Two men and a brief to minister learning

December 17, 1999

Sean Farren tells Anne McHardy about his plans for NI education with Martin McGuinness

I won't invite controversy for the sake of controversy, but if controversy is necessary in order to get something done we will be controversial. The proof of the pudding is going to be what we produce, not how much controversy we generate." So says Sean Farren, the minister for higher education in Northern Ireland, a man with an unassuming air that belies the dangerous role he played in the clandestine negotiations that this month finally created devolved government in Belfast.

Farren was one of the four members of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party first involved in secret talks with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, in the late 1980s. He has been part of all peace initiatives since then, including the New Ireland Forum and the Brooke talks with the British and Irish governments, the 1994 and 1996 ceasefire talks with Sinn Fein and the devolution negotiations. Since 1979, when the SDLP felt it needed to run a strong candidate against the hard-line Unionist, the Reverend Ian Paisley, Farren, whose Portstewart home is in Paisley's predominantly Protestant North Antrim constituency, has stood for election.

"I became the North Antrim standard-bearer not with any great hope of toppling Paisley. The only consolation is that I have increased the vote each time." It has been a baptism by fire that will stand him in good stead in his ministry, handling one of Northern Ireland's most sensitive issues.

Farren, a Dubliner by birth and upbringing, moved to Northern Ireland in 1970 to lecture in education at the University of Ulster, having finished a masters degree at Essex, following ten years of secondary school teaching. He came to a temporary job at what was then a new university. He thought he, his wife, Patricia, and their two children would move south as soon as he got a permanent post in the Republic of Ireland. Instead he was offered a permanent job by UU at Coleraine, rapidly became father of a third daughter, and was also caught up in politics.

A fourth child, a son, and 29 years later, Farren is on leave of absence from UU. Before devolved government Northern Ireland politicians had no paid political careers and employers such as the UU have been accommodating.

In 1970 the civil rights movement disintegrated into violence. Some of its leaders were desperate for a constitutional way out of the near anarchy. Farren was instinctively drawn into the alliance of constitutional nationalists that formed the SDLP in 1971. He is Catholic by heritage, as is the party's majority. "I draw a lot of inspiration from my religious convictions, particularly with respect to social justice."

Politics is in his blood. His grandfather, John, a pacifist, was a Dublin Labour Party councillor and trade union activist. His great-uncle, Tom, was an Irish Labour senator from partition in 1922 until 1936.

His is an unusual political background in Northern Irish politics - it has no nationalist or republican elements - but it gave him an instinctive sympathy with the SDLP leader, John Hume. Hume's father was a trade unionist and Hume never tires of repeating how he despaired of the negative politics of the old Nationalist Party."You cannot eat a flag," was the message Hume senior passed on. It is in essence the message the young Farren took from his grandfather.

It has made him a pragmatist, anxious to make a society in which Protestants and Catholics feel respected. It has also released him from some of the jargon that other SDLP frontrunners find hard to shake off. "Northern Ireland" is a term even senior SDLP figures find hard to use, since it implies acceptance that Ireland will always stay divided. Farren uses it with such ease he is sometimes described within his party as "too unionist".

If there are crucial ministries for creating a politically inclusive climate, they are the difficult education portfolios Farren shares with Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein minister for education. McGuinness has the hard task of handling a system where the 11-plus is deemed to be responsible for some of the best and also some of the worst skill and literacy levels in Europe. Protestants, in particular, cling to the grammar school system.

Farren has inherited a tertiary system in which a third of undergraduates, most of them high-flying young Protestants, go abroad to university and in which the higher and further education sectors are at war over funds. Northern Ireland needs 5,000 more university places but it also needs its young Protestants to return home after university if their tradition is to remain a vital part of Northern Ireland.

Farren's most immediate problem is the mare's-nest of tuition fees, with Scotland providing an example of a devolved government struggling over how best to fund higher education fairly. Farren, who is setting up an investigation into the funding of higher and further education, is watching Scotland's progress.

The SDLP was responsible for much of the planning that led a year ago to the division of education responsibilities. Farren thinks it will work - but only if he and McGuinness make it do so. The division of briefs was intended to enable students to move smoothly between further and higher education and ensure a vocational element, but Farren recognises a possible gap if 16-to-19 education slips between the regimes. "If I do not work with him I will not be able to deliver," he says.

Both have their domestic reasons for getting it right. Farren has four graduate children. McGuinness, as well as being notorious as a former IRA chief, is a grandfather who failed the 11-plus. Farren's first defence of himself is of his decision to educate his own children in a Catholic school. It is difficult to avoid in Northern Ireland, where only 4 per cent of schools are non-sectarian, but the question makes him angry because he also believes that church-based education can work.

"The school I sent them to is 20 per cent non-Catholic. They are cross-community in their friendships. What I think is important is that children, no matter what institution they are educated in, do not have sectarian attitudes. There is a responsibility in our educational institutions to cultivate attitudes of understanding for people of different traditions."

Equally he is tough about the university brain drain, recognising that Northern Ireland needs to retain its best to prosper as an integrated society. "I would encourage parents to make sure that NI universities are maintained at the top of the list."

The problem, he says, is attitudes. "If you carry with you attitudes that are very inward-lookingI they may not change if you go to university in England. I've met a lot of students from Northern Ireland who have gone to universities in Britain where there are Northern Ireland ghettos. I want to see high-quality students in NI putting our local institutions top of the list."

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