There Are Many Reasons to Be Cheerful about Ulster ; `There Has Been a Wholesale Shift of an Ideology from Armed Militancy to Engagement in Politics'

By Aaronovitch, David | The Independent (London, England), December 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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There Are Many Reasons to Be Cheerful about Ulster ; `There Has Been a Wholesale Shift of an Ideology from Armed Militancy to Engagement in Politics'


Aaronovitch, David, The Independent (London, England)


ON MONDAY I was watching Martin McGuinness say "I do" and accept the new Northern Ireland education portfolio, when - before I could stop him - out skipped my internal Fotherington Thomas again: "Hullo trees, hullo sky, hullo Sir Reg Empey, hullo lasting peace in Ireland," my curly, blond alter ego lisped, enraptured. "Did you ever see such a lovely day?"

This was dangerous. It is always wiser and safer to be Molesworth, the cynical, rebellious schoolboy creation of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, than to be the foppish optimist whom he castigates as "uterly wet and a weed". And part of a journalist's role is to search diligently for the dark cloud that wraps around the silver lining.

But the prospect of McGuinness as an education minister is just too extraordinary to be dismissed in a flurry of provisos and caveats. By the end of this week, the former member of the IRA Army Council - a council under whose tutelage large parts of Ulster were blown up - will be visiting schools and inspecting their facilities and their teaching. Without a doubt, he will then suggest that someone (presumably the British Government) should be putting more money into education.

Over at Health his colleague, Bairbre de Brun, will be doing the same. In three months' time, if things go according to plan, they will both begin to sound like the Liberal Democrat leaders of the Isle of Wight Council.

Of course, there are problems to be dealt with between then and now. There was a marked lack of triumphalism on the part of the British and Irish governments, with Mr Mandelson keeping remarkably quiet, given the scale of the achievement. The Unionists have imposed another deadline that will not quite be met, and we shall have to see whether what has been accomplished by then is going to be sufficient to keep Mr Trimble engaged.

But still. I mean. Think about it. On Tuesday morning Gerry Kelly, the Old Bailey bomber and flint-faced negotiator for Sinn Fein - the man who is reputed to have had the strongest influence in moving the wielders of guns towards democratic politics - was asked about the McGuinness policies for education. What would smiley Martin bring to the task?

"He would," said Kelly, in his basso profundo, his vocal cords steely with seriousness, "bring a republican analysis to it." And what might that mean? Kelly clanged on about 80 years of discrimination; which is true, but has little to do with running Ulster's schools. Schools are about teaching, curricula, buildings, qualifications, music classes, technology, PTAs, good and bad heads. Only 0.000001 per cent is about whether Wolfe Tone was a better man than Edward Carson. Kelly was making the ritual obeisance to the history of his movement; it was about as convincing as Gerry Adams's Gaelic or my Xhosa.

On the one substantive point, that of segregated education, McGuinness (ever a good Catholic) had already - the night before - expressed himself in favour of keeping denominational schools, as a matter of parental choice. It will be interesting to see what some of the secular apologists for Sinn Fein over here make of all that.

These mild words also help us to forget the scale of what has happened - the wholesale shift of an ideology from armed militancy to engagement in politics and administration. It is as though Attila the Hun had one day repudiated all that ravaging, and instead devoted himself to administering colleges for the education of the young ladies of Dark Ages Europe. Except that, of course, he was still going to do it from a distinctively Hunnic perspective.

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