Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Man from the Stran

At a dinner engagement on Friday the Blether Region spent part of the evening in conversation with a governor of Stranmillis University College — and a very erudite man he was too. Nevertheless, one of the stories he told was plainly ridiculous. Indeed, it was so difficult to credit that repeating it here could hardly be considered defamatory.

As is well known, Northern Ireland is simply too small to sustain certain institutions and specialisms of its own, be it paediatric heart surgery or a veterinary faculty. Teacher training in the North has traditionally been dominated by Stranmillis University College and its Catholic counterpart, St. Mary's on the Falls Road. When there was pressure for the two colleges to merge with QUB, the governor claimed, the former Minister of Education Caitríona Ruane deliberately recognised as many gaelscoileanna as possible in order to provide St. Mary's with more students and allow the Catholic college to retain its independence.

Quite apart from the fact that this fantasy exhibits something of a "Stranmillis bubble", it is well known that Ms Ruane's recognition of Irish-language schools with small rolls was a result of belief rather than expediency. A friend of the Blether Region in the Department of Education — who did not himself support the policy or view it as sensible — described her as regarding it as her "legacy". At no point did he mention anything about Stranmillis.

It is, of course, a widespread and erroneous item of faith among Unionists that people do not support Irish because they believe in it. Many Protestants are certain that they do it to get at them. At worst, however, Nationalist politicians support Irish out of "peer pressure" or because speakers and activists are an important consituency of voters.

The tale also exemplifies the unique hatred that Caitríona Ruane inspired as Minister. Indeed, on occasion that hatred has been distastefully overlaid with sexism, including the sort of sexism that women display towards other women. Another civil servant who worked in the Department even repeated tittle tattle to the Blether Region about the Minister's personal hygiene.

The name Stranmillis has its origin in the Irish Sruthán Milis or "Sweet Stream", since in times past it was the point beyond which tides ceased to have any effect on the quality of drinking-water in the River Lagan.

Nowadays, too, if one wants to guarantee clarity, one has to get upstream a little.

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