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Martin McGuinness in charge of education?
The pupils have their say
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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 22:14 GMT
Martin McGuinness's big day
Martin McGuinness arrives at his ministerial office Meeting his approval: Martin McGuinness admires the office

By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani in Belfast

He may have just got himself a chauffeur driven car, but Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness freely admitted that he was a minister in need of L-plates.

With the major political action in London, where the government was rushing devolution orders through Parliament, the big picture story of the day was in a drab office block in Bangor, the home of the Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

It was there that Martin McGuinness, the former Londonderry IRA leader and one of the most important figures in the Republican movement, entered office as the minister for education, responsible for more than 1000 schools and 350,000 pupils.

And didn't he look like he was enjoying it.

"I didn't expect to see so many of you," was his first comment to the media as he stepped out of his car to meet his civil servants.

Martin McGuinness shakes the hand of a civil servant First meeting: It was handshakes all round
The handshakes were firm, the smiles broad and the media lapped up the pictures.

Inside, the new minister made no bones about the fact that he had left school at 15, having failed his 11-Plus four years earlier. Instead, he said his qualifications came from the "political education of a lifetime" experienced over 30 years.

Minister McGuinness - who has reportedly already complained to staff 'don't call me Minister, it's Martin', talked the talk of children being the future - and made sure that he got one point across.

Answering those who said that a Sinn Fein member in office would discriminate against the unionist/'protestant community, he said that "nothing could be more wrong."

"The community that I come from was discriminated against for many years," he said.

"The last thing that we are going to do is treat another section of the community the way we were."

Selection trauma

Like many people who never saw the inside of a grammar school, Mr McGuinness said he remained opposed to the "trauma" of the 11-Plus.

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But he didn't act like a man who was going to let that get in the way

He was honest in not having answers to some policy questions and joked that it was like being "back to school". But then he added that he already had an agenda.

It was an agenda to ensure "accessibility, excellence and choice" in an atmosphere of "equality, respect and justice". The post was not about unionism or republicanism, he said. It was about the children.

Then, of course, came the obligatory minister-hard-at-it-in-his-office pictures for the evening bulletins.

Except there was not a lot to be hard-at-it with.

Feet under the desk

John McFall, the direct rule minister, had vacated the desk hours earlier and appeared to have emptied the in-tray on the way out.

Martin Mcguinness at his desk Settling in: But nothing in the in-tray yet
Mr McGuinness looked somewhat awkward as he walked into the office and wearing a bemused look, he shuffled towards his own desk, appropriately furnished with an emerald green lamp.

He turned and with a slightly embarrassed smile said: "Nice place. Where do you want me to sit?"

All those years of political education. But entry into government had sent him back to his own schooling during which, according to one teacher, he had been a "quiet and respectful young man".

Pupils together

Elsewhere across the city, children from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were putting into practice the principles of bringing communities together.

Pupils from all backgrounds mixed in Belfast
The Co-operation Ireland group, which organises projects to get "north and south working together", was holding a day of activities.

The 100 pupils from 10 schools took part in activities including drumming workshops, art classes, and multi-media classes so they could learn how to put up their own websites. There was a lot of laughter and little talk of politics.

Tony Kennedy, head of Co-operation Ireland, said that the event would help the adults of the future feel like citizens today and able to participate in a time of great change.

"The political process is important in itself, but it is just as important that other members of society get to know each other.

"If they know each other as human beings with common problems, they can help build a more stable society in the future."

So what did the students think of the new minister? Most appeared model students of the peace process.

They did not seem overly concerned with Martin McGuinness's past.

They just wanted to see the best schools possible for all of Northern Ireland, whichever community they came from.

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See also:
30 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
McGuinness promises fair treatment
29 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
NI's new Stormont ministers
30 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
Q&A: McGuinness's education challenge

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