10 February 2000 Edition

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Assembly Hails Glorious St Patrick


In the short period of its existence, the Assembly in the Six Counties has rapidly adopted strange rituals for going about its business. It seems that before getting down to ordinary business such as railways, pedestrian crossings, roads and the public water supply, the Assembly has to indulge in a weekly feeding frenzy. The target for that feeding frenzy last week was Sinn Féin's Health Minster, Bairbre de Brún. This week, however, as the imminent threat of suspension hung over the chamber, the Assembly set its sights heavenward and went for none other than St Patrick himself.

Kieran McCarthy of the Alliance Party put forward a motion calling for St Patrick's Day to be made a public holiday in the North. Fairly straightforward, one would have thought. That was, until the civil servants in Stormont got their hands on it and inserted the words ``calls on Her Majesty's government'' before the motion - lest we forget that we are still deemed to be British subjects and have to seek permission from a British monarch to celebrate a national day. The proposer of the motion wanted the public holiday because it would unite all sides of the community.

All very well, until the Ulster Unionists proposed an amendment saying that St Patrick's Day should be added to the list of official flag days. The upshot was that the Union Jack should be flown from public buildings on St Patrick's Day.

Then the frenzy began. Ian Paisley, in a rare positive note, actually supported the motion but of course used the opportunity to lecture all and sundry as to how St Patrick had been hijacked by fenians. ``St Patrick has had a Hibernian suit and sash and an IRA suit put on him. I refuse to hand St Patrick over to the Roman Catholic Church and the embrace of the Pope or to the IRA and Nationalists.'' In the middle of his sermon on the spiritual, he was interrupted by the digital when his mobile phone went off. Some witty member shouted that perhaps it was St Patrick on the phone for him. Completely bereft of either humour or humility, the big man replied: ``St Patrick has such a wonderful place in heaven that he would not return to a place like this.''

Cedric Wilson also opted to speak on St Patrick's behalf, saying ``I am sure St Patrick would be absolutely aghast if he were to witness how people currently celebrate his time in this land, with green beer and pagan parades. This is no part of what Patrick believed or how he would have wished his legacy to be celebrated''.

Oliver Gibson of the DUP reminded us all that St. Patrick had in fact hailed from the ``mainland'' and that ``we as a people should unhesitatingly give our support to this remarkable person. He established a culture of scholarliness which in later centuries the Roman Catholic system, when imposed, did everything in its power to eradicate.'' His party colleague Sammy Wilson used the occasion to assert the fact that he is not Irish: ``I am not Irish. All the contorted logic of Alban Maginness will not make me Irish. I do not wish to celebrate Ireland's national day. I do not wish to celebrate the day on which Irish people celebrate their culture. I am British and proud of it.'' Clearly Sammy prefers to celebrate his culture running stark naked through the leafy countryside.

The debate as usual degenerated into a slanging match about flags and the St Patrick's Day parades in the north. It was left to Sinn Féin Assembly members Mary Nelis and Barry McElduff to point out how unionists had tried to wreck such celebrations in Belfast by refusing to fund the St Patrick's Day carnival. Nelis said that the day should be used in a positive manner to celebrate culture, diversity and creativity. Jim Shannon of the DUP, however, preferred to view such celebrations as an ``organised attack on our identity''.

After the bones of St Patrick were picked clean, members voted in favour of both the motion and the amendment. I am sure St Patrick will rest easily in both his burial places knowing that the DUP have now given him their stamp of approval.

Gerry Adams has welcomed the announcement by Higher and Further Education minister Sean Farren that the Springvale campus in Belfast is about to become a reality. ``The Springvale Educational Village has the potential to create something unique on this island in terms of a new approach to furthend higher education,'' he said. ``That potential must be fulfilled in terms of meeting the educational needs of local people as well as making a significant contribution to the social and economic regeneration of North and West Belfast, two of the most deprived areas in Western Europe.''
Meanwhile, Education minister Martin McGuinness has announced a £70 million school building programme across the Six Counties. The money will go to construct 11 primary schools, four grammar schools, two secondary schools and a special needs school. McGuinness described the programme as ``tangible evidence of the benefits of local administration'', which would benefit 10,000 pupils.

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