Peter Robinson tactics, strategy and Stranmillis

Mick has a blog on Alex Kane’s latest column looking at Peter Robinson’s conference speech below as has Chris Donnelly. One line in it struck me that Robinson was a master strategist. I have in the past described Robinson as a good tactician but a poor strategist. However, more recently I have begun to think I was wrong and that the tactics had become so long term that they had become a strategy. Indeed the vision sketched out by Robinson is strategic and more forward looking than practically any in Northern Ireland in decades.

His remarks about Stranmillis College have, however, made me a bit less convinced though not necessarily in the manner which some suggest.

Firstly it is not necessarily hypocritical that Robinson has championed Integrated Education at the same time as riding to the defence of Stranmillis. It is indeed a place with a specific ethos: large numbers of the trainee teachers are highly religious; it has a more rural and much more female bias than most universities; it has a huge Christian Union and the religious make up of its students probably helps explain the high level of religious influence on state schools much more than the assorted Protestant prelates on the Boards of Governors of state schools. The majority of the students are Protestant (probably more than 90%) and in some ways it is a microcosm of middle class rural Protestant Northern Ireland.

The question arises why Peter Robinson is riding to the defence of Stramillis if he is so interested in Integrated Education and a shared society. The reason is not merely Jim Allister’s demands that something be done. There is the simple reason of equity. The Catholic Church runs St. Mary’s and it seems that whatever changes Steven Farry proposes to make to Stramillis are not going to be reciprocal with imminent changes to St. Mary’s. As such it is perfectly reasonable and compatible with a desire for Integrated Education to demand that Stramillis’s largely bottom up from the students Protestant ethos be preserved until such time as St Mary’s much more overt and top down from the Catholic church, Catholic ethos is changed. It is reasonable to ask why a private religious organisation is allowed to have not only its own schools but decide on its own teachers and not be amenable to fair employment legislation: all with state money. Until that is settled threatening Stranmillis’s ethos seems very one sided.

There are clearly honourable defences for the above position regarding the Catholic church but it is entirely reasonable for Robinson to insist that until such time as there is a thoroughgoing review and change of all teacher training within Northern Ireland, Stranmilli and its ethos should be protected.

Therefore there is no contradiction between strategy and tactics here. It is reasonable to say that we should all move forwards together into a shared society including a shared teacher training and education system but that we should all do that together. In view of the fall in numbers of pupils and hence, the reduced need for new teachers it would seem eminently reasonable to reduce the number of teacher training colleges: the fight as to which of Stramillis or St Mary’s should be the teacher training college or whether it should be elsewhere might well be bitter but it would be fair and right to end up with one main teacher training college for primary and many secondary teachers. There is already a precedent for integrated primary teacher training: for many years the NUU and later UUC at Coleraine taught trainee teachers. Those teachers were employed in both the Catholic and state sectors without quibble from prelates of either Catholic or Protestant denominations. Some classes were separate but the students did most classes together. Getting back to that system would be entirely reasonable be it at Coleraine, somewhere in Belfast or elsewhere.

However, this episode also demonstrates some of Robinson’s strategic mistakes or at least the limits on what he can achieve practically no matter what his strategic plans. He cannot force the amalgamation of St. Mary’s and Stramillis no more than he can force the integration of the state and Catholic sectors. Robinson gained significant concessions at St Andrews including the ability to veto changes which the DUP did not feel were in the interests of the unionist community and by in large they have used their veto or threat of it reasonably successfully. However, they also at St. Andrews handed Sinn Fein a veto on changes. This makes Robinson’s dream of Integrated Education very difficult to realise: furthermore the changes he has often suggested he wants to a proper form of collective responsibility and proper cabinet government – a normal democracy- can also be vetoed by Sinn Fein.

Although Robinson may have masterminded the strategy which brought the DUP to power and although he may have a strategy to ensure the union indefinitely he currently lacks the tactical levers to change things to enact this grand strategy. Yes unionism is in a better position than it was under Trimble and is in a better position than it has been for years:. Yes unionism is probably in a better position than nationalism / republicanism but the suspicion lingers that Robinson and the DUP could and should have achieved more at St. Andrews but that their lust for power stopped them holding out for what the strategy called for.

