Up to 15,000 teachers, parents and students gathered outside the Leinster House parliament in Dublin this week to express their opposition to spending cuts by the 26 County government.
At a noisy demonstration on a cold and wet night, the Fianna Fail/Green Party government was warned of major disruption in schools across the South from next January.
The protest coincided with a debate in Leinster House on the government’s budget cutbacks, and involved teachers unions and branches from right across the country. In the end, a Labour Party motion against the cutbacks was defeated by eight votes.
One group included 60 teachers and parents who travelled from St Mochulla’s national school in County Clare by bus. School principal Brian Torpey said the cutbacks will result in larger class sizes of up to 37 students.
“We’re basically going back to the 1980s with a 21st century curriculum and 21st century children,” said one school principle, referring to the planned increase in clas sizes.
Eimear Dolan from Killorglin, Co Kerry - holding a placard reading, “Hey TDs, leave our kids alone!” - said parents and teachers in the area were furious.
“I’m a teacher and a parent and I’m completely outraged. They’re going after older people and children,” she said.
“We thought we had made progress over the past few years, and now we’re going to lose all of that.”
Anger over budget cuts and taxes reached a crescendo last weeek with 30,000 pensioners and students besieging parliament, forcing a partial u-turn on the issue of medical care for over-70s.
Support for Fianna Fail has plunged in recent weeks on the back of the botched budget, according to latest opinion polls.
Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael now leads the main government party in the 26 Counties by seven points, with only 20 per cent of voters saying they trust Brian Cowen’s government to manage the public finances out of the downturn.
The departure of two government-supporting TDs during the political upheavals of last week has raised the prospect of an early general election.
Fianna Fail support has fallen by 10 percentage points since late September and just 26 per cent of voters say they would vote for the party in an election. It is the most dramatic move ever seen in the monthly polls.
The deepening public resentment at inequitable policies favouring the wealthy could force Brian Lenihan to change his upcoming finance bill with a new levy for the super-rich now thought to be on the cards.
Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson Pearse Doherty has called on the government to reverse the “devastating” education cuts.
“Budget 2009 should have delivered a strategy to address the public finance crisis whilst in tandem delivering a road map for economic recovery,” he said.
“It should have ensured that working families and the most vulnerable sections in society were protected during the current economic challenges.
“It should have ensured that investments in frontline services such as education were prioritised.
“It did none of these things. Instead government has chosen to target low to middle income earners, the old and the young in an array of savage cuts that will have a detrimental long term effect on the economy and society at large.”
Sinn Féin held a number of pickets on the offices of government ministers over the weekend and will be distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets across the country over the coming days outlining what the party said was the “grossly negligent choices” the government made in Budget 2009.