Peter Weir, DUP Assembly Member for North Down, has said that the controversy engulfing Caitriona Ruane over the future of post-primary education serves as a reminder of the fact that Belfast Agreement-style government, where ministers in the Executive could do whatever they liked, is gone for good. Speaking today Peter Weir said:
“In the bad old days of the Belfast Agreement, the system of government crafted by the UUP and the other pro-Agreement parties allowed ministers to simply trot off and do whatever they wished within their own departmental remits. Decisions such as that taken by Bairbre de Brun to close maternity services at the Jubilee Maternity Unit and move them into the Royal Victoria Hospital in the heart of her West Belfast constituency, or the decision to abolish the 11+ test, could not be reversed because of the architecture of the old agreement designed by the Ulster Unionists.
Government departments were treated as free-standing silos, independent of each other and ministers, knowing they were utterly unaccountable could do as they pleased. Thanks to the efforts of the Democratic Unionist Party that is no longer the case. Due to the changes which we secured at St. Andrews, Caitriona Ruane cannot initiate any changes to our education system without the consent of her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive.
The DUP has secured the future of academic selection in Northern Ireland. The recently leaked Sinn Fein memorandum on the issue admitted as much. We want to find a way forward on the vitally important issue of the future of our education system, but if Caitriona Ruane believes she can simply do whatever she likes on this matter, she is going to be greatly disappointed. She needs to get out of her “Free the Colombia Three”/West Belfast Festival-protest politician-mode and start behaving like a mature government minister trying to find a way forward on an issue of utmost importance.
The Trimble/Empey-days of ministers being in a position to initiate whatever policies they liked are over. Caitriona Ruane can bang her head against this brick-wall for as long as she likes, but sooner or later she will come to the realisation, as have many in her party, that she isn’t operating in a Belfast Agreement-style government: she needs the DUP to bring about any change in the education system and without the DUP she’s going nowhere fast on this issue.
People in Northern Ireland want an executive to be in charge of the business of government, they do not want solo-runs by maverick ministers. Good government relies upon a collective approach. As for the DUP, we want to see an agreed way forward, but failing that, people should be in no doubt whatsoever that academic selection is here to stay and there is nothing at all Caitriona Ruane can do about it.”
The DUP’s Education spokesman, Sammy Wilson MP MLA, has said that the Government’s target of 50% of young people in higher education by 2010 is misguided and should be scrapped. Speaking from Westminster Mr Wilson said,
“To reach this target, the Government is pushing more young people into university, a growing number of whom do not have the academic competence necessary to complete their courses and therefore drop out from their courses.
I have obtained figures from the Department of Employment and Learning that show that over 4100 young people dropped out of university in Northern Ireland in the years 2000-2005 at a cost of almost £15 million pounds, with the number of those dropping out increasing nearly every year.
Not every young person is suited to a university education, and we need to get rid of this mindset that a university education is the only ‘good’ form of education. We need a well educated, talented and skilled workforce, but it is not necessary for everyone to have a degree. It is time for the Labour government to draw back from this ridiculous, expensive and ill thought out target.”