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  • carnmoney.guy

    St Marys are 3rd in student satisfaction list across all universities of all disciplines in UK, their students have the lowest unemployment rate of any teaching college in UK, the cost per student is lower than any other college in NI.
    A NI success story, so lets get rid of it.

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s a further fault with using this ‘shared future’ front.

    Catholic schools pound for pound perform better across the widest ability bands. That is partly because they are managed much better than the directly controlled maintained sector.

    So they ought to fall foul of an inversion of the DUP’s own ‘why kill excellence’ argument they themselves use for maintaining the selection principle with Grammars.

    I mention it because clearly the fear must be that if you kill off the Catholic college, the schools will be next.

    As someone mentioned on talkback the other day, employment prospects are better partly because Catholic schools are largely a closed shop to Stran graduated students.

  • Mick Fealty


    There’s an interesting constitutional side to this. We do not (yet) live in a secular Republic. Mr Robinson’s own party has defended the connection between church and state as a key constitutional principle of the Protestant settlement.

    Ironically, therein lies the answer as to why the state is able quite legitimately to fund church run schools. Not only does the British constitution not ban it, it possibly encourages it.

    In England C of E Schools are sometimes the only option available regardless of your religious status.

    You actually need to come with a tangible reason for removing the right of Catholic schools to receive state funding before anyone can be required to defend what’s been the status quo for several generations.

  • BluesJazz

    Just curious…

    Why do the Free Presbyterian run schools not receive state funding? I’m not suggesting they should, but what differentiates them from Catholic schools? Same with CoE schools in England.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think it’s because there was a deal done around the founding of Stran whereby the college was to have Protestant ethos (much against the wishes of Craig) and the schools would then be run by the state but staffed with good Proestant teachers.

    I’m not sure there is anything blocking the Free Ps from applying for funding other than critical mass. Could be wrong in that last though.

  • Mick,

    Were the Free P schools not started because the church objected to parts of the standard curriculum (such as evolution)? They could possibly apply for funding but then they’d need to toe the ungodly line.

  • Turgon

    I would not necessarily disagree with the point about keeping St Mary’s. The problem is changing Stranmillis but not St Mary’s. That is the validity of Robinson’s point: change both together but until then change neither. Where he has a problem is his inability to enact change: back to the issues of St Andrews.

    As an aside I have no doubt St. Mary’s is an excellent teacher training establishment. However, the low unemployment rate amongst their graduates is unliley to be hampered by the fact that the Catholic primary schools are allowed to discriminate in teaching appointments and this results in discrimination in favour of students trained in St Mary’s. Again not fundamentally wrong in view of the pretty analogous situation in state schools but it is the institutonalisation of division.

    I am not sure why the Free P schools were started (though you may well be correct). You are undoubtedly correct that the schools would not get funding as they do not teach all parts of the national curriculum

  • Framer

    Robinson may be interested in integrated education but he knows it won’t happen so he will never be tested. It sounds nice anyway.

    I am surprised St Mary’s graduate ‘students have the lowest unemployment rate of any teaching college in UK’ given the few vacancies in NI schools presently and the constant re-employment of pensioned teachers. Do they all emigrate?

    The other strong possibility is that they are getting jobs in state schools in larger numbers than are realised. Schools aren’t required to monitor their staff’s religion as every other workplace must on pain of imprisonment.

    State schools appointment panels by and large do not discriminate as they have no hurdle to see jumped like the Catholic religious teachers certificate and probably many don’t know they can discriminate. Most of the ads blether on about fair employment anyway despite the law not applying to schools.

  • Shibboleth

    I can’t see traditional DUP voters being best pleased with Robinson’s integrated education call. Indeed some of Robinson’s own children could possibly have been so educated in the aftermath of Enniskillen 1987 when integration got a stronger push. So why is he calling for it? A recent conversion or is he of the belief it may well help eat into Alliance’s vote share as the gain from the UUP has probably been maximised and he can’t hope to gain from the Unionist Right. Could it be memories of Naomi Long’s gain mean he wants to pull the carpet out from under Alliance?

  • Decimus

    The other strong possibility is that they are getting jobs in state schools in larger numbers than are realised.

    Hence the Poppy controversy in Dundonald High school.