Progress failed to impress the voters

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
IRELAND. The Labour party is still licking its wounds after its drubbing in June's general election. And there is none more bruised than Niamh Bhreathnach, the former minister for education, who lost her seat in the Dail, the lower house of parliament.

If ever a socialist minister for education did all the right things to secure re-election it was the representative for the well-heeled, liberal constituency of Dun-Laoghaire. She boosted education spending, abolished university tuition fees, reduced class sizes, increased spending on disadvantaged schools, introduced a sex education programme and gave teachers an early retirement package.

She nursed her own constituency which benefited from a new regional technical college, a magnificent teachers' centre and many other educational facilities. Yet she lost her seat in the tidal wave of opposition to the Labour party, which saw its representation in the Dail reduced from 33 seats to 17. And the word is that she has no chance of returning to national politics.

So what went wrong? The rising tide that engulfed Labour is only a part explanation. Personality and perception are often more important in Irish politics than substance and unfortunately she came across as somewhat school-marmish with little or no sense of humour.

She alienated sections of the Churches with her zeal for change. Teachers, even ardent Labour supporters, found it hard to warm to her. Yet she will be remembered in the history books as one of the most reforming ministers for education in Ireland in recent decades.

Her successor, the pragmatic Michael Martin, has greater ambitions. He hit the ground running when he was appointed and the energetic 37-year-old has not stopped since. Where his predecessor rationed the number of meetings with delegations and curtailed official engagements the man from Cork wants to meet everybody and attend everything.

Mr Martin's diary has been so crowded it is hard to know where he gets time to plan some of the many announcements he has made.

He has benefited from the booming Irish economy and the fact that education is seen by the new Fianna Fail Progressive Democrat government as the key factor in attracting high-tech firms to Ireland. He was able to convince his Cabinet colleagues to put up Pounds 250 million for an Education Technology Investment Fund to ensure that the colleges produced people with the required skills for these firms.

Then he secured yet more money to launch his pet project, IT Schools 2000, which will propel all primary and secondary schools into the Internet Age.

So far it's been all good news. Mr Martin gives the impression of one who will go out of his way to avoid bad news, and some observers see in him an ambition that could take him to higher office.

He has had a good political honeymoon but his handling of the post-honeymoon period will determine how high he can go.

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