The very model of a modern monsignor

Allow me to introduce you to Monsignor Jim Curry, parish priest of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. A most fascinating character. No, that’s not him in the picture.

But first, a digression. Many of you will be aware of the ongoing dispute around the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park. For those of you who aren’t, it may be worth recapping a bit. To begin with, a considerable number of Catholic schools in England – specifically the more successful ones – are lending a sympathetic ear to Michael Gove’s big push for academy status. This is because academy status looks like a good way of escaping the dead hand of the “Catholic Education Service”, a body of bureaucrats whose combined knowledge of education could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp, but who don’t let that inhibit them from issuing detailed instructions to head teachers on the latest educational fashions. It should be noted that neither the incumbent chairman of CES, Bishop Malcolm McMahon, nor his predecessor, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, have managed to get a firm grip on CES.

Which background is important for understanding the dispute around the Vaughan. Damian has been doing Trojan work on this if you want to delve further, but here’s the story in a nutshell. The Vaughan is one of the best schools in the country outside of the private sector, and in particular is nationally known for music. The main reason for its success is the school’s extremely strong ethos, which is closely tied in to its admissions policy. No, the Vaughan doesn’t select by academic ability or by social class – it runs a points system giving precedence to children whose parents participate regularly in church activities, which to me seems entirely sensible. This, however, has been a long-running sore point with Catholic educational bureaucrats, who regard the Vaughan as hopelessly elitist and, rather than a showcase, a bit of an embarrassment precisely because of its success, and who’d dearly like it to become yet another bog-standard comp.

Which is where the long-running dispute with the Diocese of Westminster comes in. First the Diocese unilaterally changed the Vaughan’s admissions policy, a move hotly contested by the now sadly retired headmaster Michael Gormally. That was round one. In round two, Archbishop Nichols attempted to stamp his authority on matters by sacking a bunch of governors and appointing his placemen, a move that only made him look bad. In round three, the Diocese referred the Vaughan’s admissions policy to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator – in other words, a Catholic diocese narked to the state on one of its own schools for being too good.

All things considered, you can see why Vaughan parents are hopping mad. For more detail, please considering visiting the site of the Cardinal Vaughan Parents’ Action Group, which has justly gained the support of a stellar cast of the Catholic great and good. Which is where we return to where we came in, with this letter [pdf, emphases mine] from the Action Group to Archbishop Nichols:

We write to express our grave concern at the turn of events during last Wednesday night’s meeting of the Cardinal Vaughan Governing Body on 6th April 2011, witnessed by a large number of parents and pupils who had gathered in the School car park at the culmination of the Candlelit Vigil of prayer and hymn singing, held outside the School gates.

At the end of the Vigil, parents and pupils processed into the car park, and were gathered under the window of the library where the meeting was taking place. We have received a number of witness statements which describe what took place, but the salient facts are these:

  • Mr Eynaud, the Acting Headmaster, was seen sitting at the desk in the Head’s office, directly below the library.
  • Parents were singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’; it was observed that someone closed the library windows, presumably to shut out the sound.
  • Mgr Curry (identified by parishioners of Our Lady of Victories and Our Lady of Grace, although he was not wearing clerical attire) entered the Head’s office and approached Mr Eynaud; clearly very angry, he was gesticulating with his index finger very close to Mr Eynaud, even appearing to prod him in the chest.
  • Mr Stubbings, the Deputy Headmaster, and Mr O’Donnell entered the room; at one point both Mgr Curry and Mr O’Donnell both appeared to be shouting at Mr Eynaud, while Mr Stubbings was trying to interpose himself between them.
  • It appeared that no one in the room was aware of the large number of adults and children who were watching this scene with a sense of mounting shock and dismay. The hymn singing had ceased and a section of the group was demanding the removal of the Director of Education from the Board of Governors; at this, Mr Eynaud emerged into the car park. He asked that the gathering should disperse and appeared pale and very shaken. He spoke to parents and his words implied that he had been given the impression, by Mgr Curry’s words or behaviour, that his career was now ‘finished’.
  • As the group was beginning to disperse, Mgr Curry, followed by Mr O’Donnell, moved towards the door opposite, leading into a corridor. At this, a number of parents began to shout comments such as, ‘Why won’t you come and talk to us?’ They both left the room, leaving Mr Eynaud and Mr Stubbings behind. As the shouting continued, one of the organisers announced that proceedings were at an end and asked everyone to leave. The car park was cleared within two minutes.

We believe that what occurred represents an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship that must exist between a Head and a member of the Governing Body. The Head had no responsibility for the presence of the parent group in the car park; no official notification had been given by the Governing Body that parents were barred from the School grounds (although a request that the Chairman of Governors should meet with parents in the School Hall before the Governors’ meeting had been refused). In any case, there can be no excuse for the bullying and intimidation to which Mr Eynaud was subjected.

Mgr Curry’s continued participation on the appointments panel for the new Head is obviously now out of the question. We believe that his membership of the Governing Body is also now untenable and we request that you replace him as your representative immediately. We also request that Mr Eynaud be given an immediate written apology.

Your Grace, a very large number of Cardinal Vaughan parents have written to you over recent months, asking a great number of questions; none has received a reply from you. On this occasion, we believe that a direct response from you is necessary.

We continue to hold your intentions in our prayers, and would ask you to pray for us as well.

In these circumstances, I would be a little less diplomatic than the redoubtable Mrs Anne Brown is in the forgoing. But eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the reappearance above of Mgr Jim Curry, and his presence requires a bit of explanation.

As you know, I can’t abide personal backbiting, and I really don’t like being nasty to one of our priests, who have enough troubles without me adding to them. But I’m prepared to make an exception for Jim.

For starters, there’s a brief biography here. Some people may wonder how come an East End boy like Jim Curry gets to swank it up at the Athenaeum. My response is that it’s a perfect illustration of that web of patronage known as the Magic Circle. Here we have someone who at a relatively young age got appointed as Cardinal Hume’s personal secretary, carrying on that function for Cormac when +Basil went to meet his Maker, and who since his return to parish work has been remarkably good at getting himself nice parishes. While I’ve rarely heard anyone say a kind work about Jim, there are elements of the hierarchy (naming no names like Cardinal Cormac) who hold him in great esteem.

Not, I hasten to add, nearly as much esteem as Jim holds himself in. You know when you’re leaving Mass and shake hands with the priest on the way out? I often find you can tell a lot about a priest from his body language in that setting. Jim’s body language was always – how shall I put this? – that of a feudal despot having to spend some time meeting and greeting his supplicating peasants. Not the easiest guy to warm up to, no matter how good he is at schmoozing bishops.

Jim is frequently tipped for a mitre himself, most recently with regard to the vacant auxiliary post at Westminster. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt that his old mucker Cormac is a member of the Congregation for Bishops, and thus well placed to pull strings in Rome. The prospect doesn’t really bear thinking about. You see, if the behaviour mentioned above was just an isolated incident from an otherwise steady and responsible priest, that would be one thing, but…

Thinking back, some six or seven years ago, when Jim was parish priest at Our Lady of Grace in Chiswick, he hosted a Churches Together meeting with then international development secretary Hilary Benn. Well, these are the sort of worthy events that take place under the Churches Together banner, and getting an actual government minister to speak might even be considered a feather in Jim’s cap. Were it not for the table just inside the entrance of the church before you got to the pews, groaning with DfID pamphlets and CD-ROMs, of which the large majority were on the topic of “sexual reproductive rights” or, in other words, population control. Such was the volume and placing of the material that it beggars belief that Jim hadn’t seen and okayed it. A priest having a display of population-control literature inside his parish church? Back in the day, that would have meant a stern phone call from the CDF.

Then there was the time he allowed an enormous banner advertising a mobile phone company to be draped from the church railings. This actually made the diary page of the Tablet, which thought the affair hilarious. Perhaps, but perhaps not the decorum you’d expect from a man who’d deeply like to be a bishop.

That’s Chiswick. Since Jim’s move to Kensington, he’s also hit the headlines for replacing the weekly sung Latin Mass with Filipino folk singing, something that wasn’t universally popular even with Filipino parishioners.

