Belfast Telegraph

Rise from guns to government to school boards

The Lumen Christi governors' row proves that victims' and survivors' needs are just as important as ex-prisoners, says Ruairi O'Kane

It would appear that Sinn Fein's remarkable transformation from guns to government has reached a new phase. Moves to appoint a convicted IRA bomber and a former Assembly member to influential roles at a prestigious grammar school signal a new era - from guns to government to governors.

Reaction to the earmarking of Paul Kavanagh, special advisor to deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and veteran republican Mary Nelis as Department of Education representatives on the board of governors at Lumen Christi College in Derry has provoked predictable reactions.

Parents of children at the pro-academic selection school spoke of their anger and abhorrence.

Victims' campaigners raised issues of sensitivity and suitability, while those sympathetic to Sinn Fein argued the case for inclusivity and the role of ex-prisoners in society.

The Governing Bodies Association (GBA), which represents Northern Ireland's 52 voluntary grammar schools, hinted at a possible breach of protocol, while the chair of Stormont's education committee, Mervyn Storey, suggested that the appointments could be outside the proper legal process.

Kavanagh's conviction for the murder of three people, including an 18-year-old boy, in the IRA's London bombing campaign of 1981 raises understandable concerns about the appropriateness of his selection.

However, this will cause little concern in Connolly House, given how the party faced down criticism of the appointment of another convicted killer, Mary McArdle, as a special advisor to the Culture Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin.

It is hard to argue with those who claim that perpetrators of violence continue to be rewarded, while little redress is given to their victims. If we accept the need for accommodation of former prisoners, then we should be equally determined - if not more so - to ensure the needs of victims and survivors are met.

Given recent controversy surrounding other Sinn Fein appointments, including the damning employment tribunal verdict of religious discrimination on their formal regional development minister, Conor Murphy, the need for openness and transparency is greater than ever.

Inevitably, suspicions will be raised by the choice of Kavanagh and Nelis, who is an outspoken opponent of academic selection, in line with party policy.

While Sinn Fein members on school boards are nothing new, they are more likely to be found in a gaelscoil rather than a so-called 'good school'.

Nor is the practice of political parties positioning key people in strategic positions within numerous bodies in various sectors.

Given Lumen Christi's defiance of departmental guidelines in continuing with academic selection, it is worth asking why would Sinn Fein activists want to associate themselves with an establishment promoting elitism.

Infiltration from within is one possible theory, where Kavanagh and Nelis could use their positions to influence the school's future policy and direction.

According to departmental guidelines, school governors are expected to set the school's aims and visions, in addition to supporting its ethos. They are also expected to act as a 'critical friend', asking challenging questions and not 'rubber-stamping' decisions made by the principal.

With friends like Kavanagh and Nelis, many at Lumen Christi could well ask: who needs enemies?

It is also worth noting that Sinn Fein is still seeking respectability, especially in Derry, where they are closing in on the SDLP, which has ruled the roost in the Maiden City for more than three decades.

Lumen Christi is located on a site once home to St Columb's College - which counts Nobel laureates John Hume and Seamus Heaney as former pupils.

Until now, Sinn Fein's most-notable connection with the establishment was Martin McGuinness's admission that he broke into the premises in the late-1960s to steal sulphuric acid for bomb-making.

But in a week when dissident groups in the city announced their intention to come together under the banner of the new IRA, it would appear that Sinn Fein appear intent on repositioning themselves as the new SDLP.

Persuading unionists of the benefits of a united Ireland, meeting British royalty and now seeking positions on grammar schools boards are no longer the actions of a party of protest.

But recent history is portraying Sinn Fein as a party of patronage.

Should Sinn Fein be serious in achieving the respectability and credibility they crave beyond their existing electoral strengths, they will need to act smarter.

The crisis within our education system and the ongoing impasse surrounding academic selection stands out as one of the greatest failures of devolved government.

Our young people's future must be a priority of all political parties, our schools and their boards of governors - regardless of personalities, policies and positions.

Producing a generation of skilled and trained young people should be the real reward of our education system.

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