Ruane no U turns and compromise

Admit all the other end of year analyses I noticed this one by BBC Northern Ireland’s Education correspondent Maggie Taggart. Meanwhile Henry McDonald in the Guardian has suggested that education will become the major political struggle of the next few months.

Martin McGuinness has defended Ruane stating “The predominant view of this has to be the view of the minister. Caitriona Ruane is entitled to be respected, just as we must respect other ministers. I think there has been a very vicious campaign mounted against her by the old establishment.” However, he did seem to offer some possibility of a compromise: “Just as we resolved the issue of policing and justice, there is a challenge to the DUP and Sinn Féin to find a way forward on education to ensure that all of our children can reach their full potential, and none will receive letters in the post branding them failures,” he said. “That’s what I see as one of our top priorities.”

Although McGuinness may be correct that Ruane has been the victim of a “vicious campaign” it is disingenuous to view her as an innocent in all this. Whether or not she set out to sow chaos in education or whether it was an accidental achievement is unclear. Ruane is probably not stupid but she has managed to antagonise large numbers of albeit essentially establishment figures: that much was probably inevitable. However, she has also singularly failed to produce any viable framework other than the vague ideas that transfer would occur at 14, would involve local transfer and that a compromise of decreasing numbers of academically selected children would be allowed for three years. The problem is that none of those ideas are by definition wrong but Ruane has failed to flesh any of them out. Had she instructed her civil servants to develop a plan she could then have put forward a costed organised strategy for post primary education. That might have been defeated by the DUP’s veto on the end of academic selection but it would have meant that Ruane would have been much less open to criticism.

In addition an organised plan might have set up a virtuous circle for Ruane. There is no obvious requirement why unionists must be pro grammar schools: it is not actually in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Whilst many of us have gained from a grammar school education; we all have family members who “failed” the exam, sometimes when they were actually very academically gifted and we have hence, all seen the inequities which the system produces. In addition I am sure any of us who went to grammar school would remember those children who got there having passed the 11 plus but who quite clearly could not cope with such a school, ended up failing all the class exams, getting told of by teachers (frequently less than sympathetically) and eventually vanished at the end of first or second form; presumably exiled to the dreaded “intermediate.”

The problem of social mobility (a difficulty throughout the UK) is also (in NI) tied up with grammar schools. Once the 11 plus and grammars offered a way by which bright working class children could advance themselves: both my parents, part of the “baby boom” were from working class backgrounds, passed the exam and ended up going to university. That social mobility has to a large extent failed especially amongst the most deprived sections of the working class: very, very few children from the Shankill Road go to grammar schools.

Clearly comprehensive education is no panacea for such ills (social mobility has declined markedly in GB despite an almost entirely comprehensive system). In addition there would have been the severe danger of at least some of the Belfast grammars declaring UDI and becoming fee paying (though that could have ended up with many a legal battle). However, a costed, worked out system might have made life at least a bit more uncomfortable for the unionist politicians opposing Ruane. In addition had Ruane tacked some sort of academic selection in somewhere (maybe at 14) it might have weakened the DUP’s veto. In such a set of circumstances the opposition to Ruane would have looked much more shrill, much less reasonable and much more based on bigotry and prejudice rather than on opposition to incompetence and chaos.

Of course Ruane has done none of these things: there is no plan beyond that which could be sketched out on a single A4 sheet of paper, she has few answers in the assembly, apparently fewer when teachers and other actual “educationalists” receive the opportunity to meet her. I hear that on at least one occasion a meeting with teachers began with a long speech in Irish, it then being translated into English and hence, very little time for such inconveniences as questions. Ruane rarely gives media interviews and other SF members frequently have to be drafted in to answer for her. When she does give interviews these can be bizarre affairs with her failing to respond to questions other than by giving the same formulaic answer and denying Canute fashion that there is absolute confusion amongst teachers, parents and pupils. In Ruane’s case, however, there seems little evidence that her position is an deliberate parable of humility; more likely Pliny the elder’s apocryphal ostrich defence strategy.

We may not absolutely require a solution to the education problem: the grammars can set their own tests, the secondaries can gradually close due to falling numbers and life can struggle onwards. However, if we are to have a properly organised move towards the future there is going to have to be some sort of change in the current impasse.

It may well require the removal of Ruane to achieve any compromise. The problem is of course that for SF to remove Ruane would be seen as a significant political defeat for them. Last time they had an utterly incompetent minister (deBrun at health) SF were able to kick her upstairs to the European parliament in order to get rid of her. With Ruane it is a bit more difficult: SF parachuted her into South Down; exactly why has never been clear but dismissal after so meteoric a rise would be embarrassing In addition the SF defence of Ruane has been pretty complete thus far; as such to knife her becomes increasingly politically costly. The repeated claims, however, that the generalised opposition to her is all an establishment plot or it is because she is a young, female, southerner tend to wear a bit thin. Gildernew for example is all those except from the Republic and it stretches credulity a little too thin to suggest that her place of birth is the cause of her unpopularity.