Then there was that mysterious affair of the forty grand bet. Back when Cardinal Cormac was retiring as Archbishop of Westminster, there was the usual speculation about his successor. Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds was widely seen as the frontrunner; in the end, of course, Vin Nichols got the job. In the midst of this, it was reported that Paddy Power had turned down a £40,000 bet on – you guessed it – Jim Curry. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Jim had anything to do with this, but it certainly raised his profile, in a way that cynics might even see as vulgar ostentation.

There was also a case over a decade ago of a controversial school closure in east London. At the time, parents who’d been trying to lobby the diocese reported the Cardinal’s private secretary replying to letters with mafia-style warnings not to bother him with this nonsense again. Hmm, sounds familiar.

And now, Jim finds himself a diocesan appointee to the Vaughan’s governing body in the midst of a bitter dispute between school and diocese, a dispute he seems to be doing his level best to escalate to nuclear level. Presumably Archbishop Nichols couldn’t find someone more emollient and diplomatic, like Colonel Gaddafi or Charlie Sheen. And this maniac is being tipped for a mitre? Sheesh, is all I can say. Sheesh.


For the sake of my blood pressure, I really shouldn’t listen to the Today programme. But more of that presently.

As the left blogosphere’s designated religion correspondent, a role graciously shared by the incomparable Red Maria, it would be remiss of me not to pass any comment on last week’s No Popery demonstration in London. But to tell you the truth, it looked to me like the damp squib of the season. This was, let’s recall, a mobilisation of various anti-religious organisations along with some militant gays, and to be honest, “anti-Catholics don’t like the Pope very much” is about as newsworthy as “Pope may not be secular liberal”.

But that’s not to say that there was nothing remarkable about it. In fact there were several entertaining eccentricities. Firstly, the demonstrators met up at the Natural History Museum to namecheck Darwin and pat themselves on the back about being, like, all scientific and shit. This seems to have been based on the idea that the Catholic Church is opposed to the Darwinian theory of evolution, which would come as a shock to the late Cardinal Newman as well as at least the last half-dozen popes. (Catholicism’s allegorical reading of scripture has never really had a problem with evolution; that’s Protestant biblical literalism you’re thinking of.) From there, they set out to Westminster Cathedral to try and have a row with the congregation, by such means as brandishing placards featuring Pope Benny’s face with a Hitler moustache drawn on it – that must have seemed absolutely hilarious at the OutRage! office, but was perhaps not the best way to win friends and influence people at Westminster Cathedral. And the final lap was a walk to the Italian embassy to proclaim solidarity with some two-men-and-a-dog outfit in Italy that’s been campaigning to get Berlusconi to unilaterally tear up the Lateran Treaty and annex Vatican City. And all I have to say about that is that if you don’t like the Pope that’s fair enough, but if you think Berlusconi would be an improvement then you need your head felt.

Notable too that despite sympathetic media coverage less than 200 people bothered to turn up; and that atheist icon Maryam Namazie was a no-show, although some Iranian bloke did stand in for her. This is ominous for the No Popery Coalition, because militant secularist demos usually rely heavily on the WCPI to make up the numbers, and while the Hekmatists are up for any opportunity to bash Islam, they really don’t care about Catholicism. One tentatively suggests that, if they want to bolster their numbers come September, they’ll have to block with the Democratic Unionist Party and the Orange Order, although that might be a profound culture shock for Terry Sanderson and Peter Tatchell. Incidentally, I do worry that the enormous respect that Peter has rightly accrued down the years is undermined a little by his insistence on hanging out with these strange people.

But no matter, these guys were not to be discouraged. Over the last couple of days they have been in action again over the Children, Schools and Families Bill – yet another rather silly piece of Orwellian legislation from New Labour – and have been boosted by the support of the Liberal Democrats. It appears that Mr Nicholas Clegg and Dr Death Evan Harris are making a pitch for the militant secularist vote, although I’m not certain that a couple of hundred retired Open University lecturers are much of a vote bank. The proximate cause of this is the question of what’s now known as Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) and how this is to be carried out in faith schools. But there’s more to this than meets the eye, and there are three aspects I want to explore – the legislative, the political and the educational. There are a few philosophical issues underlying it as well, but I’ll only be able to touch on these in passing – to go into them in depth would take unconscionably long.

Part the first:
New Labour, like most modern governments, produces far too much legislation and certainly far too much bad legislation. I was very taken by Jamie’s reference to the theory of Chinese Legalism, the idea that the government should legislate to improve the moral condition of its citizens. New Labour, combining as it does deracinated liberalism with a belief in the perfectibility of man, is especially addicted to this, and it’s resulted in a whole series of blockbuster laws that seek to get rid of every social ill you can think of. Harriet Harman’s current Equality Bill is a case in point – since the last (itself rather far-reaching) Equality Act came into force as recently as 2006, and was augmented by the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007, it’s not immediately apparent why yet another substantial piece of equality legislation is so urgently required.

Forgive me for going a bit Ron Paul, but the legislative process would be enormously improved by applying the “better fewer but better” approach, passing fewer but shorter laws that are competently drafted and properly scrutinised. Nor would it hurt to realise that some things can’t be easily sorted out by legislative fiat. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, if schools have a problem with homophobic bullying (and we know they do) it would seem sensible to me for the DCSF to issue schools with guidelines setting out best practice, and to get feedback from schools on the extent of the problem. It’s an executive problem, not one that can be solved by legislation. (It’s worth noting that teenagers involved in homophobic assaults will have spent their entire education under New Labour and will have had the whole gamut of diversity and equality drummed into them. This indicates that we’re dealing with a cultural problem that needs a long-term perspective.)

A further issue is that of what may be termed bullshit autonomy. It’s a bit like Francis Canavan’s critique of liberal thinkers like Ronald Dworkin – that they relied on statist solutions to uphold the supreme good of the autonomy of the atomised individual – but, this being practical politics, it’s the Beavis and Butt-head version. I draw your attention to “Dave” Cameron promising more local decision-making in the NHS, even including workers’ co-operatives. But on electoral hot-button issues like cancer care or IVF, “Dave” says he’ll end the postcode lottery. It obviously not having occurred to “Dave” that localism implies a postcode lottery – because local decision-making means differing decisions being made on the allocation of limited resources. So the line is that we’ll get more localism except where it matters, and where it matters there will be increased uniformity.

Education is an especially obvious example. What with LMS, the gutting of local education authorities, parental choice, academies and all the other shiny initiatives of the last three decades, one would imagine that education would be all localism and diversity. And yet, this is one of the areas most notorious for pettifogging micromanagement from Whitehall. And since the far distant days of Ken Baker, the weapon of choice for enforcing bullshit autonomy has been the National Curriculum.

What’s wrong with the National Curriculum could take up an entire book, but in very general terms it’s both too broad and too narrow. What it should be doing is setting a standard for the study of various subjects. It should define what’s necessary as a minimum, and it should also indicate academic range – for instance, the study of history should involve some sort of variety of topics, instead of the scandalous situation where you can get a history qualification after studying nothing but Hitler. That’s the sort of thing it should do. In practice, it’s a dumping ground for every bit of harebrained social engineering a government wants to try its hand at, via citizenship classes and the like. At the same time, the NC is absurdly prescriptive. Take literacy. Any teacher worth her salt knows there are a whole lot of different ways of teaching literacy, appropriate to different kids, of which synthetic phonics is one. But, thanks to New Labour’s kowtowing to the Daily Mail, synthetic phonics is now compulsory. And now, on the grounds that parents are falling down on the job and the NC has to take up the slack, kids who are already suffering the Tony Blair Literacy Hour face being subjected to the Ed Balls Sex Hour.

Finally, however bad New Labour are on this ground, we can confidently expect Cameron and Gove to be ten times worse.

Part the second:
This is where it’s necessary to separate the substance from the spin. At 8.10 on Tuesday morning the Today programme carried a rather weird interview between John Humphrys and Ed Balls, on the subject of an amendment Balls had introduced to his own bill, which is ostensibly about protecting the religious character of faith schools. More on this below.

