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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Adams' protégé weight on Executive

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

It's a bad sign for a politician when your party colleagues keep saying nobody wants you to go. Each expression of support has the unfortunate effect of moving your departure up the agenda. It happened with Ian Paisley Junior a few weeks ago and it's happening with Catriona Ruane right now.

Like the Paisleys before her, Ruane has reached a position where every time her name is mentioned, so too is the R-word.

Last Thursday, Martin McGuinness had to interrupt a business lunch organised by Dundalk Chamber of Commerce to field questions about the education minister's future. He assured guests that she had no intention of resigning and that he would not be relieving her of her post, a power he holds as Sinn Féin nominating officer.

Earlier in the week it was Paul Butler, Sinn Féin's Education spokesman, who had to rally round the damaged minister. Butler said a "concerted campaign" to get rid of Ruane "will not succeed" and warned ominously that "we are prepared for a battle." He was certainly right about the push to remove her. The press and the other parties have seen the blood in the water and the sharks are circling.

Only last year Ruane was a rising star. She had been talent spotted, recruited and promoted by Gerry Adams himself. She is, it must be admitted, the sort of person you would like beside you when the going gets rough. She has the energetic and cheerful manner of the tennis pro she once was. Her steady nerve under fire and ability to defend the indefensible was demonstrated when she acted as spokesman and campaigner for the Colombia Three in the most unpromising circumstances.

When they were caught training Farc guerrillas, lied to the Colombian courts and then jumped bail, Ruane showed an unblinking ability to keep a straight face, hold the line and argue that black was white on their behalf. Her organisational ability was honed building up the spectacularly successful Féile an Phobail (in West Belfast) which is now billed as Europe's biggest community festival.

Ruane was expected to shine at Stormont; education was a relatively easy department to run and nobody could have predicted that she would make such a mess of it. Northern Ireland schools perform well in league tables and, unlike the situation in Britain, nobody has to pay heavy fees. We even have the advantage of spare capacity. Falling pupil numbers has created competition for pupils. Many grammars, legally bound to fill all their places, are accepting those who achieve lower grades at the 11-plus and becoming comprehensives by default.

There is even consensus on the problem areas. Everyone accepts that too many children leave school with no qualifications and few would argue that two days of tests at age 11 are the best possible way to decide a child's future. It is the perfect moment to restructure and one pointer to the way forward is the repeatedly expressed desire of parents for more schools to become religiously integrated.

It should have been plain sailing. Instead, Ruane has created a perfect storm for herself. She followed up her announcement that this year's 11-plus test would be the last with a dogmatic refusal to spell out what would replace it. Those who questioned her logic were labelled elitist and treated to patronising diatribes that alienated parents.

She is now the least popular minister in the assembly and easily the weakest link in the Sinn Féin team. She requires constant propping up and will become a dead weight on her ministerial colleagues unless she can turn things around by the time she presents her long awaited proposals on a replacement for the 11-plus to the executive later this month.

Ruane's 11-plus policy was pioneered by McGuinness, her predecessor as education minister. The difference is that he had the power to bulldoze it through if necessary because, under the rules agreed in the Good Friday Agreement, individual ministers enjoyed a great deal of autonomy within their own fiefdoms.

At St Andrews the balance was shifted towards the executive as a whole. Nowadays Ruane needs the agreement of other parties to make such a change. A leaked Sinn Féin briefing paper suggests that she intends to get round the difficulty by issuing guidelines to schools with the veiled threat of consequences for those who do not comply voluntarily. At the same time she will refuse to fund further transfer tests.

Those schools who adopt her guidelines will, if they have too many applicants, select pupils primarily on the basis of geographic location. Parents will be given guidance notes to help them select an appropriate school at transfer.

Working out this policy has taken nearly a year of stonewalling, refusal to elaborate and contemptuous dismal of questions. These tactics have turned a situation of broad popular support for replacing the 11-plus with something better to one in which she is routinely described as "beleaguered".

Last week, newspaper surveys charted her haemorrhaging support. On the education scrutiny committee at Stormont only her two Sinn Féin colleagues and Trevor Lunn of the Alliance party expressed confidence in her. "My confidence is being severely tested" Lunn told the Belfast Telegraph.

Another survey showed that two-thirds of all school heads, including half of the heads of Catholic schools, have lost confidence in her. Only 8.5% felt she was giving them enough information to plan ahead.

She retains the formal support of the teachers unions and the Catholic Church for the time being; her party colleague John O'Dowd talks hopefully of the Bishops "pulling the schools into line" for her but her dithering is testing even clerical patience to the limit. Cardinal Sean Brady has expressed reservations, warning that no child "should be sacrificed on the altar of experiment" and spoke for many when he called for clarity.

The writing is on the wall and it leaves Ruane in a very weak position to force her proposals through in the face of opposition. If she just bulls ahead an early challenge will come from 31 grammar schools who are planning to administer their own 11-plus style exam and are setting up a limited company to do so.

Ruane has responded with threats. "It is a dangerous route to go" she says. "A minority of elitist schools in the North of Ireland are not going to block the changes that we need."

She has talked of financial penalties, though these probably amount to no more than a refusal to fund the tests. As a result the Association for Quality Education is planning to charge parents £65 for their children to take the exams.

So, despite her egalitarian intentions, Ruane could end up producing a two tier education system more anarchic and divisive than anything that has gone before. Attempts to crack the whip with many of the most popular schools in the province, would almost certainly end up in legal and political crisis.

Ruane has hinted at court action against the schools, which could, in turn, judicially review her decisions. The DUP-controlled finance department might then cut off funding for her favoured projects, such as the Irish language, and the other parties might move to a vote of no confidence.

Last week, Ruane called a press conference for what was billed as a "major announcement", but then confined herself to telling the assembled cameras that she would unveil her plans at the Executive on May 15th. Had she intended to say something more and then thought better of it?

One option she has is to push the decision back beyond the summer. She could back down and allow schools who are determined to do so to keep the test for another year or two. That would give McGuinness and Peter Robinson, the DUP leader designate, a chance to sort out her mess between them.

But it would look like weakness, and that might make shuffling her out of Education a tempting option for McGuinness. She was always Adams' protégé anyway. Alternatively, she could always find some other "pressing commitment" and go quietly.

May 8, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on May 4, 2008.