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The Catholic church in Northern Ireland defends the expensive need for a separate education system on the grounds that Catholics are believers who need faith schools in which their catholic ethos is affirmed.
Think again.

It is painful to say it and it is not what I wanted, but the case against academic selection in our schools is lost.
Catholic schools, which were opposed to the 11 plus have changed their minds.
Not all of them have declared openly yet the decisions that they have taken. But dozens have, and many more in the coming weeks will.
This is a development which has astonished and disheartened many who are close to it. The nice bright middle-class children are to have the benefit of something like a private educational sector, without having to pay for it.
Catholic middle-class greed has trumped the equality argument.
The Catholic bishops were opposed to selection. The Catholic teacher training college, St Mary’s, was opposed to selection. The religious orders which founded many of the Catholic schools were opposed to selection.
The arguments made against a selection procedure for children of 11 were many and strong. They said that preparation for a test was damaging primary education for all because resources were going into cramming children — which is not the same as teaching.
And success or failure in that test told the child that he or she was a success or failure in life. Further, the tilting of resources towards grammar schools was depriving the nonacademic schools.
But where parents who value education see the opportunity of getting their children into a nice school which will section them off from the broad rabble, they will take that opportunity.
And the bishops can say what they like.
I asked a Catholic grammar school headmaster last week if his school would be introducing a selection procedure. He conceded only that it was still thinking seriously about it, but much more fascinating was his explanation. He said, if we don’t provide a grammar sector for Catholic children, they will go to state schools or private Protestant schools that do.
He was saying, in effect, that selection means more to middle-class Catholics than Catholicism does.
It is not only Catholicism that is damaged by the rush to selection.
During the peace process, middle-class Catholics put their weight behind Sinn Fein, to urge the party to complete a power-sharing deal with unionism. Sinn Fein abolished the 11 plus and fought a long campaign against academic selection. In the furtherance of that campaign, it still perhaps speaks for for the working-class kids who are sidlined into secondary schools and get poor results. But Sinn Fein is now fighting the middle-class Catholics as well as the DUP on this and surely cannot win.
Indeed, this issue has the potential to deliver Catholic votes to the DUP.
We wanted an end to sectarianism: selection at 11 has provided us with an issue which overrides all sectarian instincts. It would be charming to imagine that some political genius in the DUP foresaw this, but I think many simply jumped one way because Martin McGuinness had jumped the other.
In the midst of this we see the political party which hopes to represent the Catholic community, the SDLP, floundering for an issue on which it might ride back to prominence. Perhaps it is not as cynical as the other political parties, and that is to its credit, and cannot do what, say, Fianna Fail would do with a gift like this, and grab it with both hands.
But now that the case against selection is lost, bar the long painful battle – perhaps through the courts – the primary concern of all parties must be to ensure that standards and resources for schools which do not select, are defended.
I think you could call what we are facing in to — a class war.

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Vox Pop

I was at the premier of the Steve McQueen film Hunger last night in Belfast and recorded this vox pop with people coming out. I think their fresh responses to the film give a sense of the power of it and the readiness of audiences to believe in its integrity.

Many questions have been raised about whether this is IRA propaganda. In fact, the suicide of Bobby Sands is depicted as the fanatical resolve of a man who is past being able to share the concerns of the outside world, where even other republicans want to avert a hunger strike.

(Note for techos – the vox pop was recorded on a Marantz PMD 620 using the built in stereo mics and the manual recording level control to reduce the back ground. I think it worked well.)

I am reviewing the film for Fortnight. Here’s a clip of that review:

We see a new prisoner being admitted to a shit smeared cell and feel ourselves almost sickeningly present with him.
We follow this new prisoner through his induction into the practice of smearing the wall, pouring urine under the door, channelled by a wall of greasy foetid food, to his first secretive wank in a shared cell and his first hammering by prison officers who are trying to get the place cleaned.
This prepares us to imagine that we are going to follow the stories of these individuals through to the end but we are not. We will see the prison officer stand sweating in a light snow shower, suggestive of Auschwitz ash. We will see the prisoner learn to exchange messages and parcels in the visiting area, where they are concealed in mouths, rectums and vaginas. In one scene, a woman shuffles under her skirt to withdraw a parcel and passes it across to a prisoner who shuffles it deftly up his own hole. And the woman smiles, enjoys a joke, perhaps even imagines that this is intimacy.
For her this is novel and even fun; he is only thinking about the practicalities.
When we get to the allegedly interminable scene in which Bobby Sands debates the morality of hunger strike with a Catholic priest, it comes as a relief from the audience’s own sense of confinement in the ghastly world of filth and violence.
Sands, joking about the wounds on his face implicates the priest unwittingly in a joke about the man who has been murdered by the IRA.
There are a few difficulties in the exchange between Sands and the priest. Sands’ recollections of Gweedore include barley fields and woodland. Mine don’t. These are local incongruities, like the prison officer leaving his home in Gransha off the Glen Road, details that won’t trouble foreign audiences.
The priest tells Sands that he has become an obsessive fanatic, unable even to love his own child. He accuses him of planning his own suicide. He throws every argument a sane compassionate person could muster against a ruthless man who is prepared to march boldly to his own death and take, potentially, dozens after him.
When the camera then turns to close-up on Sands the effect is almost unnervingly intimate. Then Sands delivers his reply with a story from childhood to illustrate his own courage and individual moral conscience.
From then on we are into the story of his grotesque deterioration.

***

Just got home from Dublin to read the tirades against the above on Slugger.

Republicans will not use the word suicide to describe Sands’ decision to die because the word was used accusatively against him and was central to the argument with the church about the morality of what he was doing.
But it was a decision to die, made in the light of an understanding that Thatcher would not move before at least one hunger Striker had died. So, if I am not concerned about the need to defend the morality of the republican cause or to make their case to the church, why should I avoid the word suicide?

