If there’s one thing about the north of Ireland that has continually disappointed leftists, it’s the non-emergence of class politics. To be more precise, it’s the failure of reality to match up to a schema whereby a big class struggle will emerge and in short order dissolve sectarian politics.
But that isn’t to say that socio-economic divisions don’t manifest themselves. Rather, it’s that they don’t manifest themselves in a cross-sectarian way, but rather within the communal blocs. This fits with the federal structure of our politics, and is more or less what you’d expect under the New Dispensation. There’s been something of that lately around the issue of the reform of post-primary education. I therefore direct readers to Fionnuala O’Connor’s last column in the Irish News – it isn’t vintage Fionnuala in that she skirts around the issue without saying what she thinks, but does highlight a few interesting points. As indeed does the issue as a whole.
One thing that’s been sort of perplexing is that virtually the only opposition to Caitríona Ruane’s grand plans has come from unionists in the Assembly and their outriders in our press. At Stormont, all the unionist MLAs with the exception of the PUP’s Dawn Purvis have been pro-grammar, and all the nationalists without exception have supported a non-selective system. This is strange, not least because of recent figures showing that, in terms of exam results, nine of the top ten schools were in the Catholic maintained sector. Meanwhile, prestigious Protestant schools like Campbell and Methody are not performing as one might expect.
There’s a backstory here in terms of demographics. First you have to realise that the majority of the school-age population is Catholic, while the Protestant school-age population is gradually declining against the capacity in the controlled sector. This means that Protestant secondaries have been facing closure, while Protestant grammars have kept up their headcount by diversifying their intake. Looking at Methody as an example, which has had to deal with the Protestant exodus from south Belfast, it hasn’t really diversified much in class terms – its geographical catchment area includes Sandy Row, and you have to draw the line somewhere – but it has taken in quite a number of kids from upwardly mobile Catholic families as well as the ethnic communities. Other Protestant grammars have quietly become less selective, so that instead of taking in the top twenty percent in their area they may be taking in the top thirty to forty percent. Not a comprehensive system, but not exactly grammars as we used to know them.
What is difficult to figure out is why the unionists are so hellbent on retaining the grammars when organic factors have been transforming their character like this. I can only conclude that it’s part of unionism’s general reverence for the status quo. And the broadening of the grammars’ intake actually lessens pressure for reform. As I say, the PUP is the exception, but their heavily underclass vote has different priorities from the more respectable end of the working class.
On the Catholic side, things are even odder. Coming back to Fionnuala’s column, she mentions Derry-based educator Fr Ignatius McQuillan, who has been sounding off in the media about this. When I heard him on the radio the other day, Fr Iggy was condemning the Catholic bishops for bowing the knee to the agenda of Sinn Féin and the trade unions. It’s unusual enough to hear this sort of dissent from within the northern Church – during the Troubles, a grand total of three priests aired political disagreements with the hierarchy, and one of those was Pat Buckley, who doesn’t count – but the points of interest go well beyond that. Why, Fr Iggy is asking in essence, is there no opposition?
One may well ask why there is no opposition even within the unions. Whenever you have a teaching union official on Talk Back – whether they’re from INTO, the NAS/UWT or the Protestant Association of Teachers UTU – they all seem to be very happy with supporting whatever Caitríona wants to do. And yet, given that lots of their members actually work in the grammars, their anti-selective stance can’t be universally popular within the unions. And yet, you don’t ever hear a hint of this. Puzzling.
But more puzzling yet is the position of the Catholic bishops, who have acted as enforcers for the Department of Education in ordering schools within the maintained sector not to proceed with transfer tests beyond next year. That in itself poses problems for those right-on activists who would like to believe that the hierarchy are hidebound reactionaries bent on spoiling our shiny new comprehensive future.
And then we turn to the Patriotic Catholic Association SDLP, who continually make me scratch my head. Listen, I can understand why the Shinners want to abolish selection. It’s a policy that would appeal to their traditional base. It would be less appealing to the layer of former SDLP supporters they would like to cannibalise, but it could only be a potential deal-breaker if the SDLP put up a fight on the issue. Yet they won’t.
I’m not certain, but there may be an ideological element to this, to the extent that the SDLP has an ideology. When they had their split with the big Belfast personalities thirty years ago, Gerry and Paddy’s main charge was that the party had abandoned its socialism in favour of Catholic conservatism. Granted that there are people in the party like Eddie McGrady who really are Catholic conservatives (and where is Eddie on this issue?), it depends what you mean by socialism. The gas-and-water NILPism favoured by Gerry and Paddy never had much traction in the post-1979 SDLP, but from the dominant Derry faction you had the esoteric ideological blend known as Humespeak, which amongst other elements, like a thoroughgoing bureaucratism and a bizarre attachment to the European Union, also had a sort of lukewarm egalitarianism that meant St John Hume or Séamus Mallon were never that far out of place when taking their places on the green benches beside Neil Kinnock.
Humespeak as an ideology never really meant much to your average SDLP voter, who is a respectable codger simply looking for a Catholic party to vote for that isn’t called Sinn Féin. I like Joe Hendron a lot personally, but as a politician he understood that he didn’t need any social or economic policies – he just needed not to be Gerry Adams. Where Humespeak came into its own, though, was as the ideology of the young Turks who for twenty years ran Queens Students Union (for British readers, this is a bit like UKIP running a students union, only that doesn’t quite capture how ghastly it was), the training ground for the party’s meagre cadre. Durkan and Attwood, the original young Turks, were the best of the bunch – when it came to the bozos who succeeded them, they had to be seen to be believed.
So you have Caitríona announcing a really progressive-sounding Grand Plan culled from reports by Queens education department, and the SDLP have nothing critical to say about it. Perhaps it’s that their ideology – the fact that they like to think of themselves as social democrats – disarms them. Perhaps it’s a general caution. Yet, there is populist hay to be made there amongst the Catholic middle class. It’s not as if the grammars are unpopular – those ambitious Derry parents practically battering down the doors of Lumen Christi are surely Durko’s natural electorate. And, even if you’re nervous about taking on the Catholic hierarchy, Fr Iggy has shown the way.
Maybe it’s my cynical nature, but I suspect there might be an element here of the Durkan-Attwood brains trust being too clever for their own good. They may have calculated that the unionists at Stormont would use the weighted voting system in the Assembly to torpedo Caitríona’s plans, and then they could posture a little without actually having had to take a serious stand that might have alienated some potential voters. That would certainly fit their track record.
But it’s all terribly weak, isn’t it? To be brutally honest, a party that won’t fight for the interests of its base is a party that doesn’t deserve to exist. And if the South Down and Londonderry Party is going to go extinct, with this sort of performance, it only has itself to blame.