Educaional Apartheid: Mary Nellis, PSF, Class, and Sectarianism

I was thinking of calling this post “The Mask Slips”, but then again, it’s not much of a mask, nor much of a slip. Northern Ireland, it is often said, is an apartheid society, where the overwhelming majority of the community is separated in housing, education, work, and social life according to religion. This analysis is presented primarily by those progressive elements that seek to overturn the divisions within our society. It was with some interest then that I noted this opinion piece by the former PSF MLA and honorary president of that party in Derry, Mary Nelis, entitled Maintaining Educational Apartheid. Northern Ireland certainly does have educational apartheid. The absence of a secular, comprehensive education system ensures that children are divided by religion, and class through academic selection. Would this article then represent a genuinely progressive call by Mary Nelis for the abolition of both academic selection and religious education? Well, no. Of course not. Instead what we got was a rather weak defence of her party’s handling of the abolition of the Eleven Plus, and an example of the sectarian mindset that means that neither unionism nor nationalism can ever be a truly progressive force.

Martin McGuinness’ abolition of the Eleven Plus in 2002 was an extremely progressive move, for which he deserves a lot of credit. However he made a major mistake in not immediately replacing it with an alternative. McGuinness had pledged to remove the Eleven Plus in his manifesto, and ordered the Burns Report to examine the future of the transfer system. The Burns Report was published in October 2001, and recommended banning the use of academic selection entirely. Consultation was open until June 2002. McGuinness abolished the Eleven Plus just before the suspension the Executive in October 2002 amid allegations of a spy ring in Stormont being run by the informer Denis Donaldson. McGuinness’ failure to nominate a replacement system is partly responsible for the fact we are in the mess we are in today. McGuinness had the power to do what he wished, a power lost as the DUP ran rings round PSF in the negotiations that saw the Executive restored. The question is why he never implemented the alternative, something I’ll come back to.

So what then of Mary Nelis? In her version of events, “political unionism” (a new PSF favorite phrase, like rejectionist unionism and securocrats before it, but is there any other kind of unionism?) has been blocking the heroic and brave efforts of poor Caitríona Ruane for sectarian reasons. The desire to keep the Eleven Plus reflects the DUP’s “hankering after a return of ‘Old Lord Brookeborough’s golden days in a Stormont long gone. It is scandalous to say the least, to use children in the pretence that the retention of the 11+ favours Protestantism and that this gives Unionism a degree of privilege over Catholics.” The attitude of the two unionist main parties certainly does reflect elitism, and reminds us that they serve primarily the interests of the bourgeoisie. But in all honesty, I cannot say that I have heard them – or anyone else – argue that the Eleven Plus buttresses Protestant domination over Catholics. This is a nonsensical argument, especially when the weight not just of academic writing but of the experiences of those involved testifies that the extension of the Butler Education Act to Northern Ireland ultimately laid the foundations for the emergence of the Civil Rights generation in the 1960s. Rather than a support to religious discrimination and the Stormont regime, the Eleven Plus contributed greatly to their downfall. Mary Nelis is as aware of that as anybody.

Yet she must fit this whole debaclé into a sectarian narrative, in order both to justify her party’s failure and to continue to appeal to the dynamic of tribal confrontation and opposition on which both the DUP and PSF have climbed to their dominant position in NI. This mentality is made clearest in her attitude to the Catholic grammar schools who have been opposing an end to academic slection.

Indeed it is outrageous that some Catholic School principals appear to be working to a DUP agenda.

Put bluntly, Nelis is outraged that these people are betraying their co-religionists by putting their class interests before communal solidarity and refusing to support PSF. She regards Catholic principals asking parents to send standard protest letters to the Minister for Education as perhaps guilty of a form of blackmail. While she denounces unionist opposition to the abolition of the Eleven Plus as a result of their “1690 mindset”, she does have some awareness that this is a class issue. Ruane, Nelis says, has been opposed by powerful vested interests “as anyone listening to Karen Patterson interviewing Catriona Ruane, on the BBC Evening Extra programme last week would understand.” So added to Unionism, treacherous and manipulative Catholic principals, we now have the BBC, all plotting and scheming to frustrate brave Caitríona. A dastardly combination indeed.

Does Caitríona stand alone? Indeed not. Although Nelis is upset the lily-livered SDLP is not rushing to her aid against reactionary unionism, “all the Teachers Unions support the Ministers position. In addition, various reports since the decision to abolish the 11 plus, including Burns and Costello have recommended that no school should be permitted to use academic selection criteria for children’s admission to second level education.” This is true. The abolition of the Eleven Plus has significant support in the Assembly, from the SDLP, Alliance, and the Progressive Unionist Party, who recognise clearly the class nature of the question. The teachers’ unions have long been in favour of the abolition of academic selection, and the Catholic bishops until staunchly in favour, but have now panicked. How then has Caitríona Ruane ended up so isolated from these other progressive elements, and under such attack? This it seems is a question that Mary Nelis doesn’t think is worth asking, or more likely is afraid that she already knows the answer – a stunning combination of arrogance and incompetence.

This column is worthy of close examination by the left, north and south, for what it reveals about PSF’s attitude to religion and class. There is no doubt that, especially in the Republic, people with genuinely progressive politics have been attracted by the language of progress and equality spoken by PSF. There is no doubt that PSF has understood that the Eleven Plus discriminated against children in the working class areas where its support is strongest, such as west Belfast, and resolved to act. There is no doubt that credit is due. But so too is criticism for the failure to handle the issue properly. Many seek to blame Caitríona Ruane. Or perhaps Martin McGuinness for not striking while the iron was hot, instead seeking a consensus that was never possible, as Ruane has also done (and which Nelis also stresses was the right thing to do). Yet I think the issue is a much deeper one, and cuts right to the heart of the nature of their party, and the type of politics it practices and espouses.