Because it implies despair? OK, but I don’t think it necessarily does imply despair. Is Hari Kiri suicide? It is the ending of one’s life in acceptance of a principle and may not necessarily entail despair.

We have similar pressures from Jihadis to avoid the use of the word suicide in relation to what they call ‘martyrdom operations’. Many of them are motivated by strong conviction and don’t see themselves as discarding their lives and hopes.

Maybe we should equally avoid the term suicide to spare the feelings of those people too. Indeed, maybe we should avoid it altogether since families of all people who kill themselves are entitled to consideration.

I was rebuked recently – and I take the point – for using the term ‘commit suicide’, the word ‘commit’ implying sin or offence – presumably on the understanding that the word ‘suicide’ itself doesn’t but is just a technical term for taking your own life.

Whatever – I am not going to contort language to defend the reputation of Bobby Sands.

As for whether I have simply sold out to take money from some notional master – who is this master who pays me so well? Where can I pick up the money?

And bitter? I don’t think so. I write very little about republicanism these days. But I got an invitation to this film out of the blue and went along and thought that is was really good. Worth commenting on.

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The Catholic Church and the Orange Order

They haven’t exactly settled their differences but they are trying to be friends.

When Cardinal Brady thanked the Orangement for their efforts at conciliation, the Orangemen – some of them – were positively chuffed.

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At the recent Ottawa book festival, the theme of many of the writers was fear.

This is the report I did on it for BBC Radio Ulster.


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A Peter Taylor documentary in the BBC’s Age of Terror series, says that Martin McGuinness knew about plans for the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. Surprise surprise!

It really isn’t news that Martin McGuinness was the leader of the Provisional IRA’s Northern command during the 1980s. Practically every book on the history of the Provisionals tells us that.

It is only a matter of extrapolation then to work out how much responsibility he had for carnage during the Troubles.

So, when Peter Taylor, the investigative journalist connects McGuinness to the Enniskillen bomb, as he did in his Age of Terror documentary this week, he is, in one way, merely stating the obvious.

By similar extrapolation we can connect McGuinness to the IRA’s campaign against construction workers, the assassination of loyalists, the long-range sniper attacks on British soldiers and virtually any category of IRA activity you like to mention; the torture and assassination of suspected informants, for instance, the bombing of a fun run in Lisburn.

All Taylor really told us about McGuinness is that he was a top provo.

It is what we knew.

Logically his telling us changes nothing and yet, potentially, it changes everything.

McGuinness himself may think that most of us believe his claim that he left the IRA in 1973.

No one at all believes that, least of all those who loudly proclaim it.

But we know our Martin and forgive him, don’t we?

We’re really impressed that he has turned out to be so amicable and cheerful, having snarled at us so much over the years about ‘the cutting edge’ and tripe like that.

It’s not that we don’t know what he did, just that we don’t want it shoved in our faces, lest we should doubt our decision to forgive him, for that is what we have done.

It is hard to reconcile the gritty, bitter hard man of the eighties with the affable poet, fisherman, DFM of today.

One thing the contrast tells us is that McGuinness is deeply relieved to be where he is now, with his bloody past behind him.

The alternative futures that he would have envisaged for himself 20 years ago must have included a grisly death or a long term of imprisonment.

Compare, for instance, the fates of many Palestinian leaders of similar standing: Arafat trapped in his bombed bunker for months before he dies, where even the toilets didn’t work; Yassin and Rantissi bombed from the air. It was fortunate for Adams and McGuinness, and those around them, that the British opted for a strategy of infiltrating and managing the IRA rather than destroying it.

If the British had changed that policy at any time, they would not have announced it and given the army council a chance to scatter. Adams and McGuinness would probably just have gone the way of INLA leader Ronnie Bunting, shot dead in his home by slick assassins that most republicans sincerely believe were from the SAS. McGuinness lived most of his adult life with the expectation that that was a turn his fortunes might take.

We would simply have woken up one morning to the news that he was dead.

But how secure is Martin McGuinness, even now, against embarrassing, even politically crippling, disclosures from his past?

Surely someone who touched the lives of so many has left evidence and witnesses behind of the offence he has given.

In a normal political environment a contender for political leadership is scrupulously vetted for depth charges in history: affronted lovers, bank statements, hijinks on You Tube. Where politics is normal, no party in its right mind would run Martin McGuinness, with his past.

The danger of embarrassing disclosures is too great.

We may know broadly what job he had in the IRA; it’s doubtful we could bear the details, and we can’t be sure we’ll forever be spared them.

This is the theme of David Park’s brilliant new novel The Truth Commissioner, in which a Sinn Fein minister – the Minister for Children and Culture – is threatened by the exposure of past deeds, some of which were not cultural or considerate of children at all. Logically, everyone knows, in broadbrush terms, the kind of things the minister did. Yet, when a plausible claim is suddenly made explicit, his position becomes untenable.

On the one hand we know what McGuinness did; on the other, we know little or nothing of the detail. Nor might we want to, just yet, when disclosure might create such political damage.

Some know very clearly. Ian Paisley is a member of the Privy Council and entitled to the fullest briefing he could ask for.

Old peelers know.

They probably marvel at the irony that McGuinness, having chosen so many of the victims in Northern Ireland, got to help pick the victims commissioners too.

But this is an irony for future reflection.

It may be that when we have moved so far beyond the Troubles that we no longer see politics as an essential contrivance for sparing us their resumption, we will look with a colder more critical eye at the characters and careers of the people we have elevated. And we may not remember that this generation showed extraordinary forbearance and forgiveness. We will just wonder if it had a particular fondness for dangerous men.

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