Originally posted in July 2014
Anyone half-tuned into news from Ulcer this week may recall an overreaction from (insert one side of the community here) ______________ to (insert other side of community here) ______________ . Time for the Irish Language’s turn on the rotation crop of woes.
Neck veins are bulging over the Gaeltacht Scholarships awarded to two pupils from Twinbrook to enhance their
drinking, smoking and snogging skills Irish learning experience with an all-expenses-paid three weeks in the wilds of Donegal. Unionists are coasting close to apoplexy from this latest move by Sinn Féin to name their bursary scheme after hunger striker, Bobby Sands.
Protection and assertion of cultural heritage is a cornerstone of life and strife in this contested terrain and the basis on which parity of identity rests. Sinn Féin has been pursuing an Irish language policy on and off with varying degrees of enthusiasm since The Good Friday Agreement. The Bobby Sands Bursary is a joint initiative by the party and local business-owners committed to helping children learn the language. Such schemes are replicated across Northern Ireland, often with funding assistance from mainstream social regeneration programmes replenished from the coffers of local tax payers.
As a break from the wilds of West Belfast, a chance to flex their social muscles among their peers, and an opportunity to top up on the cúpla focail, what harm? The pages of local newspapers are seasonally adorned with photos of students from “disadvantaged communities” beaming on receipt of same. The coverage coated in respectability with local party councillors flanked by school principals and regional education board representatives.
Meanwhile, according to Barnardos, one fifth of children in Northern Ireland leave primary school unable to read or write to the required standard while two-fifths leave with poor numeracy skills. Research conducted by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that one in five people in Northern Ireland live in poverty. Children on the Free School Meals Scheme are less likely to attain expected levels of educational qualifications. Thirty-four per cent of working age adults are not in employment. While Northern Ireland has high levels of educational attainment at the top end compared with England or Wales, the inequalities among school leavers are stark.
In the last five years, the number of school leavers going into work or training has fallen by around 3,000. But children on free school meals are much more likely to go into work or training than other school leavers. If training and employment opportunities for school leavers are declining, it is poorer children who will lose out most. Add to this the challenges from the recession, cuts and welfare reform, in a region where the public sector makes up a large chuck of the labour market compared with the UK.
As holders of the Education portfolio, Sinn Féin has a dismal track record,overseeing a succession of cuts. Just last year, Education Minister, John O’Dowd, ordered the closure of the Woodlands Specialised Language Unit in Derry, contradicting the party’s election pledge to combat all cuts. But this is another smooth move in their about-turns with which they are so at ease.
Meanwhile, Loyalists, egged on by part-criminal, part-fascist terror gangs, against the background of populist rage whipped up by Unionist parties seeking to maintain control over local councils, continue their flag protests. In many respects, working class loyalists are the biggest losers of The Conflict. They have some of the worst figures in the UK for educational attainment. What do they do about this? Vote for the DUP, a party whose position is to leave the education system that is letting down as it is.
Sinn Féin can name the bursaries after Bobby Sands or Nelson Mandela for all the difference they’re going to make in the greater scheme of educational attainment among “deprived communities”. The DUP can continue to knock themselves out over the irrelevancy of them in the lives and livelihoods of their constituents. That way, both are united in generating the illusion they are actually doing something.