The interview was rendered even more weird in that it was preceded by an appearance from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who was arguing in favour of one-size-fits-all statism and against any religious dispensation. This seemed an odd position for a rabbi to take, but then Reform Judaism is a strange beast.

There then followed the main event. Although the bill would also affect the more numerous Anglican schools (though many of these are faith schools in name only), not to mention Jewish, Muslim and Hindu schools, the entire conversation was about Catholic schools, and moreover between two men neither of whom had the faintest idea what Catholic doctrine actually was. (Can we please have Ed Stourton back?) Humphrys was hyper-aggressively demanding of Balls that Catholic schools should not be allowed to be influenced by, er, Catholicism; Balls was positively surreal, simultaneously posing as the defender of faith schools while reassuring Humphrys of his fidelity to secularist orthodoxy by affirming that he would be requiring Catholic schools to provide their pupils with information on how to access contraception and abortion.

The spin on this, too, has been wondrous to behold. Secularist groups (among which we can count the Liberal Democrats) have been spinning furiously that this is all about Teh Gays. You can’t blame them for taking this tack – look at the media success they had a few weeks back when the Pope made a speech that didn’t mention homosexuality once, and we ended up in a “hands off our lovely gays” condemnathon. (And, having tapped into primordial English anti-Catholicism, there was little need to bother with details such as what the guy actually said. Better to have well-meaning liberals getting really angry about what they knew he’d said.) Actually, while homosexuality isn’t irrelevant to all of this, discussion in Catholic fora has been much, much more concerned with abortion. As for the government, prior to the amendment it had been spinning that its religious critics were a bunch of lunatics opposed to any and all sex education (Mark Steel, for one, seems to have accepted this); after the amendment, their spin came back to bite them in the bum as BBC newsreaders were berating MPs for allowing the “opt-out”.

What of the Catholic spin? Well, there hasn’t been any. Archbishop Nichols, Bishop McMahon and the blessed Oona have been conspicuous by their vanishingly low profile. There was a very brief and neutrally worded press release from the CES about the amendment, but that was it. If one were to go by the radio silence from +Vinnie and +Malcolm, one might get the impression that the bishops endorsed what New Labour was up to. Not least because Balls is quoting them in support of his position, with nary a word of contradiction.

Let’s backpedal slightly here, because faith schools under New Labour are a classic example of bullshit autonomy. New Labour loves faith schools, because middle-class parents love faith schools. In the absence of a government with the balls to bring back grammars, the middle classes have identified faith schools as ersatz grammar schools and will go to extraordinary lengths of feigning religious belief so as to get the kids in there. (There is an analogue, though an inexact one, in the way south Dublin is full of middle-class atheists who join the Church of Ireland for schools admission purposes.) New Labour loves faith schools so much that a whole slew of government ministers have managed to get their own kids into exclusive faith schools. But New Labour also remains committed to a long menu of liberal policies that sit uneasily to say the least with actually existing religion. Hence Barry Sheerman’s comment that faith schools were fine as long as they didn’t take the faith bit too seriously. Ideally, New Labour would like the “faith” bit of faith schools to be just a bit of branding, a logo on the school gate. You can get away with that to some extent with the C of E, but the likes of Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Jews are a tougher proposition.

So to the SRE proposals, and the Bill tightens considerably the leeway that schools had in designing their own SRE curricula. It would become illegal for any school not to offer SRE – even in primary schools, it is envisaged as being compulsory for the 8-11 age group, which is an odd move for a minister who’s said he’s concerned at how society is sexualising young children. From the age of fifteen, it will be illegal for parents to withdraw their children from SRE, no matter what reasonable concerns they may have about the content of what the school is offering. And this DCSF press release gives a flavour of what would specifically be expected from faith schools:

Q How could this work in practice in a faith school?

Let me answer that by way of providing an example. (This is Ed talkin’ here.)

St Thomas More is a mixed secondary school in Bedford. 60% of students are from a Catholic/Christian background with 40% from a range of ethnic minority groups, including Muslim. It has achieved Healthy Schools Status and has an Outstanding Award for cultural diversity.

St Thomas More delivers SRE through the pastoral programme in conjunction with the RE syllabus. It is led by pastoral tutors, all of whom are well prepared and confident to lead discussion with students across a wide range of SRE issues.

The school has developed a very successful balance of providing students with accurate information within the faith ethos of the school. For example, sex within marriage is promoted as the ideal of the Catholic faith, but the school explicitly recognises the reality that some young people may choose to be sexually active and, if that is the case, they need the knowledge and confidence to make an informed choice to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs.

The school nurse provides students with clear accurate information about the full range of contraception and STIs and details of local services. Chlamydia screening is also offered to students in Years 11 to 13. Pregnancy options, including abortion, are also discussed in a non-judgemental way with the RE syllabus requiring students to understand the spectrum of pro- and anti-choice views on abortion. By combining the pastoral and RE teaching, the essential knowledge component of SRE is provided to students but within the context of relationships and the school’s values.

Terry Sanderson has been banging on about the rights of children to an “objective” sex education, as if you can eliminate values from such a discussion. In the spirit of Dude Hitchens’ proclamation in God Is Not Great that “my belief is not a belief”, Terry is arguing not for a value-free SRE curriculum, which is impossible in any case, but for one that reflects his values – with the rhetorical rider that “my values are not values, they’re objective”. Ed Balls, who’s much more important in this context than the voluble Mr Sanderson, actually comes closer to a value-free approach with his demand that schools be “non-judgemental”, in other words following the timeworn liberal view that radical personal autonomy is the supreme value.

But this is where liberalism’s insistence on the atomistic individual, at least when it devolves into statist solutions to reinforce personal autonomy, becomes deeply anti-pluralist. And this is where Balls and Sanderson are as one, because what they view as “enlightened”, “neutral” or “non-judgemental” is in fact a value statement, and one that many people don’t agree with. The real difference is that Balls thinks the demands of liberal statism and those of faith can be reconciled by the teacher adding the rider “here’s what we believe, but here are some other beliefs of absolutely equal value”, while Sanderson thinks the teacher should be legally prevented from adding the rider.

For example, let’s say your faith holds up lifelong monogamous marriage as an ideal, while recognising (and being sensitive to) the fact that actually existing society is more complex. Ed Balls wants to make it compulsory for you to say that cohabitation and civil partnerships are of equal value with marriage – so how do you express an opinion without being judgemental? The canonical example is abortion, where Mr Balls seems to think Catholic schools can instruct girls in how and where to obtain abortions – and in a “non-judgemental” manner – as long as they say “but we don’t do that”. One would have thought Archbishop Nichols might have explained to him that for Catholic educators to assist a pupil in obtaining an abortion is for them to be complicit in a grave sin, but then that would presume that a government minister would understand the concept of sin.

And what of the ostensible opt-out? Here is the text of the amendment:

Subsections (4) to (7) are not to be read as preventing the governing body or head teacher of a school within subsection (7B) from causing or allowing PSHE to be taught in a way that reflects the school’s religious character.

Note that this replaces the provision in the Education Act 1996 that allows schools to opt out of what they consider to be inappropriate material; and that this amendment is in tension with all the other bits of the Bill stipulating that SRE must be carried out according to the (extremely broad-brush) requirements of “equality” and “diversity”, and it really doesn’t add up to much. What it amounts to in practice is that you can rely on the teachings of Jesus Christ as long as they don’t conflict with the teachings of Ed Balls. If they do, so much the worse for Jesus.

Even if you don’t subscribe to Catholic moral teaching – and I’m certainly not advocating that Catholic doctrine become the law of the land – there are good reasons to be alarmed at these occasional outbreaks of authoritarian Jacobinism from New Labour. I was saying a little while ago about the danger of erecting liberal analogues to Section 28, and this is exactly the sort of thing I meant. Genuine pluralist liberals – and a lot of liberals are shockingly illiberal on these issues – should realise that, at least on the Niemöller principle, it’s often necessary to defend the liberties of people you don’t agree with – as Pope Benny says, tolerance is not the same as approval – and that religious liberties are very often the canary in the mine. Apart from the civil libertarian argument, there’s also the prudential argument outlined by +Rowan at General Synod, when he talked about Section 28 and the danger of enshrining legal norms on disputed moral issues. You may not be worried as long as the government is enforcing liberal nostrums on the education system, but once put that sort of system in place, and should a morally conservative government come to power, the liberals would soon know what end was up.

