We face strike action in our secondary schools, in particular from the ASTI. Fianna Fáil supports the Lansdowne Road agreement and has been consistent in so doing. There have been consistent calls for the ASTI to enter the Lansdowne Road agreement. This strike is unnecessary and it can and should be avoided. If it is not, thousands of students across the country will suffer. They will be the main victims.
There is no question that the teachers have issues across a range of areas, not least junior certificate reform. Not everybody was fully agreeable to all that, including me, but while I have issues with some aspects of it, it is not a matter which necessitates industrial action.
The issue seems to have crystallised around equal pay, in particular for new entrants. While the TUI and the INTO have negotiated a partial restoration of pay equality, from about 15% to 22%, we have consistently supported the idea that there has to be full pay restoration over time and that new entrants should not be disadvantaged into the future as they have been in the past few years. That is a key objective, on which there seems to be a lot of consensus.
I watched the debate on "Claire Byrne Live" last night, during which the president of the ASTI seemed to indicate that the central issue causing the strike was a commitment to full pay restoration. In other words, the union wants to ensure the Government is committed not just to that which has been negotiated to the expiry date of the Lansdowne Road agreement but also beyond to full equalisation of pay for new entrants. During the debate the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, said there would be and indicated that it was Government policy. I stand to be corrected, but I understand that some time ago the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, indicated something similar. However, there does not appear to have been any categoric articulation of that principle by the Government side in the current talks. It would be interesting if the Taoiseach were to indicate that the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, fully articulated official Government policy. Is it the case, officially, that the Government is committed, once the Lansdowne Road agreement expires, to full restoration of equal pay? It seems that the other unions negotiated and did not abandon their commitments - they will continue to fight for equal pay. Therefore, one is left with the question as to why schools have to close at all.
As the Taoiseach knows, we should be in no doubt that the withdrawal of supervision means the indefinite closure of schools. People may not have been aware of this, but that is the practical reality of the withdrawal of supervision. There may be a temptation within the system to punish the ASTI, a temptation which should be resisted. A genuine effort should be made to determine whether consensus can be arrived at on the issue of equal pay. There does not seem to be a whole lot between people on the core issue.