‘Protests Work’ says Minister: How the DEIS Cuts were reversed at Primary Level

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Following his announcement that many of his proposed cuts to teacher numbers in schools serving areas of social disadvantage are to be reversed, Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn, has admitted that protests work and that he reversed his decisions because of the huge protests faced by himself and his colleagues on the government backbenches.

“…in relation to the area where all the pressure was coming from and all the protests was [sic] coming from …. I reflected on the impact on those schools….and I reversed that decision,” he said. 

By targeting cutbacks on socially disadvantaged communities the government had gambled on the fact that they would not organise and would not resist.   Almost immediately, however, they began to realise that it was a gamble that wasn’t going to pay off.  Within hours of the announcement in December’s budget Labour party TDs in particular began to come under serious pressure from teachers and parents who valued the extra supports that children in their schools were getting and were determined that they were not going to be taken away from them.

Organisation

District 14 of the INTO (Irish National Teachers Organisation) hosted a meeting for school principals and INTO staff representatives 10 days after the budget where it became clear that at local level the campaign against these cuts was well and truly under way.  The main discussion at this meeting was not whether there should be a large protest but whether it should take place before Christmas (which was just a week away) or in mid-January.

The decision was to go for the later time to allow for the protest to be as big as possible but in the meantime to continue a campaign of public meetings, protests, letter writing and lobbying at local level in every school aimed at keeping the pressure on government TDs.  And all across Dublin and in other areas affected, that’s exactly what happened.  People were not waiting for union leaders or anyone else to fight this campaign on their behalf.  They realised that local organising was the key to success and that every contribution – large or small – helped towards building the momentum.

By mid-January the government were really feeling the heat and as the date for the proposed protest approached Minister Quinn went on radio to state that he had ‘made a mistake’ and that he was going to order a ‘review’ of the cuts.  If the intention was to derail or demobilise the protest, it didn’t work and on 19th January almost 6,000 people – representing DEIS school communities from across Dublin - protested outside the Department of Education in Marlborough Street.

Atmosphere

The atmosphere on the protest was one of controlled determination and speaker after speaker said that they were not willing to allow our children’s future to be damaged in order to pay off the gambling debts of international financiers.  The protest re-iterated that a ‘review’ was not enough and that we wanted a total reversal of all the cuts.

At a subsequent meeting, the date of 23rd February was agreed as the date for a follow-up protest and, through contacts with DEIS schools around the country, this was agreed to be a national day of protest with protests planned for Waterford, Cork, Sligo and other places as well as outside Dáil Éireann.  In the build up to this protest, pressure on government backbenchers was stepped up and it began to become clear that they knew they had no option but to row back the cuts.

Until the row-back was finally announced on Tuesday 21st February, though, no-one knew how much of a climbdown Mr. Quinn would actually make.  In the end he announced a total reversal of the cuts to so-called ‘legacy’ posts in DEIS schools.  In a statement the DEIS Action Group welcomed the fact “..that 235 much-needed posts are to be retained in our schools” going on to say that “These teachers will continue to be able to support the education of children from some of the most socially disadvantaged areas of our society”.

What was most interesting from Mr. Quinn’s statement was that while ‘legacy’ posts in primary schools were to be retained, he was going ahead with the cuts to similar posts at second-level, providing even more proof that it was the power of protest that had brought about this change of heart.  Primary school communities had organised themselves to resist the cuts, those at second-level - for whatever reason - hadn’t.

Our Victory

Primary schools are still assessing the full impact of the Minister’s announcement.  It did not result in the complete reversal of all cuts.  But there is no doubt that what was announced was a significant victory for all those who campaigned and protested on this issue.  This campaign was organised by ordinary union members at local branch and district level.  We didn’t wait around for ‘head office’ or ‘the leadership’ to do something for us.  We didn’t waste too much time giving out about the lack of fight from the top of the union (although we did do a bit of that).

Most importantly though – we organised.  For a number of weeks we made life miserable for government TDs with the amount of phone calls, emails, letters and visits that they got on the issue, we organised local meetings to build support for the protests and we came in our thousands onto the streets.  By doing that, we made a difference.

This victory does not belong to the union leadership or to the government TDs who will try now to claim credit for making the Minister change his mind.  This is a victory for ordinary people – teachers, parents and the wider school communities - who got together and said we were not going to allow the government to mess with our children’s education. 

It is important that we remember that.  And the next time somebody says to you that protests are a waste of time, remind them of this victory and remind them of Ruairi Quinn’s words “…the areas where the protests was coming from…I reflected on…”

And to school communities in small rural schools currently fighting a battle against cuts in their schools, to lone parents fighting threatened attacks on their living standards, to local communities resisting cuts to CE schemes and the dismantling of community services, to the 1.7million households refusing to register for the household tax, to groups and communities everywhere organising to resist aspects of the government’s austerity agenda … let’s give them lots more to ‘reflect on’. 

WORDS: Gregor Kerr

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