Part the third:
This post has got far too long already, but I’d just like to quite briefly state my scepticism about whether these brave new plans Mr Balls is putting forward will actually do much good. One might profit from asking why there were much lower teen pregnancy and STI rates forty or fifty years ago, when there was almost no sex education in schools. Not, I hasten to add, that I’m calling for a return to those days.

I mention this because the debate on the CSF Bill has coincided with discussion of the government’s Teen Pregnancy Strategy, which will certainly miss by quite some margin its target of halving teen pregnancies in ten years, even with a bit of statistical jiggery-pokery aimed at making the headline figures look better. Sceptics view the TPS as not much more than a teen abortion strategy. (As the latest figures confirm, teenage birthrates have got very low, but that’s largely thanks to a 50% abortion rate rather than a reduction in teenage pregnancy.)

Many of you will have seen Anna Richardson’s Sex Education Show (aka Britain’s Got Herpes) on Channel 4. This was quite interesting in that it was arguing, on the face of it, that the teen pregnancy and STI crises could best be dealt with by more sex education. But, considering that there’s more sex education now than there has ever been, it might be more pertinent to call for better sex education.

There’s also the aspect of societal pressures. There are enormously strong influences on kids from the mass media, the internet, porn and what have you, reinforced by peer pressure. By far the most powerful vehicle for sex education in Britain is Radio 1’s Sunday Surgery, which always does some brief throat-clearing on the age of consent, and occasionally has on Christian girls who wear purity rings as a sort of sideshow attraction, but in general has a relentless message of “if it feels good, there can’t be anything wrong with it”. Set against this, pupils getting an hour a week in school of what Ed Balls considers to be good sex education – regardless of whether it’s any good – is comparable to government advertising campaigns on alcohol abuse when set alongside the mammoth advertising budget of the drinks industry. It’s a drop in the ocean.

Finally (phew!), there’s a general cultural issue. Holland, as is well known, has extremely permissive laws and as much sex in the media as you could possibly want, but a much lower teen pregnancy rate than Britain. But Dutch society, especially outside of the Amsterdam metropolis, is characterised by tight family units and a level of community cohesion that seems very old-fashioned to Brits. I can’t see the problem being sorted this side of a serious change in the culture, something that no act of legislation can decree.

More thoughts on this from Archbishop Cranmer.

Rud eile: I was immensely tickled to see Cardinal O’Brien slapping down the odious Jim Murphy. More on which here; and Ruthie reports that someone is having trouble with his comments box.

Ashes to ashes

Well, Kay Burley apparently didn’t know what Joe Biden was sporting on his forehead; Jon Snow felt the need to explain the significance of the ashes to C4 News viewers. Sometimes our British chums make me shake my head ruefully. Can the old traditions have disappeared so completely, or is this just a metropolitan thing?

Yesterday in Belfast there was still a big slice of the populace wearing ashes, and at lunchtime the city centre churches were packed to the rafters. Over here, Ash Wednesday is still quite a big deal.

However, there was one rather jarring thing. This last week or so has been half term, and as usual schools in the state and Catholic sectors have been working to slightly different timetables. But it’s odd that the Catholic schools would have been off on Wednesday. What with Ash Wednesday being a holy day of obligation, there used to be a huge rigmarole with the children all being dragooned into Mass to get their ashes. This would have been a serious task for the maintained education sector. Scheduling half term so the kids are spending Ash Wednesday sitting at home playing Grand Theft Auto is a quite shocking lapse in standards. At the very least, it’s one in the eye for Caitríona Ruane – how did the minister let that get by her?

I was disappointed, though, not to hear ace Derry educator Mgr Iggy McQuillan taking to the airwaves – at least I didn’t hear him, he may yet have been on Radio Foyle. When it comes to educational debates, there are few things as enjoyable as one of Iggy’s broadsides against the trendy socialists running CCMS and dominating the Irish Catholic hierarchy, who (according to Iggy) are completely in thrall to the modernist educational theories of Sinn Féin and the teaching unions. If CCMS has been caught napping on the job, it’s doubly disappointing when a good conservative critic fails to turn up and duly castigate them. Still, there’s always next year.

The Daily Tottygraph goes to university


The British press do like their hardy perennials, don’t they? Every year when the A-level results come out, the Daily Telegraph has a big photo feature on the front page. And every year, Private Eye runs a spoof item where the Telegraph reports the shocking news that attractive young blondes are doing well in their exams. While the Eye‘s humour is a bit frayed at the edges these days, that one works because of its deadly accuracy.

Well, the season for A-level results is long past, and Liz Hurley seems to have been keeping a low profile of late. But a picture editor’s work is never done, nor is that of the jobbing journalist whose job it is to write up a flimsy story as an excuse to run said pictures. For instance, the reason why the Daily Mail has more traffic on its website than any other British newspaper is its boundless enthusiasm for photos of celebutante Kim Kardashian, who is virtually unknown in Britain but attracts loads of online traffic from the States. The right sort of image is a godsend for generating traffic – Chris knows that, and so do I.

Presumably, this is why the Telegraph has chosen to leave the sixth-formers behind for the moment, having made the startling discovery that there are also lots of fruity young women at university. The tag for this story is the setting up at Cambridge University of The Tab, a web-based tabloid that’s supposed to provide a populist counterpoint to the established student papers. And indeed, it seems to have a healthy hit rate, not least due to its willingness to flash the flesh:

But a section where students pose in their underwear has caused controversy and led to calls for the scantily clad students to be covered up.

The Cambridge student union women’s officer, Natalie Szarek, said that they should be removed because they “reproduce and reinforce harmful attitudes towards women”.

Miss Szarek complained that “semi-naked women in provocative positions are being shoved in freshers’ faces”, adding: “We can do better as a university”.

Hmm. Well, at least Ms Szarek is educated enough not to claim that saucy photos are literally being shoved in people’s faces. Being a webzine, you would have to actually look it up on t’internet to see it. From my brief perusal, it doesn’t look horrendous – mostly campus news, film and gig reviews, a bit of humour, and guides to which pubs to go to in Cambridge. Normal student fare, then. These two or three features with mildly suggestive pictures are a fairly small proportion of the content – though no doubt they account for a lot of the traffic, we’re not talking Nuts here. And I didn’t spot anything nearly as offensive as what used to appear in PTQ.

Of course, the Telegraph doesn’t miss the opportunity to paint things as much saucier than they really are:

Meanwhile one of the student models, who posed on a punt in a small pink bikini and high heels, requested her photos removed from the site.

Becky Adams was said to have been “embarrassed” by the fall out of appearing in the tabloid and said she had only done it “as a favour for a friend”.

Female student does something for a laugh, regrets it later. It’s about as newsworthy as male students being a bit tasteless and vaguely sexist.

Until yesterday a picture of her accompanied an article headlined “Bra-vo” – a piece about a study which found that Cambridge women have on average the ninth largest bra sizes in the UK.

This was one of those self-serving commercial surveys, from Debenhams in this case. It was all over the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago, so it’s not as if this was particularly outrageous.

“There’s a huge amount of intellectual snobbery around, mainly from those who haven’t read the site,” [Tab co-founder Taymoor Atighetchi] said.

“We do not think what we are doing is sexist. It was always the intention to have a debate about these issues. The website is a tongue-in-cheek version of the tabloid newspaper – we are not just emulating it.”

At this point, Taymoor sort of loses my sympathy. All he had to do was say it was a tongue-in-cheek tabloid format, and leave it there. All this “we want to stimulate a debate on these issues” business is just a pseudo-intellectual equivalent of the Daily Telegraph saying “This is outrageous! And here are the pics to prove it!” One recalls the old Russ Meyer movie poster showing one of the great man’s top-heavy starlets in profile, with the tagline “Stacked with redeeming social significance”. But, while Meyer may have been a sexist reprobate, at least he was funny.

The female photographer who took the “Totty” photos also defended the website and said that six senior women staff are all proud to work for The Tab”.

