Return to Trade Unions/Social Partnership menu

INTO northern conference 
All bark and no bite?

David Jay

6 March 2010

The Irish National Teachers Organization (INTO) is one of the more active trade unions in the North of Ireland. It has a tiny layer of officers, many active lay members who are serving teachers and a relatively open and democratic internal life.

All the more surprising then when a local education correspondent, covering their annual conference in Derry, treats a series of calls for action in defence of teachers with derision, commenting that calls for industrial action were an annual ritual, never followed through.

Yet the threat level facing working people in general, and public service workers in particular, has never been higher and delegates were clearly aware of this. The subvention from Britain has been frozen and the local administration is cutting millions from the education budget. A wage agreement containing a 2.5% pay increase may be torn up by the British. It is clear that any government formed following the pending British elections will immediately cut public spending.

Locally, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have been interrogating their opposite numbers in the Southern Fianna Fail administration about methods for successfully cutting wages and pensions. Grammar schools have preserved selection. The North's education system is in the middle of a managerial revolution that is massively increasing teacher workload while degrading the quality of education. The system continues to be fragmented by religious and class privilege.
Yet despite all this there are strong foundations for criticism of the conference. It came in two halves. The first, a conference of lobbying and alliances, was spelt out in some detail. The second conference, of resolutions and calls to action, remained curiously insubstantial.

So Chair Kevin Smyth's address was less about mobilisation and more about a call for help addressed to education minister Catriona Ruaine.  Following through, Northern secretary Frank Bunting piled on the flattery by hailing the 'historic compromise' of the Hillsborough deal and looked forward to a new era of progress and collaboration between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

This really is desperate stuff. The sheer corruption of the deal is widely recognized even by members of the parties involved. At its centre lie the reactionary and sectarian policies of the DUP. It is clearly evident that that the deal is far from finalised and further progress is dependent on further surrender by Sinn Fein, itself a party of the right with a history of cutbacks in government. The opening of the INTO conference saw in the background a blatant sectarian bludgeoning of Nationalist politicians by the DUP, determined to shut down an investigation of yet another property speculation scandal involving their leader.

So Catriona Ruane, Education minister, was able to hail the historic progress represented by the notional end of academic selection while accepting her responsibility to cut over £70 million from the school budget. Even the idea of further movement towards educational equality was dashed a few days later when First Minister Peter Robinson declared his determination to retain the 11+ exam. A party like Sinn Fein, forced to abandon demands central to its own members such as an Irish Language Act in order to hold unto seats in government, is unlikely to defend teachers and pupils.

It should be self-evident that the trade unions are not protecting their members by cheerleading a corrupt and decaying process and that in fact what their members need is opposition to that system.

There was one other problem with the INTO strategy, highly visible but ignored at the conference. That was the presence of the national leadership, who had applied a similar partnership strategy in the 26 countries only to see teachers pay savagely cut. This leadership is so politically bankrupt that the aim of current protests is to win for the bureaucracy the right to help enforce their own version of the cuts!

A good example of the weakness of political understanding was the address to the conference by the representative of the INTO Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual group. To some extent this does represent an historic step, and the representative was given a spontaneous standing ovation. The discussion, however, centred on changing personal attitudes. No-one seemed to see any contradiction between the positive response to the LGB delegate and the keynote strategy of supporting a government led by the "save Ulster from sodomy party" - the party of notorious homophobe Iris Robinson, constantly ready to justify attacks on gays. 

So, although there was a level of militancy on the floor of the conference, it stops well short of being an alternative. The industrial action proposed is really a more forceful form of protest rather than the massive long-term industrial warfare across the whole of the working class that is needed. The delegates don't see the need for a working class program and are largely in support of the nationalist parties. They are more cynical and unhappy about the peace process mark 3 but see no alternative to the current settlement.

All that said, the pronouncements of the trade union leadership no longer carry the conviction they once did. Some of the membership are younger and less supine. It is past time that trade unionists demonstrated that they can bite as well as bark.


Return to top of page