Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

How can bomber be a role model for schoolchildren?

Education failure: John O’Dowd should not encourage the appointment of bomber Paul Kavanagh onto a board of governors
Education failure: John O’Dowd should not encourage the appointment of bomber Paul Kavanagh onto a board of governors

Northern Ireland, in case you hadn't noticed, is a weird place. Most of the time, I love its colourful oddity.

For instance, I was thrilled when I heard that Edwin Poots, our arch-creationist health minister, had fired a shotgun out of his bedroom window, to warn off intruders.

I have the most exquisite image of Mr Poots in my mind, clad in a pair of paisley-print pyjamas, buttoned right up to the neck, of course, blasting two shots into the still night air. Things like that just don't happen anywhere else. Except, perhaps, in Alabama.

Other times, the oddity of Northern Ireland is less entertaining. Sometimes, it's downright chilling.

Take the appointment of IRA bomber Paul Kavanagh to the board of governors of Lumen Christi College in Derry.

The political ideology which motivated Kavanagh is actually irrelevant. Republican or loyalist, it doesn't matter. What does matter — and it matters profoundly — is that he was convicted of killing three people, including an 18-year-old boy. It is this fact alone that should prevent him from taking a role as a governor.

Where else but Northern Ireland would a killer on a school board even be mooted as a possibility, let alone the reality? It would be laughable if it wasn't so repugnant.

And it makes a farce of all the police checks and child protection vetting procedures that every prospective governor must go through. It begs the question: if convicted murderers can pass the test, exactly what kind of criminal record would result in debarment from a school board?

There's a practical side to school governance — job appointments, strategic development, financial checking and so on — but there is also an unspoken expectation of morally-informed leadership.

I'm not interested in snobbish ideas of respectability and high social standing here. Effective, inspirational governors can come from all kinds of backgrounds.

But as well as a demonstrable interest in education, they should have unimpeachable personal integrity: they are, after all, ultimately responsible for pupils' spiritual, moral and cultural development, as well as for their academic progress.

While I believe in the possibility of personal redemption, I'm equally convinced that being a convicted killer should forever exclude you from some roles. And sitting on a school board of governors is one of them.

Apart from anything else, it does a gross disservice to the young people themselves, trampling on their as-yet-untainted ideals of moral order, justice and fair play.

This is not the same as having former republican terrorists in government. That was an unavoidable necessity: a specific political accommodation enacted to resolve a desperately tangled mess with no other visible means of resolution.

Besides, these politicians have a clear and unassailable democratic legitimacy. There is no similar mandate for the likes of Kavanagh to become a school governor, other than the fact that it would be highly advantageous for education minister John O'Dowd to have an anti-selection placeman (or placewoman, in the case of Mary Nelis) on the board of this steadfastly pro-selection, high-performing grammar. And that, of course, is the real nub of the matter. Kavanagh's appointment should be challenged, not just because he’s a bomber, but because he’s evidently a ministerially-placed political appointee in the furtherance of a party agenda.

What were previously the Department of Education's nominees appear to have suddenly become the minister's nominees. Successive Sinn Fein education ministers have tried various tactics to undermine the ongoing selection process. Now it seems that O’Dowd is resorting to blatant political manipulation.

This sets a dangerous precedent. DUP members may be holding up their hands in horror today, but do you think they would act any differently if they got the chance?

For instance, a DUP education minister might consider it perfectly acceptable to infiltrate schools with Young Earth creationist governors. Before you know it, our kids would be taught bogus science as fact, coming home convinced that dinosaurs and human beings existed at the same time and that childbirth hurts because women are still atoning for Eve's original sin.

Northern Ireland is not yet a fully-evolved democratic state and if we don't curb these dodgy machinations now, the way is wide open for more serious interference in the future.

Politicians have traded for too long on our unquestioning gratitude that the Troubles are finally over and it has made them arrogant.

It's time ministers learned that they do not have our mandate to play fast and loose with political power.

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