The plans by Sinn Féin Minister of Education Caitriona Ruane to abolish the 11+ exam (or to establish a new regulated system of transfer from primary to post primary) have aroused deep opposition from the unionist parties.
Ruane herself is quite clear on what she wants: "Let me be clear, the 11 plus is gone and it will not be coming back in any shape or form. The 11 plus is a failed system. Academic selection is a failed system. Any education system which judges even one child as a failure at age 11 is wrong, it is unjust and it is indefensible. Transfer 2010 is my Department’s policy for the transfer of children from primary to post-primary. If followed, the guidance will deliver an effective and fair system which will benefit all."
The DUP believes that "as a result of DUP negotiations at St Andrews a grammar school education will still be available in Northern Ireland. Had the retention of academic selection not been secured by the DUP, Northern Ireland would now be on an irreversible path towards a wholly comprehensive system. Pupils should be matched to the most appropriate school to meet their individual needs." Yet, as regards the Minister herself they cannot resist personal attacks: "the most disliked Minister in the Executive", "the public associate her with confusion, failure, arrogance and obtrusiveness", "Minister of failure, arrogance, obtrusiveness and contempt", and, of course, the obligatory misspelling of her name (its in Irish, which no doubt causes them enormous difficulties); "Catroina Ruane".
The UUP accuses the Minister of having her head in the sand, but manages nonetheless to raise a smile with their latest press-release on education "'Dissaray' in education unacceptable", thereby proving that standards in the state education system certainly need to be improved!
The TUV, of course, considers Ruane to be a "disastrous Minister" who is "consumed by her own ideological agenda of centralist control and destruction of anything which stands her way".
Interesting as such personal attacks are, they are not the point of this blog.
Whether the criticisms of Ruane are correct or not, the nature of the relationship between Sinn Féin and the unionist parties is such that, no matter what she does or says, they will attack her. And therein lies a problem – for the unionists.
The on-going foot-dragging over the transfer of policing and justice by the DUP – egged on by their nemesis in the TUV – shows the wider world that the unionists are simply obstructing anything that Sinn Féin supports, because they support it. As Liam Clarke put it in the News Letter yesterday, giving advice to Peter Robinson: "Taking every pawn isn't how this chess game is to be won". Clarke pointed out that Robinson himself had, in his recent conference speech, for an end to the attitude of 'if it’s good for them, it can’t be good for us'.
"Sometimes it’s even worse," Robinson had said; "When we ask for something, the temptation is to retreat if the other side decide it might not be such a bad idea after all."
The problem for Robinson, and the other unionists, is that their policy of trying to block Sinn Féin at every pass is that this is a policy that blocks the good with the bad, or worse, it leads the casual observer to believe that all unionist opposition is based upon mere meanness of spirit and obstructionism.
The impasse over education may – or may not – be based on sound educational theories. But unionism is losing that argument by trying to win every argument. Blocking Ruane may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for unionism, if it leads to a feeling that the obstruction was based not upon the facts of the case, but only upon unionism's pettiness vis-à-vis Sinn Féin.
As Liam Clarke might have said (but didn't), politics is a flexible art, and sometimes you need to give a little to get a lot. Not every pawn – the ILA, educational transfer, p+j, cross-border bodies – needs to be taken. A bad chess player will rush to capture as many opposing pieces as possible, but a more mature and wiser player will see where a piece can be sacrificed, or left uncaptured, in order to achieve ultimate victory. Peter Robinson is appearing more and more to be a bad chess player.