Why INTO went without an Easter Congress once before

Although the earliest INTO Annual Congresses took place near Christmas, Congress has been an Easter event for over 120 years. It is a fixture in the spring INTO timetable and that of hundreds of delegates from branches, districts and committees.

The Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has restricted many activities which are seen as part of normal living and has caused postponement of Congress 2020. Only once before has there not been a scheduled Annual Congress, also linked with events which challenged the wider world. While in 2020 there is no option but to postpone, the decision about Congress 1915 – based on considerations of solidarity and perception – was contested.

No INTO Congress at Easter 1915? – Context and Consultation

The resolution not to hold a Congress at Easter 1915 was taken in light of the world war which had broken out and escalated from autumn 1914. The war had a profound effect in Ireland. Ultimately, some 200,000 Irish troops fought in the British army; those who died included Willie Redmond (MP for Clare) and poet Tom Kettle, alongside thousands of others from across the island. Home Rule was in abeyance until after the international conflict but active drilling by Irish and Ulster Volunteers suggested that civil war on the island was a possibility. Once the world war began, local differences were deferred and army recruitment became active.

INTO Congress 1915 was planned for Cork. A meeting of the INTO Central Executive Committee (CEC) on 31 October 1914 had before it a communication from the Cork Teachers’ Association suggesting “the desirability” of Congress’s postponement. Following discussion, the CEC resolved both that “no Congress should be held next Easter” and to ask teacher associations (the precursor of INTO branches) to express their views on this proposal.

The CEC proposition was by no means universally popular. Some writers to the Irish School Weekly (ISW) railed against it, deploring the “abandonment of Congress”. Suggestions were made about holding a curtailed event, or one focussed on “professional and scholastic” topics. The CEC proposal was in one writer’s view “the most serious blunder in the history of the Organisation”. Reports of association meetings in the ISW, however, showed broad support for the CEC position.

Decision is Made

When meeting on 19 December, the CEC had before it the outcome of the consultation process among INTO’s constituent associations. The aggregate membership of those seeking to hold a 1915 Congress was reported to be 1,163, with those against totalling 5,347. Expressed as numbers of teacher associations, 20 favoured holding Congress while 107 opposed this.

For every teacher association supporting the holding of Congress, near neighbours were against. As examples, those in the former group included Ennis, Dublin Central, Tyrone Central, Kilkenny and Castleisland, while among the latter category were West Clare, Dublin Metropolitan, Armagh, Waterford and Tralee.

Following the consultations, Congress 1915 was “postponed” and did not take place. A linked decision of CEC, to postpone also the annual CEC elections, was the subject of further argument.

Elections not Held

Dublin Central Association joined battle on issues arising from cancelling Congress even before the outcome of the INTO plebiscite was known. Its November 1914 meeting called on the CEC to “hand over” money saved on Congress to retired teachers who had not benefited from a revised pension scheme. And the meeting declared “unconstitutional” a CEC proposal for a War Relief Fund, half to be devoted to assist Belgian refugees, “while a single old member of our organisation remains a refugee in an Irish workhouse”.

The same meeting’s position on postponement of elections was similarly forthright. Its Secretary recorded the Dublin Central view that in the absence of a Congress to ratify CEC elections, “an injunction could readily be obtained in the courts” to prevent the CEC administering INTO affairs.

The CEC meeting of 27 March 1915 noted that “a few associations” had objected to the non-holding of elections. The Central Secretary was mandated – in order, in his own words, “to silence all cavilling” – to put the decision on elections to the associations for ratification or otherwise.

Central Secretary Eamon Mansfield initiated this further consultation process, seeking views by 1 May 1915. In his letter to association secretaries he referenced “one or two” who had objected to the deferment of elections, and he rejected suggestions “in the press” that the CEC had acted dictatorially regarding the postponement of Congress. Mansfield recalled that this course had been first suggested by the Cork Congress Committee.

Controversy around deferring the CEC elections did not arise in the ISW’s columns thereafter – clearly the decision was widely accepted. However, Dublin Central continued to ventilate its grievances; members at its December 1915 meeting linked perceived INTO deficiencies with the executive “having bull-dosed the teachers into abandoning” Congress.

Justification and Recrimination

In its report for 1914, issued in April 1915, the CEC set out its perspective on these events. It had recommended postponement of Congress “owing to the unprecedented and extraordinary state of affairs which has arisen out of the present war”. With postponement, “elections automatically lapsed”.

The CEC took aim at the “one Association at least” which “thought fit to raise the question of the legality of our action” and “to ventilate these doubts in the public Press”. Referencing the (then ongoing) consultation process regarding elections, local associations could “silence all harmful cavilling on this matter”.

No Easter Congress in 2020

The postponement of Congress 2020, 105 years after the events summarised above, occurs in a different context. There was no option, on public health grounds, but to postpone the event.

As regards 2020’s elections to CEC and other positions, nominations were made at INTO branch meetings in January, and Congress no longer has a role in ratifying outcomes. The results of elections where no ballot was required will be declared online by the president. Contested elections to national committees, where more than one candidate was nominated by branches, are deferred until the COVID-19 crisis has waned. In the interim, the related committee positions remain vacant.

The importance of matters like INTO’s Congress and elections are placed into perspective when life and death are at stake, as at present. When the current crisis ends, INTO’s rule-bound operations will resume.

As we recall from the 1914-1918 years, even lengthy wars end. So do pandemics. Individually and organisationally, we will move on from the current health crisis, and while the battle lasts teachers will not be found wanting in contributing appropriately.

[Sources: All quotes and references re the 1915 INTO Congress are based on material from the Irish School Weekly (ISW), editions from November 1914 to end-1915, inclusive].

Article by Noel Ward, Deputy General Secretary – May 2020 InTouch