19 June 2003 Edition
Past and future collide
BY LAURA FRIEL
The contrast couldn't have been more striking.
The dour atmosphere of oppositional unionism desperate to cling to a discredited past of Monday night and the joyful anticipation of building a better future with Sinn Féin's vision of education on Tuesday morning. "Educate that you may be free" was the message, and the messengers were as upbeat as their contribution.
And to be honest, sitting in the Long Gallery in Stormont, the sun streaming in at windows overlooking the rolling hills of Belfast, David Trimble and Jeffery Donaldson's long sulk wouldn't have merited a second thought had it not been for the bank of journalists and photographers present to press Sinn Féin for a response to the Ulster Unionist Council vote of the night before.
The mood amongst more than 800 UUC delegates meeting in the Ramada Hotel had been more sullen than sombre. The Belfast Newsletter reported delegates as "clearly regretting having to spend a pleasant sunny summer's evening in the city". The Irish Times labelled the gathering as "bitter", where the few smiles in evidence were "forced" and "artificial".
The face of the main protagonist, Jeffrey Donaldson, had said it all. Photographed amongst delegates seated just below the platform, Jeffrey's unflinching stare openly declared hostility and loathing for David Trimble.
At one time, Donaldson could have expected to enjoy the symbolic gesture of sharing the platform with his party leader, but no longer. The daggers were out and the only question was who would be forced to fall on his sword.
A few hours later, in the Long Gallery at Stormont, Sinn Féin members chatted over coffee and biscuits with guests and members of the media covering the launch of the party's education document.
For many of the journalists, who had also covered the UUC meeting, the difference must have been striking. Division and recrimination was replaced by enthusiasm and energy. And even more than that, while unionists tore themselves apart trying to shore up the old mechanisms of exclusion and elitism, here was Sinn Féin working towards creating new mechanisms of inclusion and equality.
Launching Sinn Féin's Education proposals and addressing an audience, which included many teachers and educationalists, the former Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness reminded us of the link between national liberation, social liberation and personal freedom.
"Education is central to the egalitarian ideals of Sinn Fein's political project. While Ireland's education systems have in the past borne some of the responsibility for reducing inequality, Sinn Fein believes an Irish education system can be an essential instrument for the building of an Ireland of equals," said McGuinness.
Emerging from the Ramada Hotel, Jeffrey Donaldson declared the delegates decision to back David Trimble as a "pyrrhic victory" in which there were no winners, only losers. After the vote, Trimble, who had won by a margin of 440 votes to 369, talked of unity and urged Donaldson to work with the party.
The truth is Trimble would be glad to see the back of Donaldson but wants to avoid the defeated Lagan Valley MP creating a split by taking other UUP members with him, either to the DUP or some other sort of political wilderness.
Before the vote, Donaldson had threatened to jump if he lost, but having looked into the abyss he hesitated, finding refuge in "a period of reflection". While Donaldson calculates the political cost of his defeat, Trimble must be evaluating the risk of giving him the push.
As Donaldson left, with UUP honorary secretary and close ally Arlene Foster by his side, Ulster Unionist sources in Lagan Valley hinted that the motion of no confidence against Donaldson in the constituency could be withdrawn. Other unionist sources suggested Donaldson's days with the UUP were numbered.
Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness dismissed divisions within the UUP as a sideshow. "The focus should not be what will Jeffrey Donaldson do next, but where will the British Prime Minister go from here?" he said.
McGuinness described Tony Blair as the key player. Calling for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, McGuinness said Gerry Adams, the Taoiseach and John Hume had met their obligations to deliver the agreement to nationalist Ireland but Tony Blair and unionist politicians had failed to deliver the British end of the bargain.
Trimble was stuck in the past of trying to maintain a unionist majority when he should be looking towards a different kind of majority, the majority of both nationalists and unionists who support the Good Friday Agreement.
"Last night will only be really useful if David Trimble has a Road to Damascus conversion and realises the way forward is not to pander to the rejectionist wing of unionism but to move forward with the full implementation of the Agreement," said McGuinness.
Commenting on the recent unionist squabble, McGuinness pointed out that the focus of the debate had been about the future of the RIR and possible Dublin presence in the North. "They never mentioned the IRA, they expressed no concerns about the IRA, clearly even the Ulster Unionists accept that the IRA presents no threat to the peace process," he said.
"The argument for Assembly elections in the autumn is now unstoppable," said McGuinness. "My advice to David Trimble is to fight the election on a pro-Agreement agenda; that's what the people want."
Sinn Féin launches education policy
Speaking at the launch of the new Sinn Féin Education Policy, entitled 'Educate that you may be free', former Education Minster Martin McGuinness MP said:
"This document links our vision for Education to a practical approach for the transformation of our society.
"Sinn Féin believe that a progressive and radical education system is fundamental to the creation of an Ireland of Equals, to stronger communities and a society that can truly embrace our diversity."
"Education is the key to equality; equality of opportunity, access and provision are basic entitlements. The ability for learners to achieve their full potential is a fundamental right. Tackling disadvantage is an essential responsibility of government."
The new policy document comprehensively covers key areas including:
Post Primary Level
Third Level/Further and Higher Education
Adult and Community Education
Adult illiteracy & Second Chance initiatives
Irish Language and Irish medium Education
Special Education Needs
Systemic and Organisational Issues
Underpinning policy initiatives across all these areas is a commitment to an education system that will liberate the potential of all, address and redress educational and generational disadvantage, deploy resources to promote access, effect meaningful partnership, put learners and teachers at the heart of neighbourhood networks of learning, promote achievement through quality of delivery and resources rather than narrow measurements of performance and intervene at the earliest possible stage to include people and groups hitherto excluded, disempowered or alienated.
An important new concept in Sinn Féin's education policy is that of Learning Neighbourhoods - a meaningful and effective partnership between all local education providers - including formal and informal settings, schools,
libraries, youth clubs, local employers and community groups - and the community to develop 'learning neighbourhoods' that deliver education and support across a range of areas including both accredited and non accredited courses that meet the many and varied needs of the community.