“Them and us” versus “all of us” with the Alliance party in the middle…

Thanks to Mark for a heads up on this one… If you thought the sectarian punch up had gone away, think again. It’s still there, it’s just they are using other party’s ministerial portfolios to batter each other with. In this case, Stephen Farry of the Alliance party.

Stephen Farry on Stranmillis College Queen”s merger (mp3)

Story over to Mark Devenport:

With a population of just 1.8 million people, Mr Farry reckoned Northern Ireland should have a single teacher training system. He has commissioned a study to examine the sustainability of the current divided system and questioned whether the taxpayer should continue to subsidise separate colleges.

So in the new spirit of “one community” did MLAs on both sides nod sagely, wish the minister well in his endeavours and pledge to examine the recommendations of his study with open minds? No, you’ve guessed it. They savaged him.

Lyndsay Fergus has a copy of the letter that set it all off:

In correspondence between the DUP leader and the Alliance minister, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Robinson expresses fears about the “protection of the ethos of the college”.

He states: “I am convinced that the inevitable consequence will be a dilution of the existing ethos Stranmillis has proudly maintained. When considered in conjunction with the absence of similar proposals relating to St Mary’s, neither I nor my party could support the proposed merger.”

Mr Robinson adds: “I have been publicly vocal on the need for Northern Ireland to progress toward an education sector that is truly shared yet feel the continued protection of St Mary’s privileged position, whilst undermining that of Stranmillis, would be a retrograde step.”

Now, it’s important to know that Stranmillis and Queens University have had very close ties for many years. Both sides appear to be up for it. Which makes Robinson’s idea that there’s a danger to its (Stranmillis) ‘ethos’ somewhat odd…

Ms Fergus continues:

New figures suggest Stranmillis will be more than £1m in debt by 2014/15 and needs at least £9m of investment.

Since 2007 there has been an 18% reduction in staff at the south Belfast campus, according to a briefing paper presented to Stormont’s employment and learning committee last month.

Those figures could rise if the number of teacher training places are reduced by the Department of Education given the number of empty desks, impending school closures and the already high number of newly-qualified teachers failing to gain employment.

It emerged during an Assembly debate in September that just 30 of 600 new teachers trained in Northern Ireland have been able to secure full-time school jobs this year. There’s an estimated 5,000 teachers currently out of work.

And if you think that’s bad here’s Mark quoting the Sinn Fein MP/MLA for West Belfast, Paul Maskey:

Sinn Fein’s Paul Maskey accused Mr Farry of trying to close St Mary’s by stealth. The West Belfast MP and MLA claimed the minister was “sailing very close” to engaging in sectarianism.

No mention of Tory cuts… In, the Minister is proposing the only evident practical way forward… Very handy for the DUP (‘all of us’), who will say getting St Mary’s into the wider picture is a necessary precursor to a wholesale re-engineering of the education system away from old sectarian lines…

And for Sinn Fein (‘separate but equal’), who are kicking him from the other side for a decision he has yet to make, but setting up conditions that might make it impossible for the Catholic St Mary’s College to maintain an independent status outside mainstream third level teacher training college…

There’s no major appetite for an integrated education system within the wider Catholic community. But the money is running out for Stranmillis. It remains to be seen whether there are legs in this fight, or if it’s just another sham fight for the benefit of the incumbents of OFMDFM; the top flight of the NI Adminstration…

It always helps when the main ministerial casulty is conveniently in another party altogether…

Further Reading: End segregated schooling says First Minister (Channel 4)

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty