Leadership recovered – now what?

My old friend Ed Curran has a long record of observing politics that is almost unrivalled among those still writing today (apart from arch patriarch Jimmy Kelly). Ed has been treating Bel Tel readers to reality checks about the nature of unionism and its leadership, a topic that greatly exercises Slugger comment. He is surely right to say that Peter Robinson has staged a quiet comeback as DUP leader and First Minister in the wake of his stunning defeat in East Belfast last May. A cautious consensus is emerging that the DUP may now emerge as the largest party in next May’s Assembly elections and stave off the threat, if I may call it that, of a Sinn Fein First Minster.

In the same spirit of appalling frankness with which he greeted the election of Tom Elliot as leader of the UUs, Ed writes of Robinson’s latest sally on integrated education:

(Peter’s) speech about the iniquities of segregated education has helped him strike DUP gold…. Can anyone think of a better way to unite the party faithful behind him than to say Catholic education should not be funded by the state? All the doubting Williams – never mind Thomases – in the DUP now can sleep easy in the knowledge that their leader has pitted himself, in the best traditions of the party, against the Vatican. .

Ed is careful to balance striking ” political gold ” with the DUP with hitting   the base metal of arousing Catholic fury.

That said, the First Minister’s suggestion that faith-based schools should not be funded by the state is so unrealistic as to be preposterous.

Ed is certainly right there.  Even if they were too easily dismissed as ” rabble rousing,” Peter’s tossed off remarks were hardly the best way to present a considered challenge to deeply held views on separate Catholic education. I may be wrong but I did not get the impression that  he was blowing a dog whistle  to  rally grass roots DUP support.  Is there not a third way to take a political trick without stirring sectarian controversy?

In an earlier column,  Ed endorsed what he sees as a new sense of reality in Tom Elliot’s emergence as UU party leader.

Progressive liberal unionism may be the darling of the media, but it is not a vote-catcher and the Ulster Unionist party has awoken to that fact.

He goes on to point to Jim Molyneaux’s success in holding down the party leadership for what seemed like an eternity. Ed is too generous here. In fact, Jim lived in perpetual terror that one day he would be blindsided, and sure enough, he was. And what sort of success was it to hide in a cul de sac for fifteen years and what sort of failure,  for Trimble to negotiate the GFA under which unionism grumbles but survives and even flourishes?

Perhaps for our generation,  the scars of old failures are too vivid. What’s missing  in this analysis  is the quality of leadership. Remember Tony Blair’s taunt to John Major in the last days of Conservative majority rule: 

” I lead my party; he follows his.”  

 Longevity in leadership or even party supremacy is not main measure of success.  Leadership requiring a balance between holding on to party support and striking out in new directions for the sake of longed for stability is always at a premium. When the needs of party and community come into better balance we will have better government. The spasms of support from all sides for at least the notion of mixed schooling suggests that some of the old comfort zones are losing their appeal with the people and that deep down political leaders know that. Will they have courage to summon up these better thoughts from the deep or remain in the deceptive comfort of their traditional default positions?


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  • Drumlins Rock

    I think most people have missed why Robinson chose now to make his statement on Catholic education, I mainly suspect it is because Cat Ruin is proposing, with the establishment of the ESA, to water down still further what little influence the Protestant Churches have while at the same time leaving the Catholic sector virtually untouched, the unionist parties are currently blocking the proposals at the executive and SF have tried to use this as ammunition in the cost cutting debate, PR has launched a pre-emptive strike it seems.

  • Progressive liberal unionism may be the darling of the media

    This from the same Telelaugh that lambasted the dreaded NI Tory linkup everyday in the run up to election without any semblance of balance or reality check.

    Ed Curran is a failed editor in charge of a failing paper.

    Everything he has championed in the former national newspaper of NI has died a death – remember the Maze?

    And how predictably lame that even when given an agenda presumably the always on NIO message Curran supports – integrated education (how could you not support it?) – he finds the lowest common denominator of talking about the prods and the taigs.

    Gutter journalism at it’s worst. Although I didn’t really expect much better given the usual suspects have been out protecting the real bigotry endemic to our society in the past few days – a surely senile Paisley included.

    The debate in the mainstream papers once the not-an-inch wing of NI Roman Catholicism had spread their frankly poisonous viewpoints has been such a let down.

    “Integrated education? Sure it’s all about themmuns trying to do us out of our money!”


  • st etienne, Curran stepped down as BT editor in 2005; he’s now got the role of editor-in-chief of editorial policy for the INM group of papers in Belfast.

  • DR, I remember a few years ago IIRC a senior CoI cleric proposing the Protestant equivalent of the CCMS.

    The latest ESAIT update (December 2009) contains the following statement:

    “Under existing legislation, DE has begun the process of reducing membership of the ELBs by more than half.

    Arrangements for the Boards of CCEA, CCMS, Staff Commission and Youth Council are under review.”

    Why didn’t DE pursue a common approach?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Nevin, I think the original proposals were to bring all sectors fully under the new ESA, which would be in line with SF/socialist centralising policy, but at the first peep from the catholic church most of the CCMS role was taken out, for obvious electoral reason by the minister, but she bulldozed on with the rest virtually unaltered even though it didnt work very well any more with the majority of schools missing!

  • Curran: “much has changed as far as post- primary schooling is concerned. A level of cross-community interaction through inter-school activity ..”

    The EMU programme operated in primary as well as post-primary, Ed 😉

    Mind you, EMU had a lot less value than our inter-schools activities in Coleraine in the 70s and 80s. EMU brought young people together on the basis of difference whereas we had an open house for all.

  • DR, so Catriona stuck up her ass and Peter kicked it. That was bound to go down well with the party apparatchiks 🙂

  • Driftwood

    Ah yes, ESA – now what?

    Anyone an idea what’s a happenin’ ?

  • Seymour Major

    Ed Curran is right to highlight the responsibility of the Catholic church to do its bit to promote a better shared future for the children

    but Cardinal Sean Brady and the bishops have got to balance their desire for faith-based schooling against this community’s crying need for better understanding between Catholics and Protestants. A responsibility does rest at the feet of the bishops which they can’t ignore in the current economic climate.

    I totally agree with that. Political pressure should be applied upon the controllers of schools to produce more cross-community contact and activities for the children. In my opinion, the record of individual Catholic schools is very patchy. I speak from my own knowledge as a parent.

  • Drumlins Rock

    I do wonder will the catholic church engineer an increased degree of integration by accident with their current proposals for reform, ie. the proposed mergers of many of their grammar and secondary schools, will catholic parents op (as many already do) for the “protestant” grammars instead?

  • ThomasMourne

    Can anyone tell me what ‘progressive liberal unionism’ is?
    And can anyone give me an example of a ‘progressive liberal unionist?
    Would it be a member of PUP?
    Or that rugby fella who was in the news a while back?

  • Seymour Major


    That is an interesting supposition. Many catholic parents would prioritise the quality of their childrens’ education over and above having a “catholic-based” education.

    I know for certain that in our household, a non-catholic grammar school would have taken precedence over a catholic secondary school.

  • Drumlins Rock

    TM, i’m not quite sure but have met very few of them out canvasing, apart from students maybe! but most of them let mummy do the voting for them still!
    TBH i’m usually shocked by hardline many “mild mannered” peoples views are!

  • Coll Ciotach

    Drumlin – it seems they will – St Killians is getting them bussed in from Larne about 20 miles away rather than go to Larne Grammar on their doorstep. No appreciable “defection” rates observed.