Eamonn O'Kane

General Secretary of the NASUWT who campaigned for a merger between the three TUC teachers' unions

The teacher trade-union leader Eamonn O'Kane was ahead of his time. As the General Secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), he was a strong advocate of merging the three TUC-affiliated teacher trade unions, thus giving education a more powerful voice with ministers.



Eamonn Rory O'Kane, teacher and trade unionist: born Belfast 21 August 1945; Deputy General Secretary, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers 1989-2001, General Secretary Designate 2001-02, General Secretary 2002-04; twice married (two daughters); died London 22 May 2004.



The teacher trade-union leader Eamonn O'Kane was ahead of his time. As the General Secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), he was a strong advocate of merging the three TUC-affiliated teacher trade unions, thus giving education a more powerful voice with ministers.

He saw what almost everyone outside teacher trade unionism could see - that having three voices speaking in different tongues made it hard to get the profession's message across to the general public. It also enabled ministers and local education authorities to exploit differences between the three.

O'Kane actually ran on a ticket of promoting merger between the three and, despite the tribal loyalties of some on his executive, succeeded in becoming the union's general secretary in 2002. As one of his first acts on taking office, he put a paper to his union's annual conference on how it would come about. It was too far forward too soon and he received a rebuff - but it had at least put the issue to the forefront of the agenda in a way that had not happened before.

Eamonn O'Kane was born in Northern Ireland and educated at St Malachy's College, Belfast, and at Queen's University, where he studied Economics and History. He then taught at secondary and grammar schools in Belfast for 20 years and was an active trade unionist, working for the anti-sectarian NASUWT (the only TUC-affiliated union at that time to have both Protestants and Catholics in membership). Many observers believe that it was working in that environment that made him realise the importance of unity in difficult circumstances.

Sadly his death only two years into a five-year period of office as General Secretary has meant he has failed to bring this unity about. Indeed, if anything, the differences between the NASUWT and the National Union of Teachers have been accentuated in the past two years - due to a falling out over the Government's proposals for reducing teachers' workload.

The NASUWT believes that the proposals, now being phased in, will enhance the working conditions of teachers, guaranteeing them 10 per cent of working time away from the classroom to concentrate on marking and preparation. The NUT claims they will "dumb down" the profession by allowing untrained teachers (albeit classroom assistants with special training) to take control of lessons. In the arguments that followed the deal, it was characteristic of O'Kane that he did not seek to exploit the differences for short-term membership gains, despite an aggressive advertising campaign by the NUT which sought to portray the NASUWT and other unions who had signed the agreement as "collaborators".

If he did not live to see his campaign for teacher unity to fruition, O'Kane did conjure up a number of notable successes during his years as a trade-union activist, the first of these when he was the Northern Ireland representative on the NASUWT executive committee. During that time, he helped build up regional membership to the point where the NASUWT was the largest teachers' union in Northern Ireland - no mean feat for a union which straddled the sectarian divide at a time of enormous tensions in the province.

He was also an able deputy general secretary to the more flamboyant and media-savvy Nigel de Gruchy for 12 years, having only narrowly lost out to him in an executive vote to determine its favoured candidate in the general secretaryship election in 1989. If he was disappointed, O'Kane did not show it, and became a more than capable deputy to de Gruchy, helping him to win the union's campaign against excessive workload generated by the national curriculum tests for seven- and 11-year-olds in the early 1990s.

It would be no exaggeration to say that, of the classroom-teacher trade-union leaders, O'Kane was the one who commanded the greatest respect. He found it easy to work with colleagues across the trade-union divide - particularly in the campaign to expose excessive workload and the impact of staffing shortages on schools just before the 2001 general election, immaculately timed to secure a concession from the then Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, to set up a review of teachers' workload. O'Kane would not shy away from industrial action as an effective weapon to secure a better deal for teachers. Equally, he would not rush to the barricades unless he was convinced there would be some benefit to his members accruing from it.

He leaves a wife, Daphne, two daughters and three grandchildren. The best tribute that could be paid to him would be if his dream of teacher unity were to become a reality in the not too distant future. Many in trade-union circles are convinced it will.

Richard Garner

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