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'Into a storm': Failing on schools could shatter Martin's already troubled leadership

Government has spent the summer planning for the reopening of schools next Thursday.

“WE WANT OUR schools to reopen, and they will reopen,” said Michael Martin on Tuesday as he announced further nationwide restrictions to stem the spread of Covid-19 over the coming weeks.

It is, and has been, the Taoiseach’s priority since taking office on 27 June to bring pupils back to classrooms at the end of the month, even if it throws the already pandemic-beaten tourism, arts and sports sectors into further difficulty. 

“Schools are exceptional,” he said. “The totality of this is about trying to suppress the virus and keep people as safe as possible but as I said earlier, reopening our schools is important to the health of children, to the health of our society… that’s realism.”

But if Martin was relying on the smooth reopening of schools to be his moment in the sun after a rocky start for his government, news that his party’s Deputy Leader and Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary’s attendance at an Oireachtas golfing event with over 80 people on Wednesday is casting a long shadow. 

That event took place just 24 hours after Martin announced that Cabinet, including the agriculture minister, had signed off on public health advice to limit indoor gatherings to six people amid a range of new measures to curb the spread of the virus over the coming weeks. 

Those measures also included advice that public transport is to be avoided, sports events will take place behind closed doors, and our older and more vulnerable citizens should once again avoid leaving their homes – but even that didn’t go smoothly for the newly elected Taoiseach. 

Many questioned why the public-at-large was told to avoid public transport when thousands of kids will return to school on public transport next week.

Questions loomed as to why gatherings are limited to six people at home but Church ceremonies with upwards of 50 people are still permitted, and indeed golfing events of over 80 people were taking place; and why 50 people can gather at smaller wedding venues while fans can’t gather in larger stadiums to support their teams.

And the driving force behind all of those measures is no doubt the Taoiseach’s resolve to bring tens of thousands of students back to school, under the guidance of figures like CMO Dr Ronan Glynn and Professor Philip Nolan, NPHET’s epidemiological group chair.

Opposition politicians were quick off the mark to point out that without clear and rational messaging from Government it will lose public support – which, up until now, had been praised by those health officials – and risk further complacency. 

Labour leader Alan Kelly called for the Dáil to return from its summer recess to resolve  ”the utter confusion” that has lingered since the Taoiseach’s comments five days ago, while Sinn Féin suggested the Government “has dropped the ball”.

Now the golfing controversy may serve to heighten a feeling that the Government does not have its house in order, nor does it have the support of the people, as the nation continues to navigate the pandemic. 

And with his two-and-a-half-year term as Taoiseach already soiled by the Barry Cowen drink-driving controversy and criticism over ministerial pay increases last month, perhaps Micheál Martin is pinning his hopes of support not completely capitulating via the schools’ reopening in four days time.  

NO FEE TAOISEACH VISIT CORK SCHOOL JB7 Martin visited a school in Cork last week ahead of schools reopening next week. Source: Rollingnews.ie

Indeed, the need for schools to reopen without a hitch next Thursday is perhaps not only important for the health of the children, as Martin put it, but also for the health of his administration. 

“I think everyone would agree that a lot depends on this working out,” Head of UCD School of Politics David Farrell said.

“This is going to be a tough one to deliver on but it definitely is a priority.

“The current government led by Micheál Martin has a much tougher task than the previous government had… but I have to say up until now, it has been quite striking how little we actually see of Micheál Martin and Stephen Donnelly in comparison to their predecessors.

“They’re active on Twitter, particularly Donnelly is active on Twitter, but I think there was a sense that there was more thought given to the statements and speeches being made by those two previous ministers – Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris – than the current government.”

Farrell added: “I think some work has to be done behind the scenes to improve the messaging by the current government.”

The Government, led by Micheál Martin for the next two-and-a-half years until Leo Varadkar returns to the office, was four months in the making following February’s General Election.

That election, immediately before the Covid-19 pandemic reached Ireland, saw a surge in support for Sinn Féin while support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil plummeted.

Fine Gael has since regained support following its handling of the pandemic; the most recent Sunday Times Behaviour & Attitudes poll put the party on 29% of public support, just shy of the 30% support for Sinn Féin, while support for Fianna Fáil fell by two points to 20%.

But the task of reopening schools remains both a challenge and opportunity for the new Government following the failure of the Fine Gael-led government to implement long-term measures in the first half of the year, according to experts.

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“I have a sense that maybe a ball was dropped on the education front by the previous government,” Farrell explained.

“Very little seems to have been done over the summer months, particularly in the period when there was the outgoing government in charge in terms of preparations for schools going back.

In a sense the current administration seems to be having to play catch-up very quickly.

“We always knew it was going to be difficult for schools to reopen, we always knew it was a priority whoever was in charge, and surely it should have been done at a much earlier stage to provide the resources. 

“It’s a bit unfair on the current government that perhaps the ball was dropped,” said Farrell. “And the other thing, this is a strange two-headed coalition and it can’t be comfortable for Micheál Martin to have the recent outgoing Taoiseach breathing down his neck.”

Martin, of course, is not alone in his efforts to bring learning back to classrooms again. Education Minister Norma Foley, a first time TD for Kerry, will also help lead the charge over the coming weeks and months. 

But if the schools reopening is a storm the government will have to weather in the coming days, there is another brewing around the corner, this time in the form of Leaving Certificate predicated grades – a framework introduced by the previous government. 

The recent controversy in the UK saw students’ results downgraded under the school standardisation framework and a subsequent wave of criticism levelled at the government – a mess the Irish government will be trying to avoid when results are released on 7 September. 

“There isn’t much they can do about that but again that was the way it was set up before they came in,” Farrell said.

But yes, there is not doubt they are going into a storm on this one and goodness knows how this is going to pan out.

If Martin can steer his ship through the storm of anger and criticism that followed the Calleary controversy over the past few days, the looming schools reopening and Leaving Certificate storms might be one hit too much for this vessel.

“This government needs to settle down [...] they need to get their act together now… If they don’t, I think we’re looking at an election before too long,” said Farrell. 

After a rocky start to the grand coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with the help of the Green Party, the Government’s response to any concerns raised by teachers, principals, and parents in the coming weeks will be a real test of the Taoiseach’s resolve. 

If you’re a teacher, principal, or parent with a story or concern about school’s reopening next week, I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with me on conor.mccrave@thejournal.ie.

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