“I am sure that he does not want to play hardball..”

The Belfast Telegraph picks up one element of the comments in the Assembly by Northern Ireland Finance minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson – namely Executive support on any “agreed approach” to the future for the post-primary education system – while the Newsletter picks up another. But his actual comments, on Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd’s intervention on Hearts and Minds, are worth quoting.

I am pretty sure that the Member [John O’Dowd] was simply using a wooden spoon to stir the argument on television and was not seriously committing himself, his Minister or his party to that approach. I am sure that he does not want to play hardball on an issue that is vital to the future of so many people in Northern Ireland. I state again that the education issue can be resolved only by agreement, and the processes for obtaining agreement exist. That matter must be dealt with urgently.

Those comments in full

I noted with interest the comments of the Member for Upper Bann John O’Dowd on ‘Hearts and Minds’ last week. I do not know whether he was speaking tongue-in-cheek or whether he was being mischievous when he said:

“St Andrews did protect academic selection; it did not state that the Department had to fund academic selection. So if a school wishes to bring in academic selection, that is up to the school. What we are saying is,”

—I am not sure to whom the “we” refers —

“the Department should not be funding this system”.

Although I am sure that it was a small part of his intention to stir up debate on the programme, I am equally sure that the Minister of Education could not possibly be thinking along the same lines, because both the Member and the Minister will know the circumstances of any Department’s spending. If there was a suggestion that any Department in Northern Ireland was discriminating against children, as in that case, or against any others, I would be forced to remove its delegation to spend money. Under the legislation, approval from DFP is required. As a matter of good working practice, a delegation is given to each Department to allow it to spend money. If there was an issue about how money was being spent or not spent, my Department would have to go back to it.

I am pretty sure that the Member was simply using a wooden spoon to stir the argument on television and was not seriously committing himself, his Minister or his party to that approach. I am sure that he does not want to play hardball on an issue that is vital to the future of so many people in Northern Ireland. I state again that the education issue can be resolved only by agreement, and the processes for obtaining agreement exist. That matter must be dealt with urgently.

The Member for North Antrim Mr Declan O’Loan raised the issue of how we might fill the additional requirement if we were to adopt a new policy that had a significant cost attached to it. One of the key decisions that the Executive must take in examining any proposal from any Department is whether they can fund the policy; if there is insufficient money to fund a policy, it cannot go forward in that shape and form. That is why Executive approval and agreement are required on all such issues.

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  • URQUHART

    “I would be forced to remove its delegation to spend money”.

    You have to hand it to him – he’s wiping SF’s eye on a daily basis.

  • kensei

    You have to hand it to him – he’s wiping SF’s eye on a daily basis.

    Except I don’t think Robinson wants to play hard ball on this either. With holding money from a Ministry would create a crisis an order of magnitude greater (I assume accountability mechanisms could be applied first to any decision they disagreed with) and the eventual result would almost certainly be to collapse the Executive.

    Saber rattling form both parties, if you ask me.

  • It’s a basic administrative rule that a government department cannot spend anything without the sanction of the Minister for Finance. It applies in all jurisdictions. It’s just taking some of the local politicians a while to figure out how administration actually works.

  • joeCanuck

    Is the irresistible force about to meet the immovable object?
    It seems that this will be the first real test of how an enforced coalition deals with a real dispute where the parties are totally opposed.

  • BonarLaw

    “Except I don’t think Robinson wants to play hard ball on this either”

    Are you sure? Academic selection is an issue the DUP cannot lose if the want to remain the lead unionist party. Also, Robinson may just want to offer a contrast to the love-in that currently exists between FM and DFM. Finally, Ruane is loathed and seen as an easy target with the advantage of being a way to hit Adams by proxy.

  • Turgon

    As ever kensei a good political analysis except I suspect you underestimate the cause celebre status which academic selection has attained with many unionists. Do not try to argue this is odd, I am inclined to agree that it is not necessarily an orange green issue but believe me it has become some kind of totem pole to many many unionists.

    As such BonarLaw is correct, the DUP cannot really afford to lose on this one. You are also correct that if carried to its logical conclusion it could bring down the executive. In that case I suspect the DUP would not look that bad; after all one of the things they claimed to have gained at St Andrews was retention of selection. To lose it would be a disaster. If they collapsed the executive over it the DUP would be heroes to very many unionists. That is the real politick of it.

    I have previously suggested that the solution will be that Ruane will not fund the 11 plus but the grammars will hold their own and she will pay for the grammars. The current stuff from her and the lack of clarity on the future may be because she and everyone else knows that this will happen and as such there is little point in producing an organised plan.

  • kensei

    Turgon

    I have no doubt that it’s a big thing within Unionism, but the way the cards are stacked here means he cannot carry out that threat.

    If what Robinson is saying is that if Ruane refuses to fund grammars that retain selection, you only method he has of stopping her is witholding funding, then they have lost. Ruane could make the decision, Robinson stops departmental funds, the Assembly collapses and the decision stands, like it did last time. Unionism loses any control of the situation whatsoever. I don’t think SF particularly want those stakes, however, and I don’t think it’d do them any good if they did. So saber rattling on both counts.

    Personally, I think SF should be playing hardball if it is so dear to Unionist hearts; Unionism certainly has been on the Irish Language and a few other issues. I don’t think they are though, because I don’t think much has happened.

  • DC

    If we can have four victims commissioners I don’t see why we cant have a diverse and, if needs be, multi-layered educational system.

    Lets just set to work on what education is required and how to improve on what is available.