“As a female who works on the Tab editorial team and a feminist, I’m delighted that so much debate has been generated over the Tab Totty section,” she said. “The main aim of The Tab was always to stimulate debate, and I feel we have truly succeeded when it comes to the issue of Page Three modelling.”

Ditto. We’re not talking here about a sociological treatise on the subject of young women in their skivvies, with necessary illustrations. We’re talking about something that is basically light-hearted, tabloid and populist – and justifiable in its own terms, however little it may appeal to the sort of people it isn’t aimed at. But then, intellectuals doing tabloid is a path fraught with dangers. Back in the 1980s, Guardian journalists produced a one-off version of a Sun-type tabloid and handed it out to bemused estate dwellers. It didn’t work, largely because the Graun journos treated the product as basically a comic – whereas Sun journalists, or indeed staff on comics, take their product very seriously indeed. The Sun isn’t a dumbed-down Guardian with shorter sentences, tits and bingo; it’s a thing in itself. Not to my taste, but lots of people like it.

The correct argument is not that this student silliness is some earnest project to get people talking about images of women. The correct argument is that this is just a bit of throwaway fun, and while you may or may not like this sort of image, there are many more concrete problems young women – even those at Cambridge – have to deal with.

Featured model Heidi says in her Tab piece:

In recent debates within the university, the impression generated by the CUSU Women’s Council and others is that prior to a few girls getting their kit off, the university was a sexism-free zone. Whilst totally misleading, this nonetheless demonstrates precisely a pernicious concealment of sexist attitudes that are in evidence throughout the university. There is a 21% wage inequality between male and female academics; the first female head porter was appointed in the institution’s 800th year; women’s boxing and rugby do not earn the same full blue status granted to their male counterparts.

There is a culture of sexism in Cambridge that needs addressing. That it took photos of girls in underwear to make people think so is bizarre; that the photos have become a sole target for all that is degrading and objectifying to the university’s women is just ridiculous. CUSU’s recent focus is totally misdirected, and fails to deal with far more worrying, entrenched gender problems. To equate ‘smashing sexism’ merely with stigmatizing nudity completely skews any argument about latent gender inequality in Cambridge…

Quite so, and this is why I don’t have much patience for that brand of feminism that’s mainly centred around speech codes. It’s not that I don’t think there’s an argument to had around images or language and how they reflect power in society, but we’re talking about the difference between image and actuality. See also, Andrew Pierce for a reflection on the kind of protection the gay community needs – that is, protection from the rise in homophobic assaults, not some half-baked legislative action to prevent ignorant glipes like Chris Moyles or Jan Moir from hurting their feelings.

The end of academic selection, and Catholic acquiescence thereat


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.

Our elected representatives show leadership


Having caught a little of Thursday’s NIC-ICTU rally against racism at City Hall – work commitments meant I couldn’t stick around very long – it looked terribly disappointing. It was depressingly small, and there didn’t look to be much there beyond the usual suspects. Some union officials. Some fulltime Nice People from the grantocracy. A sprinkling of far-left activists with papers and collection buckets. The gentlemen of the press, looking desperately for a story. And once again, a no-show from our ethnic communities, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this sort of thing.

Luckily, the numbers were boosted by the UDA. There would have been even less to see if Jackie McDonald and several of his satraps hadn’t put in an appearance.

But if the rally was a bust, last week’s Assembly debate on racism wasn’t much better. There were of course some examples of the right attitudes being struck. A little prelude was had in ministerial questions, with Martin McGuinness doing his heart-on-my-sleeve bit:

As I held Fernanda, the baby who was born in Belfast, in my arms when she was five days old, I knew that her mother and father were about to take her away from her birthplace because of a despicable hate crime. I also met a young woman called Maria who came here a few months ago without a word of English. She is a lovely person who taught herself and her two children English. Maria was able to act as interpreter between us and the rest of the Roma community. That shows clearly how hard those people were trying to build new lives.

We need to face up to all the problems that are out there. All of us need to do more, and there is a particular responsibility on people to recognise that perhaps not enough was done by the system as a whole. It was very interesting to see that Assistant Chief Constable Finlay effectively threw up his hands in relation to how he thought the police handled the situation. Effectively, they did not know what was happening in the Roma community. That accusation could also be levelled at us. We all have lessons to learn and, as we go forward, the type of document to which the Member referred needs to be very thorough and proactive in relation to facing down racism and sectarianism in our society.

Well, yes. Later we got to the debate, wherein Alex Maskey (PSF, South Belfast) tabled the following motion:

That this Assembly condemns unreservedly all racist and sectarian attacks; calls for the rights and entitlements of ethnic minorities and other vulnerable communities to be protected; commends all those voluntary and statutory agencies which assisted in the recent upheaval inflicted upon members of the Roma community in Belfast; and calls on all Departments to respond appropriately and on all political leaders to display leadership and unity of purpose in tackling all manifestations of hate crime.

There’s not much you can take issue with there. One thing that does come to mind, though, is that, in political discourse in the north, racism is the new sectarianism. It’s become fashionable to view sectarianism as just a manifestation of racism, or of bad attitudes held by bad people. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that sectarianism is the basic feature of our society, and the outbreak of racist incidents over recent years is simply the addition of new targets by people who would have been involved in sectarian incidents in the past. Alex sort of touched on this:

In the aftermath of the killing of Kevin McDaid, people who comment on such matters, including those in the media, speculated on who might have been involved, the purpose of the killing and why it happened. Some of the remarks, commentaries and observations made in the media and through public discourse were shameful and sought, in my view, to either justify or minimise and explain away what happened on the day on which Mr McDaid was brutally killed. That is in contrast to how they responded to the treatment of the Roma families and suggests that an awful lot of people in this society find it much easier and are more comfortable to deal with the issue of racism than the issue of sectarianism. Sectarianism is the elephant in the room. I am struck by the fact that many people in our communities are able to tackle the issue of racism much easier and more comfortably than the issue of sectarianism.

I think that’s true. Nobody will openly defend racism – even the BNP are cagey about doing that these days. Besides, it’s a lot easier to condemn racism when we’re talking about the plight of relatively small numbers of people. In that sense, it doesn’t pose the same questions as sectarianism.

Following that, Naomi Long (Alliance, East Belfast) reflected on the racist attacks, when she had been on the scene in her capacity of Lord Mayor, and talked about the need for the Executive to produce a cohesion strategy, which would make me feel happier if I didn’t think it was just going to be another glossy booklet. Then we had an intervention from friend of this blog Jim Shannon (DUP, Strangford) in characteristically forthright terms:

We er weel kent as tha wee kintrie wi’ a’ big hairt, an oor guid naem o’ waremth an feelin is bein ruinet bi’ thugs hoo irnie representative o’ tha lerge majority in tha Proavince. We hae haud sum kinserns in oor kumunity an sum metters sic as yin in Kummer laust yeer, but that wus a yin-afff an haesnae bin repeetet. Whut hooiniver is cleer ther er fowk whau er fed up wi’ tha woarl in general an takk it oot oan fowk in pertikuler; unfoartunately, it seems tae be that it’s aieser tae pikk oan tha yins that hae nae supoart netwoarks.

Yes, well, you can’t say fairer than that. What was more interesting was that Jim took the opportunity to talk about the migration of Protestants out of border areas, and of opposition to Orange parades. In his view, these were to be identified with the racist attacks in Belfast. There was to be some more of this.

We then had Danny Kennedy (UCUNF, Newry/Armagh), Carmel Hanna (SDLP, South Belfast) and Jimmy Spratt (DUP, South Belfast) all adding their condemnation of the attacks. Everybody was offering condemnation.

Unfortunately, this love-in was brought to an abrupt close by Martina Anderson (PSF, Foyle), who said:

Those attacks were the outworkings of a warped mindset that has never tolerated anything but itself. It is a mindset that for years has been ignored and even encouraged by some in the Establishment. Some of the most so-called Christian of places have been underpinned by a culture of intolerance. We have all heard the Pope being described from the pulpit as the Antichrist. Whether the targets are Romanian or Roman Catholic, the bigotry that they face is the same.

