Ulster 11th-hour spending spree

11th February 2000 at 00:00
NORTHERN Ireland's education ministers spent almost pound;150 million this week, working up to the wire as Westminster prepared to suspend their powers, writes Nicolas Barnard.

Control over education was expected to return to London this week, as the peace process faltered over decommissioning.

But as parliament rushed through legislation giving Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson the powers to suspend the assembly, ministers in Stormont announced Ulster's biggest-ever school building programme: pound;72m for 11 new primaries, a special school, and extensions to four grammars and two secondaries.

They also announced plans for the new pound;70m Springvale further and higher education "learning village" in Belfast, and created further waves by hinting at the abolition of school league tables.

Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness was in London on Tuesday to address a meeting in Westminster a the suspension Bill went through. But within 24 hours he was back at Stormont announcing the school building programme.

If the assembly is suspended, control over education is likely to return to the Northern Ireland office. But the office was slimmed down after December's devolution, and ministers are not expected to make radical changes.

The old Northern Ireland Office's education department was split by the assembly, with new departments covering schools, post-16, and culture and arts.

That structure would stay in place "in the hope that powers will go back to Stormont before long", education sources say.

The assembly had begun looking at alternatives to league tables. Mr McGuinness said last week that parents needed information to help choose secondary schools, but he wanted to look at "how the information might best be made available other than through published tables".

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