By Jude Collins (for the Irish Herald)
There are days when the bitter vinegar of life sloshes around in your heart like soiled underpants in a washing machine, and this is one of them. ‘What’ you ask yourself ‘is the point in carrying hope in your heart? Better to despair and be done with it’. What’s driven me to this point are the events in Paris just twelve hours before the time of writing, when the Irish soccer team lost its last chance to travel to South Africa next summer to attend the glamour and glory of the World Cup.
Ireland’s executioners, as the world now knows, were the French team, world champions in 1998, but they defeated Ireland only when the now-reviled Thierry Henry handled the ball and set up France’s winning goal. It was, literally, a crying shame, but Henry insisted it wasn’t his fault: ‘Don’t blame me - it was the referee’s job to penalize any infringement of the rules and he didn’t’. Some agree with him, more don’t. A widespread sense of injustice simmers.
During recent weeks in the North of Ireland, many parents have also been feeling the vinegar sloshing around in their hearts, as they watch their children undergo a series of life-shaping Saturday-morning tests. These tests are for entrance to the select group of grammar schools. If an eleven-year-old does well enough, s/he gets a grammar-school place; if the child doesn’t do well enough, s/he must attend a non-selective secondary school. The test is a source of deep anxiety for parents and children, but the fact is, it shouldn’t be happening.
Back in 2002 Education Minister Martin McGuinness announced an end to the Eleven Plus, the examination which for fifty years has separated the North’s eleven-year-olds into winners (one-third) and losers (two-thirds). The present minister for Education, Caitriona Ruane, has stood by McGuinness’s decision but the grammar schools - Catholic and Protestant - have now set up their own selective tests and the sheep-and-goats selection continues. Sinn Fein say the DUP is to blame, since they are the ones insisting on the retention of academic selection. The DUP say you bet we want to retain it, and what’s more, academic selection was secured at the St Andrew’s Agreement. A widespread sense of injustice simmers.
Change and resistance to change also feature in relation to policing and justice. Pressure has been mounting to move these powers from the jurisdiction of the British government at Westminster to the control of the Executive at Stormont. After much wrangling, a sum of over #1 billion has been secured to accompany the transfer of powers and now just about everybody - the Irish government, the American government, the British government, the trade unions, the general populace of the north - all say they want this transfer to happen and happen quickly.
So why hasn’t it happened? You’ll never guess: the DUP are agin it. First it was the need for no Sinn Fein Justice minister, then it was a sufficiently large financial package, then the need for a deal on Orange parades, then the need - by the DUP’s estimation - for sufficient unionist confidence in such a transfer. The DUP says it’s just making sure that circumstances are right before allowing a transfer; practically everybody else says the DUP is stalling because it’s scared of Jim Allister and his Traditional Unionist Voice party. A widespread sense of injustice simmers.
Unfortunately, in sport as in politics, resentment isn’t always directed at the right target. The fact is, Handy Henry was right - it is the referee’s job to see that any breach of the rules is spotted and punished. Henry’s sleight-of-hand doesn’t win any prizes for sportsmanship but the one with whom the buck stops is the referee. He’s the only one who could have delivered justice.
In education, the media have presented Caitriona Ruane as the source of the problem, a republican minister intent on wrecking a perfectly good system. The fact is, most of the rest of the world has long abandoned academic selection at eleven years of age. Preparation for the test warps the primary school curriculum as teachers drill their pupils for months and even years in advance; the experience of the test is nerve-wracking for most parents and a lot of pupils; and the results of the test show that it hopelessly favours middle-class children, leaving working-class children to pay the price for the success of their better-off counterparts. Public anger misses the target when it focuses on Caitriona Ruane. The roadblock on the route to change is marked ‘DUP’: they’re the ones preventing the creation of a fairer system.
As for policing and justice, the DUP are once more manning the barricades that prevent the transfer of powers from Westminster to Stormont. John Hume was said to have sacrificed his party for the sake of peace and progress. The DUP are doing the opposite: they’re ready to sacrifice peace and progress for the sake of their party. If they can stall on the transfer of policing and justice until after next year’s Westminster election and so beat off Jim Allister’s TUV, then that’s what they’ll do.
But in this case, public anger misses the mark when it focuses solely on the DUP. The fact is, power in the north of Ireland ultimately rests in London. When Britain made it clear to the DUP that the only alternative to sharing power with Sinn Fein was rule by Irish-British joint authority, Ian Paisley underwent a Damascus-road conversion and formed an executive with his sworn enemies.
Now as then, the solution is in Britain’s hands. If she wants the DUP to agree to policing and justice transfer - or anything else - she has the power to make that happen tomorrow. Britain may have created a Frankenstein state in 1921, but it’s a monster over which she continues to exercise control. The buck stops, not with unionism, but with Britain.