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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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BBC discussion on religion

The BBC has been running a series of items on the decline of religion in Ireland. They invited me onto a podcast panel and this is the end result. I thought they had pulled me in because they had read my new book, but no; just a coincidence.

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Waking the Dead

You can’t expect children to know what to do at an Irish wake.

Wee Fergus inched gingerly through the room to the coffin for a look at his grandad, found the waxy corpse interesting for about a minute then went out to play with his ball in the garden.

Katie, being older, comprehended that she had lost someone and was crying.

The discovery of Pat dead in his bed that morning was like an emotional bomb blast. Sons and daughters would hurry home from half a dozen cities.

Delma and her daughters set up a production line for sandwiches. Within hours the house would be full of chatter.

Betty and I, while there was a chance, went to inspect the grave and meet the gravedigger. It was a double grave with room for herself later. ‘What side do you want him in?’

She had no thoughts on that.

‘What side of the bed did he lie in?’ I asked.

‘The left’, she said.

‘Left it is’, said the gravedigger.

Pat, for now, was laid out in his coffin in the living room. Betty ruffled his hair to make him look more like himself.

It is a shock that soon passes, seeing someone dead, formally laid out, the beads entwined in his fingers. The corpse is at the mercy of the artistry of the undertaker. My sister, in her coffin, wore red lipstick for the first time since her teens. My father, in a blue jacket I had lent him to be cremated in, looked like a club doorman.

Pat had looked worse.

Wee Fergus was warned again that this was a solemn occasion. He had the best possible defence: ‘But they are laughing too’ . He was pointing at me and big Damien, receiving visitors at the door.

I noted that these visitors were more sombre than we were and I straightened my face a bit.

There were times you would have to suppress a cackle at someone’s joke and turn to another person saying: ‘Isn’t it an awful business, and wasn’t he such a lovely man’.

Which he was. And you’d try to be as sad as they were, as sad as you had been yourself a moment before.

Pat Boyle, my wife’s father, an old country school master and brass band conductor, had survived heart trouble and two cancers to get within a spit of eighty and he had kept his sense of humour too.

He rose to speak at our wedding with a confidence that he could put on a far better performance than I could any day of the week.

At another wedding, Mel’s, he quoted from the gospel: ‘The Lord said, “It is good that we are here”‘.

But what people said mostly about Pat was, ‘Just think of the stories in that man’s head that are lost now.’

I’m not sure that I can comprehend the Irish wake much better than Fergus does. You really only learn the genius of it from going to many of them. The folk image is of old men drinking porter around the coffin, telling stories that get scarier and bawdier as the house darkens.

Blame Dave Allen with his yarns about a dead hunchback who’d had to be strapped down and then bounced up when the strap broke; about corpses taken out and set on the rocking chair.

Father Oliver Crilly tells me that he doesn’t remember a wake with drink, that it is not in the tradition at all, though a large bowl of cigarettes, until recently, was.

Probably hundreds came to the house that day and the next. Every time a priest called there was a decade of the rosary. One prayer leader’s pronunciation of ‘womb Jesus’ had mourners suppressing giggles. Some priests were good on wee homilies to Pat. Some weren’t.

But the things that go wrong in a wake are part of what makes it work, so long as they aren’t calamitous. The point of it all is to distract a family from grief and help the bereaved absorb the shock. It is good that we were there.

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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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Creationist Ken Ham is coming to Belfast this week to argue that evolution theory is scuppered by such marvels as the discovery of carbon 14 in diamonds. The academy must be quaking before the prospect of having to concede that the Bible is a more dependable source of knowledge than all universities put together.

The interesting thing for me in this clash between creationists and the uppity new atheists like Richard Dawkins is that they actually agree on something; They agree that the Adam and Eve story is history. One says it is accurate history and the other that it is inaccurate history, but both assume that it is to be read as history and judged by whether it is accurate as such.

Now, I would have thought that the talking snake was a clue to another way of reading it; that it is myth or fairytale. I just assume that even our earliest literate forebears had noticed that snakes don’t talk.

And, of course, just to read it as myth does not deprive it of meaning. It may indeed be rich in meaning.

All that stuff about man wanting the knowledge of good and evil – Adam didn’t eat the fruit of the tree for its taste.

And then the discovery of nakedness, the emergence of self consciousness. That must have been a potent moment in the development of the mind.

But the core message seems to be: Don’t listen to women. Especially, don’t listen to women who talk to snakes!

So it is a sexist message and it is a message that is redolent of suspicion of the natural world.

And another thought. Recent research in Northern Ireland by Queens University for Channel Four shows that Protestants are falling behind Catholics in educational attainment. Could this be anything to do with the fact that evangelicals in these schools are teaching children to mock their own science departments and to laugh at the theory of evolution. What university’s science department is going to employ a researcher who would rather look into the Bible for answers than down a microscope?

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