The motion calls for political leadership and unity of purpose in tackling all manifestations of hate crime. The sad fact is that it must be said that unionist Members have been found wanting in that regard. Time and time again, we have failed, and they have failed to confront hate crime, particularly sectarianism that emanates from within their community.

Before anyone gets the wrong impression, I am not suggesting for one second that all intolerance emanates from within the unionist community. I will repeat that: I am not suggesting for one second that all intolerance emanates from the unionist community. However, the difference is that my party has always confronted those issues head on in our own community.

We have gone toe to toe with those responsible and we have let them know in no uncertain terms that no such behaviour will be tolerated or accepted. We have had a vigil in the Bogside area of Derry after attacks in the Fountain; we have been involved in forums with residents trying to address that. We have challenged and confronted, head on, attacks that have emanated from within our community, but we do not see the same level of confrontation within the unionist community.

There’s some element of truth to that. It was noticeable during the episode with the Roma that unionist reps were prepared to say the right thing if a microphone or reporters’ notebook was stuck in their face, but it was people like Martin McGuinness and Naomi Long who were doing the touchy-feely stuff. Actually, Jackie McDonald was more proactive than unionist politicians, and that can’t be a good thing.

But this then led to splenetic responses from Robin Newton (DUP, East Belfast) and Tom Elliott (UCUNF, Fermanagh/South Tyrone), who banged on at some length about the oppression of border Protestants, the unaccountable reluctance of Catholics to have Orange parades on their doorsteps, and how Martina Anderson should apologise for everything republicans had ever done before she got to speak about intolerance. Peter Robinson then remarked:

I regret that the Member for Foyle Ms Anderson engaged in the blame game; we learned that when one points the finger, three point back at one. The responses thereafter showed that.

Yes, it’s much easier to not point fingers at all. It is in fact true that DUP representatives in the Coleraine area were remarkably understanding about the McDaid murder, but it just doesn’t do to point fingers.

Now let’s just bring this to a close with Anna Lo (Alliance, South Belfast), who actually knows something about racism:

I am very heartened by the response from all Members and parties today. I particularly welcome the First Minister’s strong words and his sincerity and commitment to deal with the problem of sectarianism and racism. However, I am also saddened by some of the comments, which seemed to me to be defensive and to stereotype our ethnic minority communities. There are good and bad apples in all communities, and we have to take that into account. Where there are large numbers of new populations, there will, of course, be some people who will misbehave, but that is no cause for racist attacks.

We must address racism and hate crimes of all types in our society. I have lived here for 35 years, and I do not believe that Northern Ireland is a racist society, but a small minority can bring us all down in the eyes of the world. We must be very careful about that.

I believe that racism is on the increase. Last year, there were nearly 1,000 incidents, but I have no doubt that the figure for this year will rocket. In the past few months, more than 80 Polish people have been intimidated, and more than 40 of them have moved out of their homes as a result of that intimidation.

Following that, Hungarian women were forced out of their homes. Next, 115 Romanian families were forced to leave their homes. Only three of those families have stayed in Northern Ireland; the remainder left last week.

The Indian community was targeted last week. Over the weekend and today, a large number of people from ethnic minorities, including myself, received serious threats to our safety. I have never seen the ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland so fearful…

We need leadership from the Government, but we also need Government action. Many public services are not geared to meet the needs of ethnic minority communities. Over the past two weeks, the Government’s response to meeting the needs of the Romanian community has been inadequate. Children were moving from place to place clutching their teddy bears, their pillows and blankets, and we could not do a thing. We had to put them in a church for one night and shift them somewhere else the next night. What on earth are we doing? We are a large, wealthy population. Why can we not deal with such a situation?

Quite. It’s all very well to get the Assembly to unanimously agree a motion condemning racism, but maybe more profitable to ask the practical questions. Going by the NICEM statement quoted by the BBC, they were as unimpressed as I was.

That was Monday. On Tuesday, our esteemed representatives were back to the normal knockabout while discussing post-primary education and the 11+. Some highlights:

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Members must allow the Minister to answer. I am hearing everything in quadraphonic sound. Perhaps the Minister would respond to the question.

Later on it got better:

Mr McCallister: In my brief time on the Education Committee, the one thing that has become clear is that we do not have clarity on anything. The Western Education and Library Board, for example, estimates that up to 8,000 pupils who would be entitled to free school meals do not claim them. In addition, there are issues about the capital value of farms. Adding that to the fact that her own equality impact assessment concludes that the criteria discriminate against those in rural and Protestant working-class areas, and given that so much of the policy is based on free school meal entitlement, how does the Minister propose to make any of her plans fit for purpose?

The Minister of Education: I believe that the Member has been on the Education Committee for only two hours. Nevertheless, I welcome him, and I am sure that he will receive copious notes on this subject from my Department.

And it didn’t get any less ill-tempered:

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Storey): I am glad that the Assembly does not have a sports day at the end of term, because the Minister of Education could not win even the egg-and-spoon race.

As Chairperson of the Education Committee, I want to inform the House that the Education Minister has bypassed the Committee. Members will remember that when she published the sustainable schools policy, she did it by —

Mr O’Dowd: Speech.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: Mr Deputy Speaker, am I to be continually interrupted by a Shinner?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The words “pot”, “kettle” and “black” come to mind, Mr Storey. However, Mr Storey should be allowed to continue. It is questions to the Minister on her statement, and I await the question.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: The Minister published her sustainable schools policy by putting on her education balaclava and doing it at night. When she decided to publish transfer 2010 guidance, she did not come to the Education Committee, despite the important fact that in a letter to the Education Committee dated 5 May —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Storey, as Chairperson of the Committee, you are given a certain amount of leniency in respect of what you can say, but the time for a question to the Minister on her statement has long passed.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: The Education Minister has ignored the Education Committee. Will the Education Minister tell the people and the parents of Northern Ireland today, first, that she has failed in relation to the abolition of academic criteria, and, secondly, when she will heed the numerous calls that have been made to her? We will have to come back to the issue of transfer. We will have to establish an agreed way to transfer our children from primary school to post-primary school rather than go down the ideological cul-de-sac that she, as Education Minister, has created and exist in the confusion over which she is happy to preside.

The Minister of Education: Go raibh maith agat. Mr Storey raised a point about sports days. Last night, I met all the GAA coaches who are part of the sports programme in P1 and P2. Members will know that we have a good sports programme with the GAA and the IFA. It might be useful for the a Cheann Comhairle, the Chairperson, of the Education Committee to have a discussion with the GAA and the IFA, because one of the issues that we discussed was ways in which sports days can be made more participative. It is not about winning or about the two or three children who win all the medals; it is about interaction. I commend the GAA and the IFA for making sports days more interesting in the primary schools in which they are working, and for training the teachers. I thank the Member for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to the IFA and the GAA.

I urge the Chairperson of the Education Committee not to resort to personal insults. It is better to deal with the educational arguments. It is often the case that people resort to insults when they have nothing or little to say.

And yet more from the education debate:

Mr Deputy Speaker: I must say that Members are providing a fine example to the very children about whom they are talking.

Mr Poots: Does the Minister agree that there is a number of very important and key elements missing from her statement, such as: “Ruane makes amazing comeback to win Wimbledon ladies’ singles”; “Newry City win Champions League”; “Elvis spotted sunbathing in Warrenpoint”; and “They all lived happily ever after”?

I recommend that the Minister take a long holiday, because, when she returns, examinations will still be taking place. Furthermore, the privatised transfers that she has initiated, for which there will actually be more testing, and which will make it more difficult for children from socially challenged backgrounds to get into grammar schools, will still be in place. Is that the system that the Minister set out to create, for that is what she has created?

The Minister of Education: It is interesting to hear sporting analogies as Wimbledon takes place, and I am glad that Mr Poots has provided the House with some very good ones. I look forward to seeing Newry City win the Champions League, and all the rest.

