Nicolas Barnard on the pragmatism and passion of Northern Ireland's new minister for education
WHEN MARTIN McGuinness appeared on the BBC's Newsnight programme within hours of his astonishing appointment as Northern Ireland's education
minister, he could have been the model of a New Labour politician.
Deflecting questions on the thorny matter of the province's divided education system, in which nine out of 10 children are taught in denominational schools, he proclaimed his belief in "parental choice" and supported diversity.
McGuinness has not spent years in the fraught world of peace negotiations where a misplaced phrase can undo months of work only to come unstuck in the world of bread and butter politics, like education.
"I'm on a learning curve," he declared on Wednesday, on his first visit to his new offices at the Department of Education in Bangor, County Down. "But I'm prepared to learn."
He will have to, and quickly, because difficult issues lie ahead - not least winning over the trust of the education boards with their strong clergy representations, and of teachers, many of whom on the Unionist side feel deep unease that a former alleged chief of the IRA is now in charge of their schools.
It would be unrealistic to expect him not to be coloured by his experiences. One of the first items in his in-tray will be the small matter of the 11-plus. Sinn Fein and the SDLP are against it; McGuinness himself is an 11-plus failure.
"I'm opposed to children of that age being put through such trauma," he said this week. A teachers' leader, who knows the Sinn Fein leadership well, said McGuinness's own failure at 11 would "have been seared into his soul".
But even on this issue he is the pragmatic, diplomatic politician. Despite his feelings, he has said he will wait for the results of a forthcoming study from Queen's University, Belfast.
It's a long way from the hothouse of the Bogside, where he still lives with his wife and children. Martin McGuinness grew up in that working-class, staunchly Catholic district of Derry. His primary school, Brow o'the Hill, was run by the fiercely republican Christian Brothers.
A schoolmate at the time recalls: "In those days, work handouts to pupils were pretty rare. The only ones I remember ever receiving were the printed words to rebel songs. There was nothing subtle about it."
McGuinness, though, has always said his motivation to join the Republican movement came later, from the discrimination he met from Protestant employers as a young Catholic after leaving a Christian Brothers' technical college at 15.
Job-hunting came down to two questions, he told an interviewer in 1998: "What's your name? What school did you go to? And out the door."
He became an apprentice butcher - a job title newspapers would later seize on with glee and still dub him today. But as the troubles flared, with the Bogside as a flashpoint, he joined the IRA's Derry Brigade. He rose quickly through its ranks, because, according to security forces, he led from the front in attacks on British forces.
At 22, he was a member, with Gerry Adams, of a delegation which flew to London for secret peace talks with the then-Ulster secretary Willie Whitelaw.
Often on the run, he was twice convicted in the Republic as a member of the IRA - though never for any specific terrorist offences - and declared his allegiance once proudly in court. He allegedly rose to become chief of staff.
But since the early 1980s, after the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands whom he still cites as a hero, he has taken a political role, as Republicans began to use the ballot box alongside the bomb. In the early 1990s played a key part in the secret talks with the Major government that led to the first ceasefire agreement. Since then he has been a leading Sinn Fein negotiator. He was elected an MP in 1993.
Today, at 49, a softer figure than the fiery youth, he denies IRA membership, though many believe he is still an influential figure. Observers suggest his role alongside Adams was to reassure the hardliners in the Republican movement who feared Sinn Fein was abandoning its commitment to a united Ireland.
His nomination for education drew gasps from the Unionists, and hisses from the gallery at Stormont on Monday. Sinn Fein denied it was a provocative act, but loyalists are not convinced.
Frank Bunting, northern secretary of the largely-Catholic Irish National Teachers' Organisation, said Martin McGuinness's biggest challenge would be fulfilling the huge expectations people had of an independent assembly. Optimistically, in a country where history seems never far away, he said the Assembly would not be carrying any baggage.
"We'll be looking for radical change and a return to the system we had before the Tories started meddling," he said. "We want to develop Northern Ireland solutions for Northern Ireland problems and not accept every whim from London.
"We welcome Martin McGuinness's appointment - we have no difficulties at all. He's shown tremendous political skills in this period. He's got all the potential to make a very effective education minister. He's certainly bright enough."
Unionists too support self-government in principle, but Ray Calvin, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, said he had been shocked by the appointment.
"I know that many of our members will by numbed by this," he said. "Some of them will have family members injured and killed in uniform in recent years. However, the union considers itself non-political and will operate within the law."
UTU members were worried about new conditions of service, and a Republican agenda that could mean changes in the curriculum. "But hopefully, because Northern Ireland people hold education in such high regard, we can end up with an education system that is enhanced."
McGuinness has been quick to reassure the Unionist education community - "the community I come from has been discriminated against for many years," he said on Tuesday. "The last thing we want to do ... is turn around and treat other sections of our community in the way that we were treated. This is about children, not about Unionism, Nationalism, Loyalism, Republicanism."
The reality is that like all of Northern Ireland's ministers, Martin McGuinness must now see if he can govern as well as he can negotiate.