Paisley party wants to lose HE department

February 6, 2004

The department for universities and further education in Northern Ireland could prove a casualty of the review of the Good Friday Agreement that began this week.

The Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists (DUP), which became the largest party in the elections for the province's still-suspended assembly, has made the rationalisation of government departments a priority.

Sammy Wilson, its education spokesman, suggested that the Department for Employment and Learning - which deals with Queen's and Ulster universities and Northern Ireland's further education colleges - could be re-amalgamated with the main Department of Education.

Mr Wilson said: "There are obvious economies that could be quite easily achieved by again rejoining these departments. We can see no reason for two."

He said plans by Jane Kennedy, the direct rule minister, for students to be given an equal choice of access to relevant university, further education courses or training could be better administered by a single department.

"There is no reason why they could not all be amalgamated in one lifelong learning department from the cradle to the grave," Mr Wilson said.

Other parties involved in the long-delayed review, including the cross-community Alliance Party, have said the issue of "over-administration" should be examined.

But any proposals to cut the 11 departments back down to the previous six are likely to meet strong resistance from the nationalist SDLP, whose senior member Carmel Hanna was minister for further and higher education.

Sinn Fein is also likely to oppose amalgamation.

But Mr Wilson said: "I don't think we will get back to the original six departments, but we could have seven or eight."

The education department has had a number of unfortunate incarnations.

Initially it was called the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (DHFETE), which was pronounced "Defeat". The then minister Sean Farren proposed to change it to the Department of Learning and Employment but it became apparent it would be known as Dole.

Mr Wilson also said that the departments of Regional Development and Environment could be combined and staffing levels in the office of first and deputy first minister pruned.

Many participants, however, fear that the review - which is due to last until at least Easter - will not get as far as looking at the overall structural shape of devolved government.

It is most likely to flounder on the unwillingness of Dr Paisley's party - now in the driving seat with an effective veto over formation of a power-sharing executive - to share power with Sinn Fein as long as the IRA continues.

After Tuesday's opening session, co-chaired by Paul Murphy, the secretary of state, and Brian Cowen, the Irish foreign minister, the DUP insisted that it would not meet directly with Sinn Fein during the negotiations.

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