30 October 2008

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Its always interesting going to protests organised by people who don't normally protest. I imagine that if nuns were to riot, it would swerve erratically between the serving of tea and scones and the senseless devouring of human flesh accompanied by the chanting of "Braiiiins! Braiiiins!". Given the thankfully sedentary nature of nuns, I therefore went along to the next best thing last night, a protest of teachers (quite possibly the most unlikely collective noun I have used recently).

Organised by a number of unions within and outside of the teaching profession, the action was called to protest the proposed education cuts in primary and secondary education. High on the speakers' agenda were the resulting increased class sizes, lack of substitute teachers to provide relief cover, abandonment of special needs teaching, the elimination of integration programs for non-English speaking children, and the cancellation of the Leaving Cert Applied program. The speakers included numerous Union leaders, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and a few other politicians.

Organisers on the day were saying 20,000 had turned out, RTE placed the numbers at 12,000 and this morning's Irish Times rounds that down (somewhat inexplicably) to 5,000. Given that the protests was confined to Molesworth Street, with Dawson Street and Kildare Street fully open to traffic, and the fact that I could barely move because of the crush, I'd tend to go for around the 12,000 figure. If I had to believe the Irish Times or a crowd of angry maths teachers, I'd side with the elbow patches every time.

It was obvious that many of those there had never been to a protest before, and given the large numbers of parents groups at the protests there were herds of 'Ladies who Lunch' who had obviously had their hair done especially for the march and were wearing their best hat. These I found to be the most aggressive, trampling over young and old as they battled their way to the front of the stage to wail their all-to-familiar war cry, "oh won't someone please think of the children", while wringing their chinchilla fur mittens.

But by and large the protesters were ordinary primary and secondary teachers, principles and pupils out with their parents, in spite of the biting cold and freezing drizzle. An amazing sight to behold and continuing into the second week of the biggest protests a government has faced in recent memory. But will it achieve anything?

After the government's climb down on the over 70's medical card and 1% tax levy on minimum wage earners, it cannot be seen to cave on anything else or it will have no credibility at all. The Taoiseach has drawn a line and unfortunately the teachers got there too late to be on the negotiable side of it. Interestingly enough after Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe the main target of the speakers were the Green Party, who went into Government on the basis of a number of assurances from Fianna Fail including substantial increases for education, and are now being forced to defend something that they clearly do not believe in.

A leaked email this morning from the Green's Education spokesperson Paul Gogarty suggesting to a supporter that the party may pull out of Government over the education cuts is interesting because it either suggests a coordinated plan by the party to be seen to support the Government publicly while appeasing its members by allowing backbenchers to voice the concerns of the membership and electorate, or it shows a deeply divided party whose leaders risk loosing the support of their own members and face an internal revolt. I tend to see Gogarty's email as a negotiating tactic; the Greens won't pull out because they have yet to achieve anything substantial in government and won't get an opportunity like this again for some time, but by threatening the nuclear option they hope to win some concessions from Fianna Fail at a later stage when such concessions won't damage the credibility of the government.

All in all it is an interesting time to be a politics junkie in Ireland.

Photos from the protest. It was cold and dark, and I was squashed between two fur coats for much of it, so they aren't that great.


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