of optimism, recalling the words of US civil rights activist Rev Ralph Abernethy.

“Rev Ralph Abernethy . . . said only when it’s dark that we can see the stars and I see you among the stars in our education system that can get us all the way to where we want to be.”

A masterclass in addressing aggrieved teachers, we can only hope the former minister wasn’t watching. But it might have been instructive if she was – isn’t that what teacher conferences always stress – the value of education?