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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent