Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Education debate shows we've still much to learn

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron watch as students work on a school project about the G8 summit during a visit to the Enniskillen Integrated Primary School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland ahead of the G8 summit.

Just two days after President Obama left Fermanagh at the end of the G8 summit and embarked on his extensive visits to other parts of Europe and Africa, I departed for a shorter and more modest venture to the West Midlands in England.

This is a beautiful part of the world, especially in hot weather, and I was also in a sunny mood. This was partly because I was basking in the sunshine of the US President's remarks about how much we have achieved so far in the peace process.

Over in England there was absolutely no news about Northern Ireland, either in the print or broadcast media, but on my return I read and heard about the latest controversies here during my absence.

One of the bigger controversies had been sparked off by a Roman Catholic Bishop, no less, and the subject in question was – surprise, surprise – education.

The tinderbox was ignited by Bishop Donal McKeown who claimed on radio that the First Minister Peter Robinson had blamed the Catholic Church by implication for blocking movement on integrated education and that this was perceived in the Catholic community as nakedly sectarian.

Mr Robinson then entered the fray by claiming that the bishop had somehow "lost the plot". The Deputy First Minister was also annoyed by what the bishop had said about Sinn Fein.

Later on a Church of Ireland cleric then challenged President Obama's comments about segregated education in Northern Ireland.

All of this reminded me of the remark attributed to the late David Ervine who once told Senator George Mitchell that people in Northern Ireland are willing to drive a hundred miles out of their way to be offended. We seem to need a controversy here, in the way that others need food and drink. However, this ability to give or take offence achieves a different dimension when it involves a Roman Catholic bishop and our two most senior politicians at Stormont.

Even in using the term 'Roman Catholic' I may offend some people, though it is not my intention to do so, but our sensitivities here are such that you may risk offending somebody here by just saying "Good morning". In fact I recall this term offending a fellow journalist who snapped back to his well-wisher and asked "What's so good about it?"

Therefore it is with some trepidation that I offer some comments about education, which is a particularly complex subject. I believe that all parents should be given a choice, though I am mindful of the comments of the late, great theologian Professor William Barclay who was asked if he would prefer a Christian plumber to unblock his drains.

He replied very wisely that he would first look for a good plumber, and if they happened to be a Christian, so much the better.

It seems to me that parents want to choose a good school, first and foremost, and that they would also welcome as wide a choice of good schools as possible, and of whatever kind – though my own first preference would be for integration.

All I would ask, however, is that those public figures who debate such complex issues would do so in a way as not to cause widespread offence, and to give a good example to the children who, after all, are the most important people in this whole debate.

Perhaps education is too important a topic to be left to the experts.

The grim shoots of the Arab Spring

That jihadists in Syria beheaded a Catholic priest with a kitchen knife should give pause for thought to those in the West who want to send arms to the rebels.

It is one thing to get rid of a dictator, as happened in Libya, Iraq and Egypt, but destabilising these regimes causes more problems.

Too many are unwilling to accept the ‘Arab Spring’ might also be the launching pad for militant Islamic expansion and world domination. You’d better believe it.

Biographers get busy on CS Lewis

Books on CS Lewis are a bit like waiting for a bus. After a long delay, two come at once.

Last week I wrote about Professor Alister McGrath's recent biography of the great man, and this week Sandy Smith, a former senior civil servant and our Belfast-based expert on Lewis launched his own book, CS Lewis And The Island Of His Birth.

I look forward to reading it and to discovering more insights into one of our greatest Ulstermen.

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