Electioneering swung into sharp focus this morning when a gaggle of local politicians were wheeled into BBC Radio Ulster’s odious Nolan Show. The discussion (and I hesitate to use this word; ‘rant’ would be more appropriate) centered on integrated education while Nolan snorted and waved his arms in a display of predictable indignation. The entire episode reminded me of a 1970s James Young sketch, wherein various personalities exercised their sectarianism for cheap laughs. How little things have changed.
I didn’t catch the name of the Ulster Unionist representative, but he wasn’t one of the inner luminaries I recognised. He noted he was once in the UDR and squeaked for a little about terrorists in government. The DUP’s Iris Robinson upheld the state system and attacked integrated education, addressing Sinn Fein’s Catriona Ruanne as ‘That lady,’ while Ms Ruanne accused Mrs Robinson of playing the sectarian card. So far, so typical.
However, it was the SDLP’s Carmel Hannah who brought the quarrel to a depressing low in her description of local schools as either ‘Catholic schools’ or ‘Protestant schools’ thus underlining the sectarianism which I imagine is inherent in her party’s education policy. I was reminded of Richard Dawkins’ warning that we should never refer to children, for example, as ‘Catholic children’ but as ‘Children of Catholic parents’. The children are blank slates until they are conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, by zealous elders. Dawkins goes further and describes such contamination of child minds as akin to child abuse.
The squabble didn’t progress any further than these surface issues. No one was capable, or willing, to initiate an argument for the introduction of a secular education system. Ms Ruanne made the most coherent arguments, but stopped short of condemning the Catholic Church’s influence on schooling.
There was no mention of her own party’s mixed messages regarding the Private Finance Initiative – a government scheme which allows private companies to make huge profits through capital investment in the building of schools and hospitals. Indeed, during his brief tenure as education minister, Martin McGuinness acted like a master illusionist when he abolished the eleven-plus selection test with one hand, while administering PFI schemes with the other.
However, it would appear that the party has since backtracked on its support for PFI. In the introduction to a twenty-one-page policy paper on its website, Sinn Fein now condemns PFI as “An effort by the British Treasury to tighten its control over northern fiscal policy and to privatise public services.” Quite.
For a more coherent overview of the horrors of PFI, I suggest a trip to this article on George Monbiot’s site.
Meanwhile, I see that the Association for Quality Education (an alliance of groups opposed to the introduction of comprehensive education in Northern Ireland) has decreed that 'Computer Adaptive Testing' be considered in order to determine which child goes to which school. In short, the computer will decide. It's like something from dystopian fiction and conjures up images of rows of blank-faced children, plugged into flickering computer monitors while Stephen Nolan's missives ring in their ears.