Two studies of education chief

McGuinness: N. Ireland's minister is a warrior turned pol, or persona non grata, depending on the source.

March 17, 2001|By Marjorie Miller | Marjorie Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CUSHENDALL, Northern Ireland - For many Protestants, Education Minister Martin McGuinness is the bitter pill they are forced to swallow for the sake of peace. He is a Roman Catholic school dropout and twice-jailed Irish Republican Army commander who sets a rotten example for children.

Many of Northern Ireland's Catholics, on the other hand, regard McGuinness as the bellwether of change. He is the street-warrior-turned-politician whose membership in a power-sharing government demonstrates that eight decades of Catholic exclusion in the province are finally coming to an end.

McGuinness understands that he is both things in a highly segregated land: persona non grata at most of the 600 overwhelmingly Protestant schools he oversees, but welcomed with open arms by most of the 565 mainly Catholic schools also under his charge, such as Glenann primary in rural County Antrim, where he was the first education minister to set foot in the facility in its 100-year history.

"I only go to schools that have invited me to come," McGuinness says. "It is fair to say that in the last year, the vast bulk of invitations do come from the Catholic sector."

Once a symbol of the IRA's three-decade armed struggle against British rule, McGuinness has become a centerpiece of the province's struggle to make peace with itself. His participation in a Protestant-Catholic government - under the British flag and before the IRA has destroyed its weapons - is the clearest example of a people trying to overcome its sectarian hatreds.

Success is by no means certain. The Democratic Unionist Party, under the Rev. Ian Paisley, a Protestant leader, has vowed to undermine the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement from within. Republican extremists and unionist paramilitary groups want to break it out in the streets.

Even some supporters of the peace process are skeptical about McGuinness' conversion to the democratic process - and by extension, the IRA's. Some Protestants and Catholics who share a belief in cross-community cooperation have not forgiven the gunmen on either side for the 3,500 people killed in sectarian warfare.

But the protests that greeted McGuinness' appointment in November 1999 have quieted down. The longer he holds the job, the more doubters are willing to judge him on his performance in government rather than on his past in the trenches.

"I can't fault McGuinness on anything he has said from an educational point of view," says Desmond Hamilton, head teacher at the predominantly Protestant Strandtown Primary School in Belfast, the provincial capital. A pragmatist who needs 15 new classrooms to replace aging mobile units, Hamilton added that he would risk the wrath of parents to invite McGuinness: "If he wishes to come and announce new classrooms, he would be more than welcome."

Ray Calvin, head of the largely Protestant Ulster Teachers Union, takes a more philosophical view.

"Peace comes at a price. Part of that price is dealing with people who would have been agin' you before," Calvin says. "There are things that I could say about Martin McGuinness. I prefer to wait and see how he does his job."

McGuinness' job is to manage a largely segregated school system that reflects a divided society in which everything from names and union affiliation to one's pick of taxi company and pub serves as a clue to deciphering tribal membership: William is a Protestant name, Anthony a Catholic name. Protestants call McGuinness' hometown Londonderry; Catholics call it Derry.

Absent the obvious cues, strangers might come out and ask each other, "Which foot do ya' dig with?" Right means Catholic; left means Protestant.

McGuinness learned this lesson at the age of 15. The second of seven children from Derry's working-class Bogside neighborhood, he left school and applied for a job at a Protestant-owned garage. The interview was going swimmingly until the owner asked McGuinness what school he had attended. When he mentioned the Christian Brothers Technical College, the interview came to an abrupt end.

The young McGuinness became a Catholic butcher's apprentice instead. He joined the IRA in 1970, at the height of civil rights protests, soon rising to commander of the Derry Brigade and "very, very proud of it," he told a court the first time he was sentenced to jail for his membership in the illegal organization.

About that time, the IRA embarked on a campaign of economic sabotage in Derry, blowing up the majority of the city's 150 shops in an effort to oust the British from Northern Ireland and break Protestant control of the province. It is widely believed that McGuinness went on to become the IRA's chief of staff, although he has never admitted this.

For many, Derry has become synonymous with "Bloody Sunday," when British soldiers fatally shot 14 unarmed civilians at a demonstration in 1972. Catholics call this a calculated massacre, but many pro-British Protestants believe the IRA fired first to provoke the soldiers.

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