Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield: How I spend my new lease of life helping others

The debate over the future of post-primary education has interested Sir Kenneth since retirementIt is sometimes more difficult to choose a title for a book than to write it in the first place. I called my first book, published by Blackstaff Press in 1994, Stormont in Crisis, because much of it was concerned with my long career in the Civil Service.

In 1988, We Will Remember Them seemed to me and to the Sationery Office a fitting title for my report as Victims Commissioner. Last year the rather long title A Tragedy of Errors: The Government and Misgovernment of Northern Ireland was intended to be self-explanatory.

Today my latest effort, A New Life published by Brehon Press is in the bookshops. It is not, as its title might suggest, an account of a religious conversion or the experience of childbirth. The ‘new life’ it describes covers that period of more than 17 years since I left Stormont Castle for the last time. As life expectancy expands, it is more than ever important that ‘retirement’ should be more of a comma than a full stop.

I have taken the opportunity to address in my book two issues of great contemporary concern. The first of these is the future of our education system. People may well wonder why, when yet again we have produced the best examination results in the UK, Caitriona Ruane should be hell-bent to wreck our grammar schools and impose on us a comprehensive system of post-primary education, regardless of public opinion or of the views of her ‘partners’ in the Stormont Executive.

My book describes in some detail how and why a group of us — governors, teachers, former pupils and parents — came together to assert our right and our determination, since it remains lawful, to take account of academic ability amongst the entrance criteria of schools which opt to do so.

I set out to make it quite clear that we have no wish or plan whatever to break away from the state system; that we do not for one moment suppose that grammar schools alone can provide excellent post-primary education, tailored to the talents and needs of their pupils.

What we seek is a comfortable and appropriate match between pupil and school, to the benefit of both. The relevant chapter includes the full text of a speech I made at the Ulster Hall in Belfast as we opened our campaign.

Another of the great issues of our day is what to do about ‘the past’. Robin Eames, Denis Bradley and their companions have been traversing the stormy seas of this issue for some time.

Now of course there are aspects of their comprehensive review beyond the treatment of victims of terrorism. Yet I maintain that sensitivity to their concerns and interests must be in the forefront of our thinking. It is all very well to talk of ‘moving forward’ if we do not leave bitter and disadvantaged people behind.

In A New Life I have sought for the first time to offer a comprehensive account of my continuous involvement with the victims issue over more than a decade since Mo Mowlam asked me, as the first Victims Commissioner, to recommend how government and society should approach that issue.

Following on my 1998 report, I was asked to lead a review of Criminal Injuries Compensation and to this day I am still active as one of the two independent Commissioners for the Location of Victims’ Remains, seeking to offer comfort to relatives of ‘the Disappeared’.

For victims generally we now have four Victims Commissioners.

It seems a pity that it took so long to put in place that ‘champion’ of victims’ interests for which I called more than 10 years ago. But better late than never.

While these two issues are perhaps of the greatest current concern, the reader of A New Life will see that since 1991 I have been involved in many other fascinating fields of activity, both at home and abroad. I have found myself addressing such questions as:

How can diverse public bodies work more effectively together for the public good?

How can we best develop and support our local universities?

How can we direct finite funding for legal aid to the most deserving cases?

How should dental practitioners be remunerated under the NHS?

How should the autonomous jurisdiction of Jersey be governed in the modern world?

How should the established Church of England choose and appoint its bishops?

What priority should be given within the Northern Ireland budget to cultural activities?

How can the public service of a poor country like Bangladesh be strengthened?

A New Life by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield: Brehon Press £12.99

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