“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.