Friday, 16 May 2008

Education deadlock

After all the sunshine and bonhomie of recent times the clouds descended on Northern Ireland towards the end of the week when the Executive reached a complete deadlock over post primary education. Almost exactly one year from the start of the devolved Executive the Sinn Fein Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane brought her proposals on a new system of secondary education to the Executive on Thursday.

The proposals had been ‘leaked’ the day before and contained an apparent concession by the Minister. Previously Ms Ruane had insisted that academic selection would not be allowed to continue after 2008. Now she was suggesting that schools could – during a three year transition period - have a ‘bi-lateral’ intake whereby 50% could be selected by academic selection in the first year, 30% in the second year and 20% in the third year. After that the system would switch to entirely comprehensive all ability schools.

The pro grammar lobby and the DUP were quick to reject this idea as a mere ‘stay of execution’. Following the St. Andrews Agreement any attempt to remove academic selection has to be done with cross community consent. This is highly unlikely to be forthcoming.

Ms Ruane seems determined to proceed without or without Executive or Assembly approval although it is unclear how she could do so. She may issue Guidelines, warn primary schools to stick to the official curriculum and attempt to tempt schools with promises of extra money for schools who collaborate under the new system.

The risk in this is that the new Finance Minister whoever that may be (Jeffrey Donaldson?) has the legal authority to essentially cut funding to a Department if he feels the money is being used in an inequitable manner.

With the pro grammar lobby, the Association of Quality Education, apparently planning to reveal details of their new test in June a continuing stand off seems extremely likely and court action possible.

Some, including Basil McCrea MLA, think this issue has the potential to bring down the Executive. Newspaper commentators such as Liam Clarke in the News Letter and Dan Keenan in The Irish Times think a compromise can still be found.

Robinson – champion of women and low paid Catholics?

Peter Robinson has raised the prospect that many low-paid civil servants may receive £100m in back-pay. He said he was prepared to deal with historic inequality in pay, affecting as many as 9,000 workers – who are mainly women and mostly Catholic.

Some have speculated that Mr Robinson was forced to rectify this situation, left unresolved by a succession of Labour Ministers, because of the threat of legal or trade union action. Mr Robinson said the £100m could come either from the Treasury or from the underspend in last year’s annual budget for Northern Ireland. It seems unlikely that the Treasury will cough up.

Policeman injured and publicly named

Dissident Republicans attacked a police officer near Castlederg in Co Tyrone. They placed a bomb under his car which exploded wounding the officer in the leg. There was some controversy when the officer was named in the House of Commons – as throughout the Troubles there was a convention of not naming injured members of the security forces. It appears that the politicians were merely following the lead set by the newspapers in West Tyrone. The newspapers decided to name the officer, who hails from Omagh, as a deliberate rebuke to his attackers and to assert that the officer had the support of all sides of the community in West Tyrone.

Unionist politicians dream of their Holy Grail

It seems that virtually everyone who is involved in what passes for unionist politics is reared on the fantasy of wielding great influence in a ‘hung’ parliament. This week we heard rumours of the DUP negotiating for more ex army bases to be handed over gratis from the UK Government to the Executive in return for supporting Gordon Brown over his plans to introduce 42 day detention of terrorist suspects. Others mused about re-opening the old chestnut of a special lower NI Corporation tax in return for the support of the DUP’s nine MPs when Labour are next in a tight spot. Edwin Poots gave voice to the fantasy on Lets Talk and the Belfast Telegraph ran a story about a possible electoral pact to ‘maximise’ unionist influence.

It appears many do not consider the wider implications of such positioning. The unionists portray themselves as parties with no inherent beliefs or principles that cannot be traded for some passing influence. The irony of unionists determinedly staying outside the UK party system and willing to attempt to hold it to ransom is lost on these politicians. What consideration do they give to the resentment and distaste that this must build up within the Conservative and Labour parties? The two main UK parties have governed the UK – including NI - for the vast bulk of the past one hundred years with only brief interludes of ‘hung’ or coalition situations. Is this shameless willingness to prostitute oneself to the highest bidder likely to build empathy or understanding for the unionist position?

One might even be tempted to wonder if such activity is anti-Union.

There is of course probably two years until the next election and anything might happen. For the record, however, analysis of recent opinion polls and the recent local government election results show the Conservatives heading for a very comfortable majority. One leading commentator has noted that no Prime Minister has ever recovered from such poor local election results within a two year period.

One might argue that people in NI who support the Union might be better employed building genuine relations with which ever UK party they personally felt most affinity to rather than boasting about what great whores they are.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story however… about that electoral pact.. where did I put that grail?