Archive for February, 2009

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

February 6, 2009

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.

Revealing Civilian Casulties in Afghanistan? Arrest that man

February 4, 2009

The Daily Telegraph has the outrageous story of the arrest for breaking the Official Secrets Act of a British military officer working for NATO in Afghanistan. His crime was to give civilian casulty figures from NATO bombing. What sort of world do we live in?

“A Slow Motion Car Crash”

February 3, 2009

Great metaphor from Sluggerotoole’s Mick Fealty here about the transfer disaster. I think that the show podcast where he makes it will be well worth listening to.

Caitríona Ruane, Provisional Sinn Féin, and the Transfer System: A Definite Fail

February 2, 2009
Caitriona has a cunning plan

Caitríona has a cunning plan

This blog has taken an interest in the ongoing debate over the replacement of the Eleven Plus (click on the education category on the right hand side if you are interested). And now we have the, ahem, definitive statement from Caitríona Ruane to the Assembly, and the issuing of the new transfer guidelines.

But wait. These guidelines are in fact not definitive. They are for consultation until April 27th 2009. So what do they actually say? Apparently their aims are to ensure that each child can fulfil his/her potential; that the arrangements for admissions are clear and understood; and that decisions on admissions to post-primary schools are robust and accurate. Robust and accurate decisions? I suspect the clear element of the aim is already in danger of failing on page 2. The first recommended criterion is that the proportion of applicants from those entitled to free school meals admitted is the same as the proportion that applied. The other recommended criteria are a sibling, eldest child, attendance at a feeder/named primary school, parish, catchment area, nearest suitable school, and finally random selection as a tie-breaker. The guidelines do not give full information as to how the first criterion should be applied, another example of the ill-thought-through nature of this whole debaclé.

Academic admissions criteria – i.e. an unfair test system that privileges the children of the bourgeoisie – are not prohibited. And, in fact, the Department of Education can only “particularly” urge grammar schools to adopt the first recommended criterion of matching the proportion of applicants entitled to free school meals as the proportion accepted. Even that basic and fundamental plank of Department policy cannot be enforced.

Or, to put that another way, Caitríona Ruane, Martin McGuiness, and the entire PSF leadership – hang your heads in shame. You had a golden opportunity to transform the lives of all the children of NI, especially those of the working class. And you blew it. Blew it due to your own incompetence, arrogance, lack of preparation, and pursuit of party political advantage at the expense of your professed principles and the interests of our children. Still, will help you keep those recently-acquired middle class votes, and won’t hurt you that much in the working class areas either if you can produce a suitably timed outburst of anti-unionist hostility. Could be worse, eh?

As for the left. It has long been realised and argued by The WP that local democracy would expose the reactionary nature of both unionism and nationalism, and that a space for progressive politics would open as a consequence. Here is such an issue. Let’s hope the truth begins to dawn on people.

Guardian Revelations of Tax Scam

February 2, 2009

Today’s Guardian story on the tax avoidance schemes of multi-nationals has done us all a great favour. Not just people who pay tax in the UK, but taxpayers everywhere. The figures involved in what the paper calls the “complex and secretive” schemes are staggering. Remarkably, not even the government seems to know how much is involved, but estimates vary from the Customs and Revenue’s estimates of £3.7bn to £13bn, to the Commons Public Accounts Committee’s £8.5bn, to the TUC’s £12bn. If the TUC is right, that is the equivalent of the tax take of 2.4 million householders. Below are some examples of how ridiculous the situation is:

According to the National Audit Office, in 2006 more than 60% of Britain’s 700 biggest companies paid less than £10m corporation tax, and 30% paid nothing.
Britain’s top taxman, Dave Hartnett, told the Commons public accounts committee last year that 12 major corporations had “extinguished all tax liabilities in 2005-6” thanks to avoidance schemes.

Diageo, parent company of Guinness and other drinks brands, has average profits of £2bn per annum, yet paid an average of £43m – or just over 2%. Two drugs companies have registered themselves elsewhere so they can charge themselves royalties in the UK, reducing their tax bill, and a “household name” has loaded itself with debt so there are no profits, and therefore no taxes.

The worst of it is, all this is entirely legal, and has had a blind eye turned to it by successive governments, decade after decade. Nor is it a problem limited to the UK. As The Guardian report points out, action is being taken in Germany and the US, and some moves in the UK too. In the Republic, we know only too well what the attitude amongst the political and economic establishment is to the paying of taxation.

But, the right wing will cry, in a globalised world regulation to ensure taxation will simply ensure these companies move elsewhere. There is a certain element of truth in that, that there headquarters will move elsewhere. However, that does not mean that production and sale that does take place in a state cannot be taxed there. Nor is there any reason that the tax loopholes that allow independent contractors to avoid the level of tax they should be paying by declaring themselves as corporations, for example.

Such loopholes must be closed. At a time, especially in the Republic, when there is a concerted campaign by the right in positions of business leadership and the media to attack ordinary workers and their living standards in order to pay for the mistakes generated by corporate irresponsibility, reckless speculation, and arrogance, we must ensure that the interests of ordinary citizens are not sacrificed to those of big business and its lust for superprofit. We need a resumption of the type of action by workers that was seen in the marches by PAYE workers in the 1980s. French workers have recently demonstrated what is possible, with their general strike demanding that the corporations and not the people suffer the consequences. The left must provide leadership, as it has done in the past. Trade unions, political parties, and in the UK the government must stand firm and act against these scandals. We must be very clear. This is a class matter, a conflict of interest between the workers and the leading institutions of capitalism, in both its financial and industrial aspects. We must mobilise.

Oh, and in the comments here you can find a link that suggests The Guardian is being more than a little cheeky in running this story.

UPDATE Here is The Guardian Database of the FTSE 100 tax payments