I said above that I would come back to why McGuinness did not act as he had the power to do. There are I think two main reasons. The first is that PSF is well aware that academic selection is extremely popular in Northern Ireland, especially among the new middle class voters it has acquired over the past decade that have made it the dominant nationalist party. I suspect that McGuinness’ initial aim was not to abandon academic selection altogether, but to delay it until the age of fourteen. Thus he would have gained radical credentials for abolishing the Eleven Plus, which even many supporters of academic selection regard as traumatising for young children, while keeping the grammar school lobby and the middle class that benefits from our educational oligarchy onside. The Eleven Plus was also a useful bargaining tool with unionists, whose constituencies cared deeply for it. Trading selection at 14 for some concessions on something else was also I suspect in his mind. Indeed, for a while it looked like this compromise would most likely emerge, until the DUP succeeded at St Andrews in stripping much power from the individual ministers, meaning that they could now prevent what they did not like, such as the Irish Language Act, and the ending of academic selection. They comprehensively outmanouevred PSF in other words, who allowed their desire to exercise power to overcome their good sense.

This in itself tells us something about the PSF approach to politics. What then of the column? It represents in miniature the balancing act that goes on north and south between the competing instincts with that party. The progressive instincts present among many wanted to get rid of the Eleven Plus, which they recognise damages all the children in NI, as well as society as a whole. As Nelis points out, the Shankill area reputedly has the worst Eleven Plus results in NI. The natural course therefore is to make the argument on these effectively class grounds, whatever language is used. This would prove popular with many of their traditional voters, though not all as the Eleven Plus retains a lot of support among working people who have benefited from it. And yet, the absence of a clear progressive or socialist ideology dictates that this course cannot be pursued. Instead, it is safer to retreat into old certainties, to portray this as an issue of us versus them, of progressive nationalism against reactionary unionism. Thus the Catholic principals are not following their own class interests, but a DUP, Protestant, unionist agenda (even when this agenda has to be made up, as with the idea that unionists have argued that the Eleven Plus cements Protestant domination). Exposing the class reality of the DUP and UUP’s opposition to the Eleven Plus would mean confronting the fact that nationalism too is riven by class interests, and that it is not possible to magic away the class nature of society by the invocation of the old tribal mantras and references to unionist supremacism, even in a society as twisted as Northern Ireland. This is all the more the case when it might risk the electoral progress made among the Catholic bourgeoisie. Ultimately, PSF has come down – as it must – on the side of access to power, and of maintaining the sectarian nature of our politics.

An organisation built on and defined by a populist, communalist agenda is limited in the progressive moves it can make by that agenda, whether it is the DUP or PSF. There are examples of both parties acting in a progressive way. But they cannot escape the shackles of populism. So it is that in the south, Gerry Adams and the leadership overturns an Ard Fheis policy on taxation just before the election. So it is that the interests of our children must be sacrificed to sectarian power politics. The whole Eleven Plus debaclé is a reminder that the left can look to organisations like PSF for progressive moves on a small number of individual issues, but we must not and cannot look to them to consistently pursue a left agenda. The eagerness to form a coalition with Fianna Fáil in the Republic is one example, the adherence to communal politics in the North another.

Mary Nelis finishes her column by asking “Who wants to perpetuate educational apartheid?” The answer Mary is that you do, just as you wish to perpetuate our voluntary religious apartheid in all areas of our lives, and especially in our politics. And the people who suffer the most will be the workers and their families, Protestant and Catholic.


4 Responses to “Educaional Apartheid: Mary Nellis, PSF, Class, and Sectarianism”

  1. Mick Hall Says:


    A very good piece, time and again the SF leadership have given ground to unionism and there middle class nationalist supporters and in return gained little in return. lndeed it looks increasinly as if the only thing that is holding SF together these days is the prospect of political office, whether at a local or ‘national’ level.

    When you look what the Adams leadership have conceded; and what they have gained for their core support base, it is shocking in its paucity. It is time the few real progressives within SF demanded of their leaders what purpose does the party serve and in whose interest does it fight.

    As you understand so well it is impossible to mount a campaign for the ending of selective education without confronting head on the class interests that sustain it. Not least because they defend it for such blantantly opportunist class based reasons.

    Any educational system that has selective education at its core does so at the expense of the working classes and the less well off economically, it cannot be otherwise. Thus unless these people are confronted politically head on, the opponents of section will get no where. It is impossible to build a consensus with those who support selection for the simple reason they will have none of it.

    Best regards

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi Mick,

    Sorry not to respond quicker. I’ve been a little busy over on Cedar Lounge! I’d agree with you that the PSF leadership has had its limitations exposed in the negotiations with the DUP and the running of the Executive.

    I’d agree that any broadly progressive elements in that party need to take a serious look at things, and perhaps find a new home. The whole Adams project is beginning to look shaky, but may be rescued in the south to some extent by a good local election given the discontent with Fianna Fáil, whom they so resemble with their populism (and the DUP for that matter).

    You’ve nit the nail on the head about the damage that selective education does to the ordinary working family, and the need to confront those opposed to change politically. Seeking consensus has been one of the major faults of this whole ridiculous situation.

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