As I suggested above removing Ruane would be seen as a defeat for SF. There is, however, I suppose one possible way in which it could be done which could assuage this problem. I am not predicting the following scenario but I float it as a possible solution for the DUP and SF. Ruane’s removal could be choreographed to coincide with the devolution of policing and justice. Hence, what would be seen as a major SF victory (and something I expect this year) could be counter balanced with the removal of Ruane (perceived as a DUP victory). For republicans this would have the added bonus that they would get rid of someone whom surely all save their most naïve supporters realise is not up to the job. In addition even a small element of compromise from any new SF education minister could be presented as a great leap forward demonstrating the value of the executive, coalition government etc. etc.

To continue this conspiracy theory; one might see Ruane’s most recent outburst regarding Bobby Sands as her attempting to shore up her support with the most hardline of SF types and present herself as the one in the party with her finger most directly on the pulse of working class disadvantaged republicans. In such a scenario she could then portray herself as having been sacrificed by SF for reasons of political expediency. She could even try rebranding her self as a sort of SF Tribune of the Plebs.

As I have suggested this is simply a conspiracy theory kite I am flying due to the lack of other political goings on. As I mentioned at the start, however, McGuinness seems to be targeting education as an important area for change and practically everyone across the political spectrum seems to feel that the current state of drift needs to be ended. There seems little likelihood that unionists will accept Ruane’s ideas of change: hence, someone is going to have to change something. Ruane seems to be saying “The Lady’s Not for Turning” and appears to wish to go on and on. Hence, maybe she needs dumped ? Another compromise in the offing? Or if she goes should we all “Just rejoice at that news?”

  • Comrade Stalin

    Marty says :

    The predominant view of this has to be the view of the minister. Caitriona Ruane is entitled to be respected, just as we must respect other ministers.

    Isn’t this is the same chap who said that Margaret Ritchie had “lost the run of herself” ?

  • Firinne

    “Just as we resolved the issue of policing and justice”

    Another porky pie from Martín

  • cynic

    With the Minister’s approach she will get nowhere nor will anyone else. The reality will be a shambles. She is clearly just not up to the job having been parachuted in by Gerry, one assumes for internal party reasons.

    Of course it may just have been a reward for her role in the development of the Féile an Phobail in West Belfast (it’s politically unconnected you know….honest ….now give us grant)or even for her more recent contribution to bird watching holidays in South America (which again was totally unconnected to Sinn Fein …honest)

    Whatever the reason she’s not hacking it. Something has to give.

  • David

    Ruane may not be stupid, but her thoughts seem confined to applying simplistic left-wing dogma and slogans to the ever changing complexities of life. She would probably make a good academic in a social anthropology department, but someone like this should not be given the power to cock anything up in the real world.

  • Silver Line


    Would you agree Ruane has angered alot within he own community on education hence some Catholic Grammar schools going solo?

  • edward

    Has anyone considered that since so little rancour is coming from her own party that she is doing exactly what her party wants her to?

    SF has no ability to force through the changes it wants but then no one else does either, so by dogedly sticking to her message she is forcing the cracks to appear in the other facade. DUP has already notably agreed that the 11+ was a bad deal, though with muted tones, and its just a matter of SF intransigence till selection will be at 14 and eventually selection at all will be gone

    It appears SF were paying attention to Paisley after all

    NO! NO! NO!

  • Turgon

    Silver Line,
    I agree entirely and I think that has been Ruane’s greatest failing from her own point of view. Had she had an organised competent alternative she would have carried most nationalists and many unionists with her and as such would have presented the DUP with a bigger problem. It would also have strengthened her position as a leading SF member: who knows she might have been a possible future leader. Now I think she has damaged her position, irrevocably in terms of leadership I would suggest.

    Turning to edward I see where you are coming from but I think she has lost support from nationalists outside SF and I am unsure how much actual support she has in SF. Yes there may be some cracks in the DUP position but I would suggest that had she put forward an proper alternative there would not be small cracks in the DUP position but huge fissures with the unionists community’s view of her proposals. That would not have produced unionists voting for SF nor a united Ireland next week but would have created much greater discomfort within the DUP.

    Her position is not going to increase middle class RC support for SF, which is the obvious place for SF to gain support now. The logical option for her now is to try to be “Tribune of the Plebs” and the Sands speech makes sense in that context. However, in such a role she is less convincing that a number of other SF members: Martina Anderson springs to mind as a more obvious carrier of such a banner.

