Is Education the Number One Priority for Unionism this Election?

Education, Education, Education. There have been 3 Assembly Executives elected since 1998. At each juncture, a unionist First Minister was elected and subsequently under d’Hondt a unionist was given first choice of available ministries. Each time control of the Education ministry fell to a Sinn Fein MLA – whether they were the 4th, or the 2nd, largest party. If SF should emerge the largest in the executive post May elections, they may well opt once again for the Education post.

Since 1998, this department has overseen the scrapping of the 11 plus standard entrance examinations (to be replaced by many alternative & confusing standards), the setting up of the Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta body to extend the reach of Irish-medium schools and the emergence of a male Protestant educational underclass.

But are there signs of a shift in emphasis among unionist politicians? Last week, both main unionist parties came out with messages that appear to show a major change in policy is being discussed. The UUP’s message on an education priority in it’s election manifesto came a day after Arlene Foster refused to commit to the Finance department as first choice for her party post May election.

The DUP for it’s part have apparently been reading a ‘surprising level of pressure on the doorsteps about the situation in education’. This being backed up by a newspaper poll Saturday which put Education above Health in voter priorities for the first time. 

What has brought matters to a head?

We have been living in a post 11+ limbo since 2008. It’s not that then, even though the UUP mention seeking an alternative to the current vacuum in their manifesto and don’t forget there is a large nationalist vote that wants unified selection brought back into their schools (another reason for those conservative Catholics looking to back the DUP as largest unionist party perhaps?).

What this year has seen however is the amalgamation of another 2 state schools in the First Minister’s home county – bringing 5 state secondary schools there down to two since Sinn Fein took over the running of education. Such drastic cuts have not gone unnoticed in a community that survived what many see as a campaign of ethnic cleansing along the border during the troubles. The fair conclusion being that closing state schools along the border reduces the number of young families content to live there, thus having a disproportionate effect on the border unionist community.

All this too while the disproportionate funding of Gaelscoileanna on the basis of a somewhat vague European directive on minority language education shows no sign of abating. The DUP call this statutory advantage. Worse, this year has seen these Irish-only schools very visible in uncritical displays of support for the republican rebellion anniversary. Irish language proponents do not accept the criticism of those who would categorise such schools as something akin to nationalist madrassas, often citing their apparent apolitical outlook.

But that betrays events which Nelson McCausland has viewed as “endorsing and affirming an Irish republican perspective on the 1916 rebels”, before concluding wryly “it’s easy to understand why Sinn Fein is so enthusiastic about Irish-medium schools.” Perplexed unionists may well be asking how such school programmes fit into the shared system we were meant to be gradually working towards.

All of these concerns and initiatives are largely moot of course if neither party is in the education minister’s position after the election. But assuming a unionist First Minister is achieved, why would that not be the case? There are many who find it difficult to look beyond the idea of the Finance post as one of overarching importance in the assembly. But in the consociational form of regional government we currently possess, where each department is run as a minister’s own personal fiefdom, how true is that notion?

The Finance portfolio itself is relatively small fry. It receives less than 1% of our regional rates, while education has the second biggest share at just under 19%.

Sinn Fein brinkmanship over the last executive budget threatened at one point to bring down the entire operation and it was only after another all hands Stormont EGM did everyone decide to agree to central government rationalisation. During this time the Finance minister was effectively powerless in getting any other department to sacrifice part of their own service to make Sammy Wilson’s job a bit easier.

There is precedent too for change. The UUP in 1998 did not take the Finance position. Reg Empey went for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The nominally left wing SDLP promptly took finance and nothing remarkably socialist seemed to occur amongst any of the departments throughout that term of office.

Will unionists seek a post spring clear out of the education department? As detailed, there are many areas for reform. Both the DUP and the UUP have highlighted it in many plans and on many stands. Perhaps it’s time for the winner to step forward and begin to implement their vision rather than imagine it.

Low churchman and unreformed culchie living, working in leafy south Belfast.