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The ideology of reform
Education case study illustrates sectarian reality
16 May 2012
The journey from republicanism to administration of the Northern state rested on two main planks. One was the thesis first advanced by Michael Collins in relation to partition - that it was a transitional arrangement - a stepping stone to a united Ireland.
That plank was abandoned during the last election, when Sinn Fein came out of the closet as a populist Catholic party. What was left was a belief in the second plank - a belief that the Northern state can be gradually reformed - made more democratic and with greater rights for workers. It is a very popular and widely held view.
A key plank of this perspective was advanced by Sinn Fein when they took the education portfolio and announced that they would abolish the 11+. Alas, the reform fell on its face.
The Shinners were suckered out of millions for school building by the Catholic hierarchy, who first indicated that they would end selection and then expressed amazement at a "revolt" by Catholic grammars. The revolt was so acute that a member of the reform commission was simultaneously a governor of a "revolting" grammar.
Unofficial transfer tests were instituted. This being the North, the claim of a dying sectarianism was refuted when we ended up with two tests - one Catholic and the other Protestant.
At the beginning of May Sinn Fein education minister John O'Dowd attempted to breathe life into the reform by announcing that "action would be taken" against primary schools preparing pupils for the unofficial tests. The statement was purest bluster. The action proposed was writing a stern letter. The purpose of the statement was to remind Sinn Fein supporters of the party's claims of radicalism.
Unfortunately for Sinn Fein, First Minister Peter Robinson also has obligations to the DUP. These are to assure them that Sinn Fein's position is entirely subordinate and that the system of sectarian and class privilege that the DUP defend in education will be preserved. Within days he announced that there was no prospect of agreement on transfer and that he would take steps to introduce a single official transfer test.
So absolutely no sign of reform in an area where a large section of the population would support it. Even where reform is agreed, as with the creation of a single Education Authority, the process is hollowed out by building the old sectarian interests inside the new body. Even then fine tuning of the different class and sectarian interests means the agreement may never be implemented.
If reform isn't working there are plenty of things that are working. The Sinn Fein programme of austerity and of privatization of school building and of nursery provision means thousands of teacher redundancies and many school closures, with the minister reduced to rare press announcements where limited spending is counted twice or three times to announce recycled initiatives. The massive cuts agenda rolls on. In the absence of reform of the 11+ grammars will be protected and the cuts will fall on secondary schools and on working-class areas.
The mechanism that keeps the whole show on the road is the system of sectarian privilege sponsored by the British. Sinn Fein no longer blather about taking the first ministers position – such a development would be likely to collapse the agreement. Indeed recent amendments bar them forever from the justice ministry and they no longer bid for major financial ministries. The party has become a sinecure in education because of the endless opportunities for patronage. In outside society the community relations council report progress while recording the rise of sectarian peace walls from 22 to 88 and the increasing racism in civil society.
Claims of reform and of progress are now the new ideology. Even suggestions by members of the administration of the humdrum banality of sectarianism and class war in golf clubs led to roars of disapproval and hasty retractions. All is well is the best of all possible worlds while sectarianism festers and austerity bites.
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