Has Martin McGuinness blocked John O’Dowd’s proposed abolition of the Catholic certificate?

This is the story of two Ministers, John O’Dowd and Martin McGuinness. They’re not brothers, but political comrades in the same party.  In this episode of Stormont Soap the Sinn Fein Education Minister protests that he wants to remove Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies.

The Catholic Certificate in Religious Education also just happens to represent a key argument in the continued independence of St Mary’s College, where almost all new teachers for the Catholic maintained schools system are trained.

At the same time, the Sinn Fein TD MP for West Belfast Paul Maskey, where St Mary’s College is situated, has challenged the Catholic educated Minister for Higher Education Stephen Farry in his determination to close St Mary’s on the grounds of cuts imposed on his department by Mr Maskey’s own political colleague Mr McGuinness.

Mr Farry is not a political relative of either Mr McGuinness or Mr O’Dowd, but he does want to amalgamate the college with its apparently estranged half sister college Stranmillis. Mr Maskey (who has no direct influence at either Stormont or Westminster) is currently challenging Minister Farry’s mandate with a very quite large petition.

Any way, here’s the breaking news in Hansard:

Mr McCausland: In view of the number of places to which trained teachers can apply, and if the Minister has the number who are being trained, will he tell us whether he would support the removal of the requirement that to teach in Roman Catholic maintained schools requires a special certificate, which is viewed by many people as a discriminatory practice?

Mr O’Dowd: That is a matter for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to take on board. I have written to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on several occasions, and I am awaiting a response. Personally, I believe that it should be removed. However, it is up to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to carry that matter forward.

Meanwhile, at OFMdFM, Mr McGuinness’ some time friend, some time enemy, the First Minister Peter Robinson seems to have quietly dropped his previously expressed concerns about the “protection of the ethos of the [Stranmillis] college”. Mr McGuinness is saying nothing.

In the meantime Mr O’Dowd told DUP MLA Thomas Buchanan, that Protestant teachers might get a job in Catholic schools by sitting for the certificate in, amongst other places, in St Mary’s sister college Stranmillis:

Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Education what action he is taking to free up the pathway for teachers from within the Unionist community to access employment in schools in the maintained [Catholic] sector. (AQT 2062/11-15)

Mr O’Dowd: I assume that the Member’s question refers to the Catholic certificate for teaching purposes, which was raised during Question Time. The Member may be aware that the certificate is available to non-Catholic members of the community through distance learning courses at, I think, the University of Glasgow and perhaps also through Stranmillis, so there are a number of opportunities for non-Catholic teachers to achieve that certificate and teach in the maintained sector.

Mr Buchanan: Does the Minister not accept that it is a barrier, and that the barrier is discrimination against teachers from the Unionist community?

Mr O’Dowd: I accept that it is certainly a perceived barrier. My personal view is that it should be done away with. In the teaching of the sacraments, I believe that there are other ways of achieving that objective and goal for the Catholic sector rather than every teacher having a certificate. The Member will also be aware that any change to equality legislation is the responsibility of OFMDFM.

Which would leave only the deputy First Minister as the key block on the Education Minister’s desire. And why would he do that? Well, the Alliance party is keen to tell the world that the business case for training the present number of Northern Irish teachers is sketchy to say the least:

In reply to a question from Trevor Lunn of Alliance, the minister said the current annual intake was 165 for St Mary’s University College and 169 for Stranmillis University College, and that numbers had been cut by 30% in recent years.

Mr Lunn said that only 18% of new teachers found jobs within a year of graduation, and asked how the minister could justify training places “for probably more than 50% more than the number of teachers we actually need”.

Mr O’Dowd said he believed it would be a mistake “to lose that economic driver which is in our communities”, and that “what we can do instead is we can close our teacher training colleges down and send all those young people over to England”.

Abolishing the Catholic Certificate in Religious Education as Mr O’Dowd claims he wants to, would also undo the most coherent religious arguments for keeping St Mary’s separate from Stranmillis, which co-incidentally would not be very good for business for Sinn Fein in west Belfast just now.

And what of the deputy First Minister? At yet another potentially politically awkward moment, he has anonymous death threats to deal with if anyone’s asking? [Which they aren’t, apparently – Ed.]

So, having fought Mr Robinson to a standstill over a Welfare package Mr McGuinness himself helped negotiate (then capitulated, erm, to his own deal), it looks very like Mr McGuinness has stopped Mr O’Dowd’s proposals in case they harm mandates in Belfast and his own rural hinterland which predominantly feeds the student body of St Mary’s.

Unless, of course, it was that dastardly Peter Robinson just trying to make it look like no one in Sinn Fein has been watching the nationalist farm?

Tune in next time, for another episode of Sinn Fein’s long running Stormont soap: never mind the policy, protect the mandate!! 

Confused? You will be… 

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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