Credit: Merrion Street

Norma Foley fails, again.

“Some of you are waiting with baited breath, for that favourite media phrase, the u-turn”, drawled Margaret Thatcher to the Tory party conference, at the height of her first-term unpopularity. “Well, you turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning”.

The most prominent lady in the Irish Government, however, very much is for turning:

There are, by and large, two different kinds of u-turn that Governments engage in. The first, and most common, is when the Government realises that a particular proposal is just too politically unpopular, and is therefore likely to cost them votes. This is, in truth, a sensible sort of approach: Unless a policy is likely to genuinely accomplish something really worthwhile, it doesn’t make much sense to fritter away political capital pursuing an unpopular plan.

The second kind of u-turn is much more damaging: It’s when the Government tries to do something, and realises that it just isn’t strong enough. The above, by Norma Foley, is the second such u-turn inside a fortnight, because she’s realised that she can’t face down the teacher’s unions.

It looks weak, because it is, in fact, weak.

The defence mounted by Government spinners will be, as normal, that the teachers unions are solely to blame – holding the country to ransom, that sort of thing. There will be attempts to cast poor Norma Foley as a woman just trying to do her best by the children of Ireland in the face of lazy teachers who just don’t want to work, or some nonsense like that.

But that obscures the truth, which is that twice in the space of a fortnight, the Minister has failed to lead.

Leadership is not simply about setting a course. If the Captain of a ship loses the support of the crew, then there will be mutinies. If a manager loses the dressing room, he gets sacked.

And how do captains lose the crew, and managers lose the dressing room? Why, by behaving like this:

The simple truth, which has not widely been reported on, outside of Gript, is that a growing number of people in the education sector simply can’t stand Minister Foley.

This was our report, back in October:

Morale amongst the teachers Gript spoke to is very low, and they feel as if they have been blamed for things that are totally beyond their control:

“They shut the schools down in the spring and of course then the whole summer was people moaning about lazy teachers on the radio. Don’t want to work, overpaid, all the rest of it. That has no basis in fact, but it makes a good item on a talk show, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to ring in and have a moan about the teachers.

And then we’re in school all day, hardly able to breathe through a mask, roaring at students to keep theirs on, standing up for eight hours straight with one toilet break if we’re lucky. My school has one staff toilet for over a hundred teachers. You spend half your lunchbreak queuing for it, hoping that one of the thirty who peed before you did don’t have Covid”

The simple fact of the matter is that the teachers unions exist, whether the Minister likes it or not. Their job, whether we like it or not, is to represent the best interests of those teachers who pay monthly subscriptions. Their job is not to “get the schools open”, it’s to make sure that the schools are safe and decent workplaces for their members.

The Minister wants to open schools. The Government is very keen to do this, because it senses that there are votes in it – “we kept the schools open” is about the only achievement Fianna Fáil can point to from its thoroughly miserable first eight months in office. But opening the schools would be a lot easier if teachers could be convinced that the Government was interested in their welfare, and ensuring that their members felt safe in the workplace. That simply has not been accomplished.

There are, no doubt, parents who are very angry this morning, and want to lash out at somebody. The Teachers Unions make a nice fat target, because they’re committing the sin – in many people’s eyes – of prioritising the health of their members over the education of children.

But the villain in this piece is the Government, and the department of education, which has failed completely to lead, has lost the confidence of its own employees, and is led by a Minister who seems to spend her time blundering from one u-turn to another.

It was said when she was appointed that she was very similar to Mr. Martin.

Well, he’s not called the Grand Old Duke of Cork for nothing. She’s similar, alright.

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