You realise, of course, that a lot of these characters are school governors? I think, to conclude by raising the tone, we should hear what Jim Shannon had to say on the Budget Bill:

Aa’ hae tae sae Mr Speeker that Aa’ hae a feelin that this haes aw happent’ afoar aboot muckle debates in this Hoos regerdin metters aboot mony. We heer iver an iver again, aboot tha need fer a new Budget proasess , an fer soon reasins o’ giein oot mony tae this area an that. But theim that iver an iver agin caw fer this hae iver an iver agin fawed far shoart o’ spellin oot whor they wud takk tha mony fae. It is aw quare an weel tae oarder an deman mare fundin, but we canny awaes roab Peter tae pay Paul. Tha quarterly takkin in tae acoont roons, whuch er aften tauked aboot bi’ sum Memers, oaffer a reel guid soartin oot wae o’ brinnin aboot muckle changes tae tha Budget as it noo stauns. Aa’ unnerstaun that weel iver yin billyin poon o’ allocated an reduced needs hae bin maed throo tha takkin intae acoont roons iver these paust twau yeer.

And if that doesn’t hit the nail on the head, I don’t know what does.

Could this man be the saviour of conservatism? The Hitch thinks so…


Not for the first time, Peter Hitchens has a bee in his bonnet. Today, his column begins with this stirring cry:

It is time David Davis left the Tory Party and urged others to follow. He is by far the most distinguished, experienced and principled conservative politician in the country.

Yet there is now no room for him in David Cameron’s teenage Shadow Cabinet of Etonians, nobodies and Etonian nobodies.

This glaring fact, set alongside the fawning support which the Leftist BBC and Leftist Guardian now give Mr Cameron, should tell us all we need to know about the Tories.

Don’t hold back, will you, Peter? Actually, the Hitch has two parallel but interlocking arguments, one about education and one about the big picture.

The educational issue has to do with grammar schools. The genial Mr Davis has written an article in praise of grammar schools, recounting how he, a bright working-class kid, was given a big leg up in life by a grammar school education. He then goes on to argue that England could do with more grammar schools. Following his resignation from the shadow cabinet over civil liberties, this is his second major shot across Rankin’ Dave Cameron’s bows.

Some historical background is necessary here, as well as setting aside a few standard leftist preconceptions. Chief among these is that the old grammar schools were bastions of privilege. This was true for a very long time, but it’s often forgotten what a revolutionary effect the 1944 Butler Act had. By setting grammar school entrance on a meritocratic basis, huge numbers of working-class kids were given opportunities they never otherwise would have had.

The post-1944 tripartite system had its difficulties, of course, mostly to do with resources. The secondary moderns, where the bulk of the school-age population were educated, were seriously neglected, while the promised technical schools didn’t materialise at all. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a horrendous system. And there’s something that’s often forgotten, and which perhaps explains why Mrs Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any Labour education secretary. That was that much of the drive towards comprehensivisation came from middle-class parents who were faced with the appalling vistas of both legions of working-class kids getting into grammars and less academically gifted middle-class kids being consigned to secondary moderns. Hence, the postcode lottery.

It would be fair to say that, just as the Butler scheme didn’t work out as planned, neither did the comprehensive scheme as it developed end up as the planners expected. You only have to read Crosland on the subject to know that. One outcome has been an enormous boost to a private sector that was on the brink of dying out forty years ago. But far more insidious has been the way that open selection has been replaced by underhand, secret selection. Pushy middle-class parents who know their way around the system are well able to get little Jimmy into that nice school that isn’t nearly as comprehensive as it’s claimed to be. If you have the money, you can pay the enormous premium required to move into the catchment area of a desirable school. (And it’s worth considering the impact this has had on the house price bubble.) Or alternatively, you can feign religiosity to get your children into a faith school. Is it really a surprise that Mr Tony Blair’s city academies, which were supposed to be all about helping working-class kids, are seeing the class profile of their pupils change very quickly? The middle class always find a way to profit from whatever the system is.

(And this catalogue of unforeseen consequences should perhaps inform our own debate about post-primary education, where the abolition of the official 11+ has led to the establishement of two unofficial 11+ exams, one Catholic and one Protestant. The Belfast Telegraph likes to ascribe this to the incompetence of education minister Caitríona Ruane, but that’s just missing the point. The point is that Caitríona’s reforms are based entirely on bright ideas coming out of the education department at Queens, rather than those of people at the chalkface.)

This is a subject close to the Hitch’s heart, and he’s devoted a whole chapter of his new book The Broken Compass to it. But what’s essential here is that the British political class, with its customary hypocrisy, is willing to countenance covert selection and indeed procure it for their own families – the Camerons and the Goves are parents at the same exclusive church school – as long as they publicly adhere to the egalitarian position. The outcome is that, while there’s a lot of talk about a failing education system, nobody seems to have any clear ideas about changing it. Messrs Cameron and Gove have made cryptic remarks about the Swedish system. This won’t work in Britain for reasons too tedious to go into, but essentially because Britain isn’t Sweden. The German system has a lot to commend it – in Germany the state schools are so good it really is just the thickest scions of the wealthy who go private – but it would take an awful lot of time and money to introduce, and it has the disadvantage of featuring lots of grammar schools. Grammar schools remain as ideologically treif for Rankin’ Dave as they are for any Labour politician.

Which brings me to the second theme. I often think about Peter Hitchens that he’s really in the wrong era to be doing much good. His polemics against the permissive society, for instance, would be perfectly relevant if this was 1963 and he was excoriating Roy Jenkins. His current Big Idea is that all proper conservatives (“proper” is a key part of the Hitchens lexicon) should be working towards the electoral defeat of Cameron’s Useless Tories, the better to replace them with some a genuinely conservative opposition. Trouble is, this might have been plausible in 1997, or even 2001, but it seems dreadfully out of sync at the moment. Never mind, though, the Hitch warms to his theme regardless:

If Mr Cameron becomes Prime Minister, we will be told that he has done so precisely because he is a liberal, and the remaining real conservatives in his party will be marginalised and crushed for a generation.

But a proper dramatic moment is needed, to drive home this fact to the voters. The time is just right for it. Tory MPs are currently in turmoil, many fiercely resenting the shameless injustice of Mr Cameron’s expenses purge. This has fallen heavily on MPs Mr Cameron doesn’t like or agree with – but has exempted Mr Cameron’s own closest allies, and let off Mr Cameron himself, despite the exposure of his greedy use of taxpayers’ money to buy himself a large country house which he could easily have paid for himself.

Which can’t be said often enough. Here we have a man worth thirty million quid, and he’s still bumming off the taxpayer. Meanwhile, he’s quite cynically been using the expenses scandal to rid himself not of the worst offenders – most of whom are in his shadow cabinet – but of those crusty old Tory MPs who he’s never liked and who’ve never liked him. It’s just another opportunity to remould the Tories into a party of metrosexual liberalism, albeit that these liberals don’t seem to have a problem taking the salute from Latvian SS veterans.

But I’m rambling here. Do go on, Peter:

The Tory front bench is a mixture of pitiful inexperience and fierce disagreement, a truth only concealed by the state of Labour’s Cabinet of None of the Talents. It is divided over the EU, over economic policy, over defence policy and over the central issue of liberty.

Now David Davis has also brought things to a head over what might be called David Cameron’s Clause Four issue – the need to rebuild the grammar schools…

This is the heart of his Unconservative programme. It is the Cameron pledge to govern as New Labour, which is what has got him the friendship of the BBC. Mr Davis was cynically destroyed in his Tory leadership campaign by London liberal PR men and journalists working in concert to promote the unknown, undistinguished David Cameron. He was left out in the cold when he staged his ill-advised but rather admirable one-man campaign for liberty a year ago.

And now we have Mr Davis sticking his neck out on this totemic issue. Good for him. I won’t hold my breath, though, waiting for him to resign with a big dramatic flourish. But it would be nice if the electorate were actually offered a choice of programmes, instead of content-free political marketing directed at the 300,000 swing voters. Unfortunately, the collapse of mass party membership, the increasing reliance on big donations and the mass media, and the consolidation of a largely identikit political class spanning party boundaries, are powerful forces driving a process which Mr Cameron seems hell-bent on accelerating. Whether the tide can actually be turned back… once again, I see Peter filling the role of King Cnut.