  • Turgon

    kensei,
    Fair point: I stand corrected.

  • BonarLaw

    “like it did last time”

    No, not like last time because academic selection has not been abolished and cannot be abolished by any ministerial solo run. If the executive collapses (so what?) you would have the situation as it is now with academic selection retained and all schools funded. How is that a Provo win?

  • Turgon

    BonarLaw,
    I think he is correct in that if Stormont falls we get a SoS who would be likely to axe selection; as Hain threatened to do. I suppose one might ope that any new SoS would honour the St Andrew’s Agreement but I would not be certain.

  • BonarLaw

    Turgon

    that would require legislation and poison relations with political unionism. Anyway, by the time anyone from the NIO gets round to the issue the SoS will be a Tory.

    As for the senario for an executive collapse either FM or DFM would resign to trigger a six week period in which either the vacant position is filled or if not there would be an election. DUP go to the polls as the defenders of academic selection and do at least as well as they did last year. With selection as the issue do those middle class republicans with kids at grammar schools vote SF or go somewhere else?

    In any event, where we are now executive collapse does not automatically mean suspension.

  • joeCanuck

    the SoS will be a Tory

    Wouldn’t hang my hat on that, Bonarlaw.
    From a speech last year:

    Mr Cameron, distancing himself from Conservative sympathies for the grammar system, said: “I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system.”

  • BonarLaw

    joeCanuck

    “The Conservative Party… does not want to go back to the grammar school system.”

    Not quite the same as abolishing an existing system is it?

  • kensei

    No, not like last time because academic selection has not been abolished and cannot be abolished by any ministerial solo run. If the executive collapses (so what?) you would have the situation as it is now with academic selection retained and all schools funded. How is that a Provo win?

    The scenario is that Ruane stops selection and blocks funds to any schools that attempts to run their own tests. As you point out, there are accountability methods within the Assembly that could probably overturn the decision. In which case, there is no need to stop departmental funding and likely collapse the Executive. So, saber rattling.

    If on the other hand, a loophole is exploited that prevents those mechanisms working and the only way to stop it is to stop funding, then collapsing the Assembly will not unmake the decision. This issue will hit the fan before the next election and there is no guarantee what will happen with regards the issue — it’s out of Unionism’s hands. And if SF are adamant, and the DUP are adamant over selection, the result will be some sort of horrible fudge.

    Both sides are issuing idle threats.

  • Bob Wilson

    Not sure where you dug up that quote Joe – suspect it was in an English contxt – but for the record the Conservative Party, including the Leader, respects the wishes of the majority in NI to retain selection.
    Any future Tory SoS would certainly fund a grammar school entrance test

  • Mark McGregor

    This to me is indicative of the Assembly dynamic. While there is supposed to be mutually balancing vetoes, what we actually see is one of the most senior DUP Ministers willing to threaten his version of MAD over an uppity relatively junior Shinner being interviewed on TV but SF won’t make the hint of a complaint at any level while their every pet project is firmly rebutted and trampled into dust.

  • joeCanuck

    The quote was from a BBC report, Bob.
    It was followed up by a supporting release on the Conservative website at the time. Don’t know if they have archives to search.
    Yes it was in an English (British?) context.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Turgon:

    I am inclined to agree that it is not necessarily an orange green issue but believe me it has become some kind of totem pole to many many unionists.

    Indeed. The Sinn Fein behaviour is insane. I don’t mind having a debate on selection, but that’s not what they’re doing – they’re railroading a policy through without consultation based on their own prejudices. I wouldn’t be quite so sore about it if it were a project to build a road or something, but this is children’s education we’re messing with here.

  • BonarLaw

    joeCanuck

    it was in an English context. If it was in a British context then there would be a problem.

  • joeCanuck

    I wasn’t sure if Scotland and Wales had separate education systems, Bonarlaw.

    I trust you are not referring to the tedious and inconsequential argument about whether or not Northern Irish people are British. As far as I am concerned, legally they are Northern Irish but colloqually, usage can supercede strict pedantry and they are British if they consider themselves so.

  • BonarLaw

    joeCanuck

    all four constituent parts of the UK have separate education systems although those of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are closely related.

    I trust you were not attempting via clumsy language to start a tedious and inconsequential argument. Although I note your legal opinion and on behalf of jurists world-wide thank you for it.

  • joeCanuck

    Heaven forbid that I should have clumsily restarted that argument, Bonarlaw.
    There is no need to be sarcastic, though.
    I don’t have a high opinion of nationality arguments.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Although I note your legal opinion and on behalf of jurists world-wide thank you for it.

    I bet you’re a barrel of laughs in the pub on a Friday night. Are you training to be the next Bob McCartney ? He’s a QC, you know.

  • Hogan

    If anyone believes that Ruane is deliberately fucking this one up to curry sympathy with nationalist voters in the sense that unionists hate her for getting rid of the 11+ here’s a newsflash for y’all

    Nationalist parents don’t have anymore of a fucking clue what is going to happen to their little Seamus’s and Sorcha’s in 24 months time anymore than Unionist parents.

    They don’t like it either. The weak mummerings of protest that she has come up against so far from the Bishops and the ‘catholic’ teaching unions will seem like a bun-fight compared to the wider-public reaction if this debacle continues much longer.

    That is a reality that will bite Ruane hard on her arse if she has the audacity to put her name on the South Down ballot paper 09/10.

    Nationalists may have a stereotype for being lazy but we still prefer those of who reach the dizzy heights of government to be fucking competent!