  • slug

    I wonder if she is helpful from a unionist point of view. If the median nationalist dislikes her then it will keep SF from taking the South Down seat.

    Margaret Ritchie versus Caitriona Ruane is a very interesting comparison in nationalist terms.

  • Turgon

    I would have no doubt that is correct. I did not put it in the blog but I wondered if SF could have removed Ruane from education in order for her to fight South Down in the certainty that she would lose and hence, get rid of her from a prominent position. Their problem with that is of course that that would not work as they do not sit at Westminster and Gildernew, McGuinness and Murphy are all also MPs.

    As it stands they seem trapped into running her in South Down and against Ritchie I would not rate her chances at all. Their only option might be to remove her from education and run her in a European seat in the RoI.

    I think their best bet is to dump her as policing and justice is devolved and make it look like she was the price the DUP demanded. Most throughout NI would be pleased and any Ruane supporters could be appeased by the victory of P&J;devolution.

    As I said in the main blog this is just a kite I am flying but I thought it was an interesting idea.

  • edward


    Do you honestly in your heart believe that any alternative to the status quo was going to fly with the DUP?

    Because I don’t. It was going to be no no no, regardless of the proposal so you might as well shoot for the moon and stick to your position

  • Turgon

    I am not so sure. If SF had produced an attractive set of proposals it might have been more difficult for the DUP simply to say No. Even had they done this SF in general and Ruane in particular would have looked better in all this.

    Take the policing and justice issue. We can all argue the toss about whose fault it was etc. but there is a valid set of arguments. The reality is that on education almost everyone feels that Ruane is in the wrong: even those who do not like grammar schools. Her tactics have been very poor. Had they been better she might or might not have succeeded but she would have put her party and herself in a better position. She has failed to achieve this and I suspect that many in SF would be delighted to be rid of her.

  • edward


    the entire party manifesto of the DUP can be summed up in one word “intrasigence”, that being the case if the only thing Ruane wanted to do was change the name of the test then it still would have been anti-british and a bridge too far for the DUPers.

    They have left a lot of the field to TUVers but the word still lies at the heart of the party

  • Mack

    I don’t know what her plans were / are. Academic selection for second level, when you want large numbers to proceed to third level is a bad idea. As are GCSEs by the way, and A-levels are too narrowly focused – you want kids to graduate at 18 (not 16!) with a broad base of knowledge and thus flexibility. You don’t have to copy the socialist English comphrensive system.

    Why don’t the other parties take a look at best practice elsewhere and force the minister to implement that?

  • Gregory

    “Caitriona Ruane is entitled to be respected”

    George Meehan’s background was more acceptable.

    I honestly don’t see why she should be respected, what I see, from my personal dealings, is somebody who is entirely unsuitable for the office she is in.

    (and I live in Squinterville)

    For example, she was on TV, or at least in the news next to Patrick Corrigan,

    Her dept. probably hasn’t put together two sentences of narrative relative to the ICCPR. UNCRC, or just about anything else, her track record on human rights is slight, and in its slightness, may not even be a positive.

    For example, I begged her to get on the right side of the Sikh Bangle issue, and I got a ministerial slap in the face for having the temerity to ask.

    (the Sikh girl was as it happens vindicated)

    She told me ( in a letter) she was happy with the existing guidance from London ( which was effectively a ban on Sikhs) and was going to apply it and was going to consult *nobody* in that process.

    So it is spin over compliance, and I refer you to the photo of her with Patrick. It also illustrates how little Amnesty Ni invest in researching their issues, they too go for the media flim flam, over substance.

    “Ruane is probably not stupid but she has managed to antagonise large numbers of albeit essentially establishment figures”

    I thought she was some kind of potentially quite capable person, at the centre of SF cleverness, who just didn’t listen, arrogance, I suppose, is a good word, allied to the conceded intellect.

    It is quite difficult to find anybody, be it a neutral or a foe, prepared to defend the way she behaves.

    Is it possible she is quite stupid?

    I’m not saying that to be nasty, I’ve dealt with dozens of politicians over the last two or three years, and I’m beginning to suspect, Minister Ruane, may not be the sharpest tool in the box.

    Obviously, I’m a known, critic, and so, well she is not going to go out of her way to impress me, and so I don’t really know,

    “Margaret Ritchie versus Caitriona Ruane is a very interesting comparison in nationalist terms.”

    I don’t have mind flaps over option A.

    From the perspective of UNCRC compliance, I find Ms Ruane quite scary and remarkably unhelpful.


  • Essentialist

    One basic premise in your thread requires adressing. Ruane is not the problem here. While she may have a plethora of problems associated with her competency, behaviour and personality she is not responsible for the current mess. Unless those who are responsible are weeded out Northern Ireland’s education system will descend further into chaos.

