Old hand at conflict seeks unity

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Nigel de Gruchy's successor is already talking about merging teacher unions, Fran Abrams reports

NOT many teachers' union leaders come to the job with first-hand experience of bomb disposal, but Eamonn O'Kane may find his past handling of potentially explosive situations could prove valuable in coming months.

A former teacher in North Belfast for many years, he now faces the delicate task of handling industrial action over staff shortages as he takes up the reins of power at Britain's second biggest teaching union. He formally succeeds Nigel de Gruchy as general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers next year, but will be easing himself into the job from now on.

Mr O'Kane was a history teacher at a Catholic secondary on Belfast's Antrim Road when he once confiscated what looked like a ball from one of his more "challenging" pupils, only to find it was a live blast bomb.

But ironically, his experience as a teacher in the early years of the Troubles also taught him something about the virtues of collaborative working - and that, too, will be reflected in the industrial action which is being taken jointly by his union and the National Union of Teachers.

Confirmed last week by a ballot of members in London and Doncaster, it will mean up to 30,000 teachers refusing to cover for unfilled posts and staff absences of longer than three days. With further ballots planned countrywide, the dispute is bound to become increasingly high-profile during the run-up to the general election.

It could also give a clear indication of Mr O'Kane's future leadership style. He says one of the things that attracted him to trade union politics in the 1970s was the opportunity it provided to meet teachers from across Northern Ireland's sectarian divide. Now he looks forward to closing some of the divisions within the United Kingdom's teaching profession, possibly even discussing mergers.

"I certainly think in the future this issue will become a bigger item on the agenda. All of us will have to ive it very serious thought," he says.

He already has some fans in the other teaching unions and Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, happily admits to being one of them.

"Eamonn is sharply intelligent, very subtle, very politically astute, very articulate. I think he's immensely pragmatic and I think the potential for working together under his leadership will be huge. But I don't see him as a visionary - I think he is a traditionalist," he says.

Mr de Gruchy says he believes Mr O'Kane will be a more contemplative leader than himself. "We are both NASUWT through and through," he says.

"I was never so happy as when I was out doing things, making an impact on the ground. I suspect Eamonn might rebalance things slightly by being more of a thinker and a writer than I have been."

Another trade union figure puts it more succinctly: "Nigel is the mouth and Eamonn is the brains," he says.

But Mr O'Kane plans to keep his lines of communication open and says he is happy to debate the issues of the day with anyone at all.

Now 55, he moved to England in 1989 to take up his first full-time union job as second fiddle to Nigel de Gruchy at the NASUWT. He is married to Daphne, a retired head of a special needs centre, and has two daughters and two grandsons.

Joe Boone, an assistant secretary of the NASUWT, recounts how Mr O'Kane once surprised colleagues during pay negotiations in London by revealing that he had shared a taxi from Heathrow with Ian Paisley.

The encounter even prompted a parliamentary question from the hard-line Unionist leader about the care of the orange lillies around the statue of King Billy in St James's Park, the topic of conversation between the two men en route.

In those day, says Mr Boone, Eamonn O'Kane's style was quite confrontational.

"He argued things with such passion that people in the audience could feel a bit intimidated. But now he has become much more laid-back, more concerned to take people along with him," he says.

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