There are two main themes exercising me right now. These are bigotry and sectarianism in our politics and political self interest which is, in a sense, linked to the first matter of concern. I will return to bigotry and sectarianism in the coming days and weeks. It would be naieve to expect the SDLP to be ever concerned with the well-being of the DUP as a political party, and vice versa. This truism is applicable in parliaments in London, Washington and in Dublin. There is a difference however and of necessity there has to be, where you have government, that is interdependent for its continued existence upon other political parties.There is a fundamental onus on government to work and to care for all the people. In Northern Ireland we have a diarchy heading up the administration in the Executive. That means the First and deputy First Minister are co-responsible and co-equal in every sense. They are paid the same salary mindful of one’s elected status in two parliaments.
Does the Catholic community in Northern Ireland sense that it has an Executive fronted up by a diarchy? The answer is no.
In a recent Belfast Telegraph interview Peter Robinson spoke of his remit being to promote the interests of Unionism informed by his party’s manifesto. Peter Robinson is First Minister for all the people in accordance with the job definition of his ‘office.’
Mr Robinson appears to have set aside the co-equal nature of his office and the obligation resting on his shoulders as First minister to you, to me and to everyone else. Essentially he appears to share his brain with his community. When he talks about the need for ‘ the community’ having ‘confidence’ in any transfer of policing and justice is anyone convinced he is concerning himself with the worries or interests of the nationalist community ?
If he is, he is failing to get his message across to that community.
This absence of genuine concern at the heart of government for the whole community is far too often fuelled by a preoccupation with selfish party interest and survival. And yet, under the current system, the concern of all should be the concern of every minister in the Executive.
In my view, it is time for a radical approach to education in Northern Ireland. The argument for such an approach is fundamental from a caring Unionist political perspective. At the heart of this argument rests the inability of thousands of working class Protestant children to find a pathway into proper post primary educational structures.
Eighty per cent plus of catholic and Protestant children in South Belfast schools gain access to grammar schools. This is not an accident. These families are well resourced and have the necessary funds to have their children tutored regardless of cost. The children are further advantaged because they have opportunities to travel and to embrace a wider life’s experience.
None of this should lead anyone to conclude that children in Rathcoole, Sandy Row, Kilcooley or working class Protestant districts lack fundamental intelligence. That would be to visit an injustice on those areas and the people live within them. But that innate intelligence in poor Protestant areas is not being tapped and developed.
Peter Robinson did not ‘transfer’ according to himself. He did however end up in Annadale Grammar School that was. He more than anyone else should know what it is like to be considered ‘a failure.’
Unionist politicians argue the answer to finding a pathway into grammar schools for poor Protestant children is pumping more money into primary school education. That will not necessarily resolve the problem. There is a world of difference socially between the make-up of the community in the Lower Shankill and that of South Belfast’s Malone Road. The only solution may well be an open door policy to well resourced schools for post 11 or 14 year olds. It is hoped in those schools that the children will find their own level.
No government or administration worth its salt should refuse to allow any item of major public interest reaching the cabinet table whatever the personal position of another minister happens to be. The Executive or Cabinet is established to grapple with difficult subjects and to arrive at a consensus in the interest of all. To not allow a paper on education onto the table, however repugnant it might be is to abdicate.
It is no secret that some members of the DUP loathe what Michael McGimpsey says and does as Health minister. Does this mean his proposals or the proposals of the sometimes wonderfully eccentric Sammy Wilson shouldn’t be discussed at Executive level? How absurd would that be!!!!
Therefore it is not acceptable for DUP ministers to block Caitriona Ruane’s plans for education coming before the Executive, even if they abhor that for which she stands intellectually. Collectivity or collegiality at cabinet/Excutive level should be protected and fostered, not abused.
Similarly the ‘office’ of First and deputy First minister should not be corroded in any way by either minister. People need hope in this era of economic gloom. This demands leadership in the interest of all the community and not just in the interest of one’s own constituency.
It was regrettable that there was not a single reference to either protestants or Unionists in Dr. Alasdair Mc Donnell’s literature linked to his bid for the leadership of the SDLP. He is one of the ‘good guys’ who is reaching out to the protestant church leaders and to his credit built up the gasworks site on the Ormeau Road through hard work with Reg Empey.
Big thinking is in short supply in Parliament Buildings. Shortsightedness and pure selfish political interests more often than not stifle growth and real care for people at the bottom of the pile.