    Now Martin McGuinness continued this descent with his precipitous declaration abolishing the 11-plus but this was occasioned by the result of a massive public opinion exercise he initiated. It gave a result he didn’t like but Martin and his advisors have been unable to convert public opinion either through Teflon Tony’s direct rulers or one of Adam’s Babes.

    The job of the proposer is to deliver the workable solution not for the unionist community to “compromise” on a S.F. diktat.
    Every time those responsible for the debacle are identified distractors come on to deflect attention.
    With immutable deadlines now imminent the panic is setting in.
    Instead of some impossible comprehensive compromise time and effort needs to be spent on flushing out those responsible for the mess.

    Start with Gavin Boyd, Tony Gallagher, Wilfred Mulryne, Donal McKeown, Gilly Irwin,Carmel Gallagher,Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, John Gardner.

    Their common links and cross fertilization of failed initiatives and ideas make it quite a simple task.

    Take the failure to poduce an 11-plus alternative, the revised curriculum, the pupil profile, the entitlement framework, collegiates etc. They all came from these people wearing one of many “educationalist” hats.

    Sorry to unravel your thread Turgon but blaming Caitriona Ruane doesn’t come close to getting to the core of the problem.

    Parents and pupils throughout Northern Ireland deserve better than this. Is the fact that there are at least two tests; a Catholic one and the “AQE” test not evidence enough of these people’s collective incompetence?

    It seems that a return to the 11-plus will turn out to be the “compromise” How ironic.

  • Gregory

    “Sorry to unravel your thread Turgon but blaming Caitriona Ruane doesn’t come close to getting to the core of the problem.”

    With all due respect, a ship has to look to its Captain for positioning and navigation is the art of the possible. That’s not simplistic, its just true.

    Ruane in my opinion and I am aware of various political approaches to her, is immune to reasonableness.

    SF people have conceded to me privately she is a problem within their context.

    It doesn’t matter how simple or multifaceted issues are,

    Ruane is capable of being as unreasonable with the easy as the complex.

  • David

    “Ruane is capable of being as unreasonable with the easy as the complex.”

    It sounds like she is just the same in person as she comes across on TV. Blindly dogmatic and always believing that she knows best, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

  • Jim Henson – Muppett Master

    The captain of this navy is the pirate Gavin Boyd. Until he is thrown into the stockade and his various ships scuttled the education seas remain unsafe for navigation.

  • Gregory

    “It sounds like she is just the same in person as she comes across on TV. Blindly dogmatic and always believing that she knows best, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.”

    There was a fear she would have been the person to test that most feared of Catholic issues as a working possibility.

    She is (to pro-Vatican Catholics) a bit of a loose cannon, whether it is because she is a Machiavellian apparatchik,

    or something less clever than that,

    we simply don’t really know. It is complex, the usual exchanges, do not happen, because the Northern Bishops, are often a fly in the ointment in their own right.

    Having said that, a faux friend, is often worse than an outright enemy, the more Blair flattered the English hierarchy, the more circumstances went down hill.

    I would surely say an ‘arrogant’ personality with the bells and whistles.


  • Gregory

    ‘The captain of this navy is the pirate Gavin Boyd. Until he is thrown into the stockade and his various ships scuttled the education seas remain unsafe for navigation.’

    Gavin Boyd? C. Ruane likes people to say ‘yes’.

    I think the probs begin when you say ‘no’ to her.

    And if the scenario has an impossibility of ‘no’

    the relationship goes out the window,

    a bit like Miranda Richardson (Queen Elizabeth I of England) in Blackadder.

  • Essentialist

    Consider that it was Ruane who said yes to Gavin Boyd, Tony Gallagher Wilfred Mulryne et al.

    You don’t actually believe that the part-time direct rulers dreamt up the changes to education in Northern Ireland during their flights over do you?

    Gavin Boyd is now in charge of the entire education picture and you want to blame Ruane.
    Follow the money.

  • Jim Henson – Muppett Master

    Turgon said

    “That social mobility has to a large extent failed especially amongst the most deprived sections of the working class: very, very few children from the Shankill Road go to grammar schools.”

    Add to your list of those responsible for the current chaos one Betty Orr of Edenbrooke Primary School, Tennant Street Belfast.

    Mrs Orr, a poodle of Peter Hain, was quite the evangelist for the early years enriched curriculum project. Her opposition to academic selection has clouded her responsibility to the the most deprived sections of the working class.

    Therapy isn’t what these children need -they need to be taught numeracy and literacy but that takes more work than some principals and teachers are prepared to invest.

    Perhaps Mrs Orr can explain to you Turgon why she is satisfied that “very, very few children from the Shankill Road go to grammar schools”.

    I’ll bet she blames selection.