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Saturday, 10 February 2007

Iris teaches us a lesson

You often hear these days about the modernisers and pragmatists in the DUP. Chief among these are the husband-and-wife team of Cllr Peter Robinson MP MLA, the party’s deputy leader, and Cllr Iris Robinson MP MLA. Like most of the DUP “pragmatists”, how they got this reputation boggles my mind, although it doesn’t take much to be relatively pragmatic in comparison to Papa Doc.

Although he has been a Westminster MP since 1979, Robbo has never really taken to the Big House – his real love is his little fiefdom of Castlereagh Council. What he would like Castlereagh to be known for is having year on year the lowest rates in the North, a result of the money-spinning Dundonald Ice Bowl combined with services pared to the bone. What it’s actually better known for is being a kind of loyalist North Korea. Council meetings are marked mainly by non-DUP members squirming as Peter and Iris coo at each other across the chamber. The recent trend for Robinson children to get onto the council only promises to make this worse. And then there’s Peter’s egocentric crusade to get every street, public building and edifice in Castlereagh named after himself.

In recent years the Robinsons have been portrayed by the media as being on the “pragmatic” wing of the DUP. This seems to come less from their actual politics – they have faithfully served Big Ian for decades and have given no sign of changing their minds on anything – than their style. The Belfast-based Robbo faction is much less likely to Bible-bash than rural Duppies like “Singing” Willie McCrea. Plus, there are the makeovers, suggesting that Trinny and Susannah might have had a quiet word with them.

Peter has had laser eye surgery, removing the steely glint of his specs. He’s also replaced his traditional cowlick with fashionably tousled hair, and developed a taste for loud ties. Can designer stubble be far behind? Iris, meanwhile, has ditched her wee hard woman look in favour of cultivating a softer image, and has been styled and coiffured to within an inch of her life. She has been sexed up to the point where she now, I suppose, counts as the resident milf in a notably glamour-starved party – so much so that I would only be mildly surprised to hear she was doing Playboy.

Given Iris’s carefully cultivated soft-focus image, it seems to have come as a shock to come people that she would stick the boot into integrated education, following direct rule education minister Maria Eagle’s refusal to consider funding Rowallane College, a new integrated school in her constituency. It has certainly annoyed the Rowallane parents, who, like many parents in similar circumstances, have invested a lot in giving their kids a non-sectarian education. Plus, Norn Iron is full of dopey do-gooders, many of them in the Alliance Party, who believe integrated schools are the key to the Province’s future. How could Iris be so uncharitable to these perfectly harmless institutions?

Anybody who is shocked by this obviously hasn’t paid much attention to the utterances of the DUP’s education spokesman, Sammy “The Streaker” Wilson. Sammy has consistently and articulately defended the traditional DUP position of support for the status quo, or better still the status quo ante. That means retaining the 11+, defending the grammar schools, keeping “vocationally” oriented secondary schools for the great Prod unwashed, and allowing Catholics to have separate development. And it remains important symbolically that the state sector should stay “Protestant”, as Iris herself has been saying for ages. Integrated schools, which rock the boat in a very mild way, annoy the hell out of political unionism, the OUP as well as the DUP.

In fact, anybody with a progressive bone in their body should be arguing for a unified and secular education system in the North. Since the days of the old Stormont, this has been one of those issues where unionism can find common ground with the almost equally unlovely forces of Catholic reaction. Doing down both would be a cause worth fighting for, and if it exposes the very real sectarianism of “modernising” unionism, so much the better.

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