Protest finds its voice but there is little unity on climate change among Irish people

As Cork teachers marched in Dublin as part of a global day of action, Jennifer Horgan travelled with them and found out why climate change is something educators believe should be an important part of the curriculum
Protest finds its voice but there is little unity on climate change among Irish people

Teachers Diane Killoughy and Jerrieann Sullivan on the way to Dublin for the Global Day of Action on climate change.

SIMON HARRIS, addressing a joint committee on Leaving Cert reform last week, suggested the current system “does not teach students about financial literacy, digital skills, sex education or climate skills”. He might have found himself closer to the truth with an assertion that some schools and some teachers deny students such skills.

I travelled to Dublin on Saturday, pulling out of Kent station at 8am in the company of teachers committed to developing climate skills in their students. They’re not alone in this. Worldwise Global Schools works in 350 secondary schools nationwide. A core component of its work relates to climate justice.

Jerrieann Sullivan, a teacher in my company, developed a short course in sustainability along with colleague Kate Minnock. It has been running for five years in Cork and North Wicklow Educate Together secondary schools. This year both are teaching a new climate action junior cycle short course that is being run in 15 schools around Ireland.

The teachers spend the train journey making placards out of an Ikea cardboard box. One uses our stop in Mallow to spray paint, returning to our carriage with white paint across her fingers. The slogan she has chosen is telling: ‘Save our students’ futures’.

We arrive at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) office to collect our flags and meet fellow teachers. The union has paid for teachers to travel to Dublin for the event. TUI president Martin Marjoram reminds me that all teacher unions are committed to climate justice. We are offered a warming coffee in the union’s offices before we leave.

It seems fitting that the teachers’ unions are keen to represent themselves. Student groups at second and third level populate a significant section of the crowd; it seems appropriate that their teachers stand with them.

The initial speeches are rousing. Activist Ailbhe Smyth’s message is one of solidarity. She’s critical of educators on the wrong side of the fight, universities in particular: “Universities have no business being in business with big business.”

Former People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger follows her, commending Greta Thunberg for “cutting through the spin — any system run for private interests is unsustainable”.

Ms Smyth reminds us: “Ní neart go cur le chéile.” (There is no strength without unity.)

The marchers leave the Garden of Remembrance in the spirit of this togetherness. Young and old surround us. People watch us from the pavements, pull out their phone to record us.

In Cork, protesters took part in a rally to show their support for real action on climate justice. Picture: Damien O'Mahony
In Cork, protesters took part in a rally to show their support for real action on climate justice. Picture: Damien O'Mahony

It feels like we’re part of something bigger, exactly the kind of community needed to bring about change.

Flags fly from student unions, Social Democrats and People Before Profit. Parents are reminded to put their kids in high-viz jackets.

A young man and woman lead the chants: “What do we want?” “Climate Justice”. “When do we want it? “Now!” And another: “Sea levels are rising; so are we.”

One particularly zealous attendee wears a blow-up globe on his head, attached to an egg-timer. I see a toddler asleep in her pram, another reminder of the focus of the day: young people and our future.

It’s only when we reach the Talbot Memorial Bridge and sit down on the concrete that we see the crowd snaking back along the quay; people in their thousands have turned up to fight for the cause of a more just, more sustainable world.

Something about sitting on the bridge feels significant. It feels old school, a throw-back to a civil rights march from the ’60s. It feels good. I reflect on the bridge as a metaphor for the stage we’re at as a society. We are at a pivotal point. We cannot go back; we can only go forward.

How we go forward is what this march is about.

We round Merrion Square and end outside the Dáil. The tone of the speeches is increasingly anti-government. Irish leaders are accused of avoiding the bigger issues of climate change by remaining in a capitalist mindset.

Their commitment to electric cars is characterised as farcical; the need for green public transport urgent.

The rain gets heavier. The depth of anger on the podium, perhaps warranted, feels depressing, not uplifting. I’m acutely aware that our nation is a dangerously divided one.

As we leave, we turn into a few dozen people; the march has thinned considerably.

I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed on my trip back to Cork. My fellow teachers reflect on the day, their focus on the significance for students. Something about the sense of conflict at the event makes me feel hopeless.

If we can only find strength in unity, I worry that we’ve little hope of finding strength at all.

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