Rud eile: Peter also has a dig at John Bercow for his reluctance to wear the Speaker’s traditional wig, gown and tights. Nor does he spare Bercow’s predecessors, Speakers Boothroyd and Martin:

What these vandals do not seem to grasp is that they command respect not because of who they are but because of the office they hold. Stripped of wig, robes and bands, we see only the person. And we do not like what we see. If Mr Martin had worn the horsehair on his head, people might not have noticed so quickly that he resembled, in many significant ways, a horse’s backside.

I say, that’s a bit ripe for someone who’s always complaining about the coarsening of public debate.

Rud eile fós: Looks like Langley are up to their old tricks. Where the colour-coded putsch in Moldova didn’t work out, perhaps a more old-school coup in Honduras would be just the thing to boost office morale.

Department of the bleeding obvious


Last night, as per usual, I was watching Channel 4 News when something quite striking happens. There was a little discussion of Pope Benny’s current visit to Africa. But that in itself wasn’t what interested me, or Jon Snow. What Snow wanted to talk about was Benny’s restatement of official Catholic doctrine on condom use. So, in the studio discussion, some Catholic woman whose name escapes me was brought in to be harangued. Cue Snow banging on about how millions of Africans were going to die of Aids, and it was all the Pope’s fault.

Then it got entertaining, as the Catholic woman, getting visibly more annoyed by the second, put in a vigorous defence of Catholic development policy as it’s operated in the Philippines, and made a spirited attack on condom-centric development programmes. So aggressive was she, in fact, that Snow was taken quite aback, and switched his interrogatory mode for one of trying to get the Catholic woman to calm down. Evidently she hadn’t understood that her function on the programme was to be shamefaced and apologetic.

But why should she be? And, more to the point, why should any experienced journalist feign shock and horror when Benny goes around defending the official positions of the Catholic Church? The guy is, after all, the head of the Catholic Church. And, though I don’t agree with Benny on this question, I am more than a little queasy at secular liberals, who aren’t under any obligation to pay the slightest attention to Catholic doctrine, campaigning for the Church to change its doctrine. It’s a bit like a football team campaigning to change the laws of cricket.

In other dog-bites-man news, yesterday was St Drunkard’s Day. I’ll get onto the local Paddy’s Day celebrations in a second, but it was striking how far the cringe towards the States has gone. Of course Biffo Cowen was in Washington, presenting his fellow Offaly man Barack O’Bama with the traditional bowl of shamrock, although what you’re supposed to do with a bowl of shamrock beats me. And of course our own Dynamic Duo, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, were also at the White House. Indeed, so many of our political class, from both sides of the border, were stateside begging for change, that it’s possible the government of Ireland might momentarily have devolved on a dog-catcher in Cavan, or worse still, Sammy Wilson.

Although there were lots of very sizeable parades around Ireland, for most of the day they took a poor second place on the news to New York and Chicago. One can understand the London media choosing to report Paddy’s Day celebrations from America rather than those from, er, Ireland. (Next year, expect Burns Night from Australia – and, incidentally, it happened in Scotland as well.) For our local news outlets to do the same, though, tells you something about priorities.

But hey, all that was changed by the Holylands riot. Again, totally predictable. In fact, the peelers had predicted trouble the day before. So why the shock-horror at something we all knew would happen? You know what the Holylands is like. Specifically, you know the behaviour patterns of the Tyrone farmboys. I’m sure that wheelie-bin races at two in the morning are deadly crack for the students, but they aren’t much fun for anybody who wants to get some sleep in.

And now the call goes up for Queens and the NUU to take action against their riotous students. To be honest, I think it would be better for the colleges to just use the occasion to declare half-term every spring. That might minimise the presence of drunken culchies, who would be enjoying their revels in the depopulated backwaters where they’re used to doing whatever they like. It’s called managing your environment.

The Easy Rider minister

Do you know, here was me lamenting Sammy Wilson’s low ministerial profile. And no sooner is that done, but Sammy comes streaking back into the headlines:

Environment Minister Sammy Wilson last night branded the law which saw him fined for riding his motorbike without tax or MoT as “absurd”.

The Minister, who has responsibility for road safety in Northern Ireland, was caught by a camera detection unit on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast — a short distance from the Stormont Parliament Buildings.

And so the multi-tasking Sammy – minister, Westminster MP, Stormont MLA, Belfast councillor – finds himself forty quid out of pocket.

Meanwhile, we find a superannuated politician, Patricia Lewsley of the SDLP, sticking her oar into the Movilla teachers’ strike.

The background to this is fairly straightforward. There is an allegation that a pupil at Movilla High School in Newtownards assaulted a teacher. Other teachers refused to teach the pupil concerned. On having their pay docked, they went on strike. Efforts have been ongoing to resolve the situation.

These efforts have not been helped by Patricia, who is no longer a Stormont MLA but does enjoy a comfortable position as Children’s Commissioner, and who has branded the strike an abuse of children’s rights.

I’m rather sceptical about the whole concept of children’s rights – we raised children fairly well for centuries without them – and have never quite seen the need for a Children’s Commissioner to advocate on their behalf. Nor has Patricia particularly made the case. What next, I ask myself? We have a Children’s Commissioner, we have four (4) Victims’ Commissioners – can it be long before a Hoods’ Commissioner is appointed?

Selective education is abolished, or maybe it isn’t…


First, a brief history lesson. It’s not often realised that in Britain it was the middle class that pushed hard for the introduction of comprehensive schools, hence the situation under the Heath government when education secretary Margaret Thatcher (for it was she) was positively enthusiastic for closing grammars.

The reason for this was that the 11+, for all its manifold faults, was giving a leg up to a layer of working-class youth and the middle class suddenly found their grammars overrun with oiks. Trouble was, the new comps were even more full of oiks. Therefore you can see the last twenty-odd years of education reform as having a good deal to do with an unstated agenda of oik avoidance. John Major (remember him?) touted about the idea of a grammar school in every town, before realising that this would play well in the Daily Mail but wasn’t a runner in real life. Thus the big idea of grant-maintained schools opting out of democratic local control. More recently Mr Tony Blair, who has had many bad ideas about education, presided over an enormous expansion in faith schools. A handful of Muslim schools may have made the headlines, but literally hundreds of state schools being handed over to the Church of England has passed by pretty much unnoticed. Thus a huge rise in the number of parents faking religiosity to get their kids into good schools.

Got that? Now consider that the catchment area for Methody includes Sandy Row.

And this lends a little perspective to Caitríona Ruane’s announcement of her plans for the future of post-primary education. The Stormont Executive being what it is, and ministers not actually making any decisions, what this amounts to is Caitríona’s “I have a dream” statement, with even the minister admitting that the detail is to be filled in later. What has grabbed all the headlines is Caitríona’s plan to abolish the 11+. This would be the second time it’s been abolished, Martin McGuinness having signed an order to that effect whilst being bundled out the door as the first Executive collapsed. On the other hand, Sammy the Streaker says there’s no way a non-selective system will be brought in. We shall see.

What catches the eye is Caitríona’s pledge that the Department of Education won’t fund any transfer test. This leaves a rather obvious loophole, which is why some grammars are threatening to run their own private tests. And then there’s the possibility of selection by interview, which would be the worst of all worlds – ossifying class boundaries in education by reinforcing middle-class snobs’ ability to offload their dopy offspring onto the grammar sector while shutting out the children of the hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Actually, Caitríona’s statement is an unholy mess in a whole lot of ways, not least because of the effort she’s put into placating the various lobbies. So selection at eleven is ruled out, but there’s provision for selection – sorry, election – at fourteen, with not much clue as to what the kids will do in the interim. And there’s the plan for local groups of schools, thus allowing the different schools in each group to maintain their Catholic ethos, grammar ethos etc. The theory seems to be that, within each local group, any eleven-year-old will be able to pauchle along to any school he pleases. Again, we’ll see about that.

Actually, if we could get past the incredible amounts of humbug coming from the grammar lobby, the 11+ has already been undermined long-term by demographics. With a shrinking school-age population, not a few grammars have been relaxing their entrance requirements on the sly so as to stay viable. A cunning strategy suggests itself of bunging more and more kids into the grammars as the years go by. Except that it might cause some loss of face, why not?

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