Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Ed Curran: Peter Robinson's school of thought renews faith in his leadership

DUP leader Peter Robinson

The First Minister, Peter Robinson, has found a new spring in his step after looking down and almost out when the general election votes were counted only five months ago.

Maybe he was inspired by the example of Northern Ireland's gold medal-winning boxers at the Commonwealth Games. Whatever the source of inspiration, Mr Robinson is back on his feet in the red, white and blue corner. He has dusted down his gloves and looks as if he cannot wait for the bell to ring for the next round.

Some of us believed he would have been counted out by now. The ring-side observers of the DUP foresaw him being ditched in the run-up to the Assembly elections in favour of Arlene Foster as First Minister and Nigel Dodds as party leader. However, if a challenge existed, where is it now?

All in all, Mr Robinson looks as if he is enjoying a remarkable turnaround in his political fortunes since returning from his summer holidays. His speech about the iniquities of segregated education has helped him strike DUP gold.

Can anyone think of a better way to unite the party faithful behind him than to say Catholic education should not be funded by the state?

All the doubting Williams - never mind Thomases - in the DUP now can sleep easy in the knowledge that their leader has pitted himself, in the best traditions of the party, against the Vatican. The First Minister's most public low-point in 2010 was surely the interview he gave with the BBC when he harangued and snarled at the unflappable Seamus McKee and let himself down a bagful. I didn't think it was possible for Peter Robinson to recover from that, but he has.

That said, the First Minister's suggestion that faith-based schools should not be funded by the state is so unrealistic as to be preposterous. If there were only a few such schools, they might be an easy touch for cutting public support. However, we are talking about the long-established and much-cherished education arrangements for around half of Northern Ireland's childhood population.

That is not to say the Catholic Church can ignore or, indeed, condemn the First Minister's observations. Notwithstanding the bolt of education wisdom which seems to have struck Mr Robinson so suddenly this month, he did have a point worth making. I must admit that his criticism of segregated schooling struck a sympathetic chord.

One of the first articles I wrote as a young journalist more than 40 years ago was about the hedge which divided the grounds of my old school from the neighbouring Catholic school.

The boxwood hedge grew thick and so tall none of us could see over it. Every now and then a rugby ball from my school's muddy playing field would be kicked for touch and fly over the hedge. Mysteriously, it always came back. Often I would try to peer through the hedge, but even in winter it remained so opaque that no one could be identified through its thick leaves. My memory of that hedge lives with me to this day and serves to symbolise the divisions of Northern Ireland.

In the ensuing decades, much has changed as far as post- primary schooling is concerned. A level of cross-community interaction through inter-school activity exists which was unheard of in my teenage years.

The 'area learning communities', whereby post-primary schools are co-operating to extend the curriculum opportunities for young people and which the much-criticised Caitriona Ruane has promoted, are removing some of the modern day barriers which I, and so many others, encountered in our youth.

This is all to our good. Unfortunately, what Peter Robinson calls "a benign form of apartheid" still exists at primary-school level. The idea of withdrawing funding from Catholic schools is absurd, but Cardinal Sean Brady and the bishops have got to balance their desire for faith-based schooling against this community's crying need for better understanding between Catholics and Protestants. A responsibility does rest at the feet of the bishops which they can't ignore in the current economic climate. Looking to the future, every pound will count. Education, faith-based or not, cannot escape scrutiny.

The hedges of my school days may not be as high, or as dense, today, but too many of them are still there and still require a severe pruning.

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