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Damien Kiberd: Teachers do, literally, run the country

But it hasn’t helped them as those old-school types have made it next to impossible for young qualified types to get a permanent job.

Damien Kiberd

MR R. QUINN (68) has been around long enough to know better.  His digression at the INTO’s annual conference concerning the “highly feminised profession” of primary teaching was gratuitous. It has inflicted yet more damage on a party that badly needs middle class, women voters on 23 May.

Either he cannot see beyond the tip of his nose or he has noticed during recent teacher conferences that 86 per cent of primary teachers are women.

Feminists have for years complained that many young women in secondary schools are simply not offered the option of taking higher level maths papers at Leaving Cert level because of a dearth of suitably qualified teachers in gender based schools. Now, these same women – who cannot get into engineering and science faculties at third level – are apparently to be blamed for the enrolment policies of teacher training colleges.

In Britain, political parties concerned about gaffes of this kind are introducing ‘psychometric testing’ for prospective parliamentary candidates. This is part of a crackdown on racism, sexism and homophobia.

At Ukip, whose treasurer Stuart Wheeler (78) opined that women “came absolutely nowhere” at games such as chess and poker where physical size confers no advantage, the tests are compulsory. Another Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom (68), who passed the tests with flying colours, had earlier suggested that women were “better at finding the mustard in the pantry than they were at reversing the car out of the driveway”.

Quinn’s unwise verbal excursion drew a devastating response from INTO general secretary Sheila Nunan.

Noting that hell hath no fury like that of the Sisters, Nunan said that “it was the boys who did the Honours Maths who led the country to ruination”.


When Nunan gets a chance to gather her thoughts next week, she might consider the following.

Teachers do, literally, run the country

Three of the four men who control budget policy in Ireland are alumni of St Patrick’s Training College in Drumcondra, where primary teachers are trained. They are Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The fourth, Eamon Gilmore, was – like Nunan herself – a trade union official, after studying psychology at UCG.

These men have made it next to impossible for young, qualified teachers to get a permanent job.

They have cut the pay of young teachers by 30 per cent and the pay of existing teachers by about 15 per cent since 2011. They have imposed additional hours of work for teachers under the Haddington Road Agreement.

Their behaviour in government suggests that they believe that Irish teachers, when compared to teachers elsewhere in the EU, are underworked and overpaid. Since this government took office a succession of well-timed leaks from the Department of Education has suggested that the average annual cost of paying a teacher in Ireland is close to €70,000. This is more than double the average industrial wage and far exceeds teachers’ pay in the EU.

Ordinary workers elsewhere in the economy are flabbergasted by the sheer spectacle of the teachers’ annual conferences. What other profession considers it necessary to book into a four- or five-star hotel for almost a week at Easter each year to complain about the conditions in which their members’ work? The process – now televised – is like an Irish variant of bull-fighting.

You would not expect, for example, to see the country’s neurologists and brain surgeons shouting and roaring like some of their more troubled patients before throwing bread rolls at the unfortunate Minister for Health. And you would be equally alarmed if you saw the country’s fitters and plumbers shouting about the lack of investment in drains and pipes, while verbally abusing the Minister for the Environment.

Labour leader Ruairi Quinn Ruairi Quinn on Budget Day 1995 in his office. Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Yet the spectacle of Quinn all at sea at the Easter conferences does have ominous overtones for the Labour Party.

Quinn was – in the 1990s – arguably the best finance minister in the history of the state. He promoted real investment in wealth-creating enterprise, he dealt quickly and efficiently with problems as they arose, he designed a corporate tax system that is envied elsewhere in the EU, he cut personal taxation, he reduced borrowing and debt.

By the time he left office in 1997 the economy was growing by close to 10 per cent a year, and not as a result of a credit or asset price bubble.

Sadly for Quinn this record of achievement did not translate into votes at the ballot box. Labour had won 19.3 per cent of the vote and 33 Dail seats in 1992, during the so-called Spring Tide. By 1997, in the midst of unprecedented prosperity, the Labour vote had withered to 10.4 per cent and the number of seats stood at 17.

Carnage for Labour?

The mere act of coalescing with a bigger, more conservative party had halved the party’s size. The economic and social progress driven by that government had probably arrested the scale of Labour’s inevitable decline, but no more than that.

What will happen to Labour in 2014 and beyond? The party won 19.4 per cent of the vote in 2011 but the most recent poll suggests a vote of 6 per cent, even when you exclude ‘don’t knows’.

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This sort of carnage has not happened since 1987 when the party vote slumped to 6.3 per cent, yielding some 12 Dail seats. This followed the disastrous government of 1982 to 1987, a government that doubled the national debt while presiding over mass unemployment.

The political correspondents have been suggesting in recent days that a bad result for both Labour and Fianna Fail in the local and European elections could spell trouble for both Gilmore and his Fianna Fail counterpart Micheal Martin.

Even the most favourable polls suggest that an unforgiving electorate is set to give Fianna Fail a vote of under 25 per cent nationally, and a vote of possibly as low as 10 per cent in Dublin where the party has no sitting TDs whatsoever.

Reshuffling the deckchairs?

Labour sources meanwhile are muttering about a cabinet reshuffle which would bring Gilmore into the centre of government.  But how do you shuffle this particular deck of cards? And would a re-shuffle make any difference?

Of the five top Labour politicians currently in office three - Quinn, Rabbitte (64) and Gilmore (59) – have already served as party leader. Howlin (56) and Burton (65) have served as deputy leader. The two women who might aspire to a full cabinet ministry are Kathleen Lynch (60) and Jan O Sullivan (63) both very visible ministers of state.

Charles Haughey used to say that in China party leaders could go on for ever. But that was shortly before the country ‘n’ western wing of Fianna Fail gave him the heave-ho.

The party won 37 seats three short years ago but since that time four Dail deputies have gone permanently overboard including party chairman Colm Keaveney (who joined Fianna Fail), former junior minister Roisin Shortall (who got no support from party HQ when she hit a brick wall in Health), Patrick Nulty (who has quit politics) and Tommy Broughan (who appears to have formed a new political organisation).

What is to be done?

Well you don’t need a basic understanding of differential and integral calculus to know that if a party scores 6% in the next general election its parliamentary party could be returned to the next Dail in an MPV or even a 4X4. The Labour Party has wrongly been written off before but this time the problem for it looks very serious indeed.

For many voters the party seems to have lost touch with reality.

While Quinn was lecturing primary teachers last week on the need to bone up on algebra and trigonometry before showing infants how to add and subtract, almost half of the men and women teaching maths at second level still have no third level qualification at all in mathematics or a related discipline. Surely that’s a more pressing problem?

As Mao Tse Tung once remarked: ‘Tackle the Main Contradiction First.’

Read all of Damien Kiberd’s exclusive columns for TheJournal.ie here>

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Damien Kiberd

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