Ruairi Quinn railed against Church patrons and inequality in education. But his follow-through often seemed ineffective as he got tangled up in his desire to appear ‘responsible’, writes Conor Ryan
THE irony of Ruairi Quinn’s legacy is that his greatest contribution to the education sector was made long before he became responsible for the portfolio.
Then when he did take charge of the Department of Education, he spent much of his time in office defending actions that eroded his own party’s greatest policy victory — the abolition of third-level fees.
The minister’s rhetoric and direction in his final stint in Cabinet often harked back to the firebrand of student politics he once was.
He railed against Church patrons and inequality in education.
But his follow-through often appeared to be ineffective — and he got tangled up in his own desire to appear “responsible”.
Ruairi Quinn has been a TD for Dublin south east since he grappled to get onto the ticket in the late 1970s.
He served in various junior ministries and was rare among his peers as a person who appeared to command the trust of his parliamentary party and his various Coalition partners.
But his successive periods in Cabinet are best understood through the prism of his time as finance minister in the Rainbow Government of 1995 to 1997.
He entered office as a target of those who were sceptical that a socialist minister would be able to take the hard decisions.
He left credited with a tenure that created the conditions for a solid economic boom.
But in an effort to show himself and his party as responsible partners in government, he and Labour alienated themselves from the voters who put them into office to do something different.
His inclination to be a “responsible” rather than responsive minister evidenced itself again when he got into education in 2011.
Most glaringly, he found himself in the vanguard of a drive to twice raise registration fees for third-level students.
This was despite an explicit pledge which he made before the general election that he would not support such a move.
Call it pragmatism, cynicism or lying, but Mr Quinn said he would not raise fees and he did just that.
The irony of this fight with the Union of Students of Ireland was that on February 8, 1995, he was the finance minister who used his budget speech to announce that the contribution charge for undergraduates going to college would be scrapped.
This was meant to pave the way for opening up universities to families of all incomes. Driving up registration fees in 2011 was criticised for doing the exact opposite.
A similarly unseemly spat saw the Education Minister look to stand over the cuts to special needs assistants when he appeared to be the spokesman for the wishes of the Troika — rather than a force to stand up to it on behalf of vulnerable children.
Ultimately, he was forced into a u-turn on this policy, and an admission that he made a mistake. He vowed to increase the number of resource teachers to make amends.
Perhaps Mr Quinn suffered because more was expected of him. Regardless, the outcome was often the same.
He was a former leader of the Labour Party and its most senior statesman.
Yet, despite this status, he got the frostiest of all receptions from the teachers who attended the recent union conferences at Easter.
The worst reaction came from the second-level ASTI members, who heckled him and drowned him out with a sardonic slow clap.
By the time he reached the TUI, delegates had to be warned to be on their best behaviour.
The caustic reaction was expressly linked to protests about his standout policy initiative, the scrapping of the Junior Cert, but it was rooted in a feeling among teachers that the effect of the Croke Park agreement was to impose illogical practices, practices that ultimately appeared to get more from them, for less.
Meanwhile, his determination to press ahead with the new Junior Cycle looks increasingly likely to come unstuck with the weight of practical hurdles left to overcome before there is confidence in the testing system.
It was not Mr Quinn’s only high-profile fight that appears to have fallen short.
The profile on his departmental website lists his reforming agenda. These are not explicitly ranked in order, but the first on the list is “patronage and pluralism”.
The battle lines were drawn during his time as opposition spokesman on education, and pitched him against the Catholic bodies who traditionally run the school system.
Unable to get consensus, Minister Quinn tried to use the moral weapon of the outstanding costs of the child abuse redress scheme as a means of getting congregations, particularly the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers, to hand over their education assets to the State.
This would have saved face in the State’s fight to get an extra €500m from the religious orders towards the €1.5bn redress bill.
But he was stonewalled by the congregations. A compromise, which would involve the orders signing over land but retaining patronage, has also failed to gain traction.
He has not relented in his drive to reduce the role of the Catholic Church in the schools and provide a choice to parents seeking secular education for their children.
But in the last four months, he has had to speak openly about his disappointment at progress in seeing concrete examples of genuine inclusion among the Catholic bodies.
Education in Ireland is different to what it was when he took office. VECs have been replaced by more refined education and training boards, and there is evidence of more diversity in school choices.
Minister Quinn’s legacy might yet stand to him; but on reflection, he might equally see his return to Cabinet in 2011 as a portfolio too far that arrived at the wrong time.
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