School strikers claim minister is ignoring them
Education Minister Caitriona Ruane was last night accused of running away from the problems facing classroom assistants after two separate incidents.
Thousands of classroom assistants have already staged two strikes with all-out action planned to begin on Monday if no resolution can be found in Ulster's longest-running pay dispute.
The Minister has come under fire for what has been perceived as her lack of action in attempting to break the deadlock between the unions and management. Last night, she faced fresh criticism as she was accused of refusing to meet classroom assistants.
In the first incident, the deputy mayor of Craigavon Borough Council, Kenneth Twyble, was forced to step in at the last minute and perform the official opening of the new Sure Start centre in the town after Ms Ruane failed to turn up.
Margaret Conn, a classroom assistant at Brookfield Special School, said fellow Nipsa members feel they are being ignored by Ms Ruane.
"We were picketing a school and heard that the Minister was coming to open the new Sure Start centre, so a crowd went down there to represent ourselves in a peaceful way," she said.
"When her car arrived and saw the crowd, it turned and drove away. We're very disappointed. We feel like we haven't had a chance to get our case across to her or listen to what she has to say."
Mr Twyble confirmed that he had officiated at the event instead.
In a second apparent snub to classroom assistants, a group of about 60 Nipsa members were left disappointed when a request to meet the Minister at Stormont yesterday was rejected. The women assembled at the doors of the building and chanted Ms Ruane's name, but she did not come outside the speak to them.
Caitriona Ruane outlined her position and said the visit would be rescheduled: "I am disappointed the visit did not take place. I had arrived at the venue and saw what appeared to be a Nipsa picket line with official strike placards and I left immediately. I spoke personally with the organiser and explained my position on not crossing the picket line and he respected my position. The visit will be rescheduled. My aim is to get money into the hands of the classroom assistants and resolve this dispute to avoid disruption for our children."
Nipsa representative Brian Booth slammed the Minister for refusing to speak to union members, while Education committee member Basil McCrea said: " There were angry scenes at Stormont because these women feel as though their case isn't being represented and they really wanted to have a word with the Minister.
"There's no doubt that the Minister can't find a way to resolve the problem and she doesn't want to confront them, but the simple fact is it is her job to fix this.
"I think it is outrageous that she didn't turn up to the event in Craigavon. There's obviously an impasse in the negotiations. The Minister told us she was going to get personally involved and now she is running away and that isn't the way this situation is going to be resolved."