Nun too wise: Tristram missed a chance. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
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Colour-blind abuse, how to teach children about snow and what Tristram Hunt should have said

Snow blindness, the Guardian hustings - plus left- and back-footedness on Question Time.

Nearly two years ago, I received a curious letter from a senior newspaper executive. (As it was “strictly private and confidential”, I shall not identify him or his paper.) He recalled that in 2010 I had criticised the Daily Mail for a double-page spread about what it called “a sinister taboo”. Nine men in Derby, eight of Asian background, had been jailed for “grooming” schoolgirls for sex. BBC Radio Derby, the Mail lamented, “barely” mentioned their ethnic origins, while the local paper’s reports “failed to use the word Asian once”. Why, I asked, did the Mail think it so important “that we should have it lodged firmly in our minds that these criminals were (mostly) Asian and their victims (mostly) white”?

My correspondent pointed out that the Times’s Andrew Norfolk had just won the Orwell Prize for “highlighting the ethnic and cultural components” of sex-abuse cases in northern towns. Would I now accept that my comments were “misguided”? I would not.

Has the report on Rotherham council from Louise Casey, the government’s troubled families tsar, changed my mind? In only one respect: I accept that some councillors, officers and social workers ignored evidence of horrific sexual abuse partly because, as Casey reports, they feared creating racial tension. Their behaviour deserves to be publicised and denounced.

But I still do not see why the media should highlight ethnic origins of child abusers, particularly when the names of convicted men provide sufficient clues, as they did in Derby. The story in Rotherham and elsewhere is that organised street networks – based on the night-time economy of taxis and fast-food outlets, disproportionately staffed by young Asian men – preyed on vulnerable girls. The girls were stereotyped as worthless slags by those who should have protected them. That is the scandal.

Children were also abused in large numbers by boarding-school teachers, Roman Catholic priests, care workers in children’s homes and celebrities in the entertainment industry. Nearly all the abusers were white but the reporting defined them by occupation – which gave them opportunity and a sometimes justified belief that they were beyond the reach of the law – not by ethnicity. For similar reasons, the abusers in northern towns could be defined by their work as taxi drivers and burger fryers. The only reason for making their ethnicity a central issue is that it plays to white stereotypes about the uncontrollable sexual appetites of dark-skinned folk and therefore, no doubt, sells a few extra papers.

 

Bribe the aged

I wouldn’t normally find myself on the same side as a free-market think tank. But the Institute of Economic Affairs is right to criticise George Osborne for giving the more affluent over-65s a windfall in the form of pensioner bonds. These pay 4 per cent interest if held for five years or 2.8 per cent if held for two – a rate of return far beyond any offered by banks.

The Chancellor tells us the country must reduce the cost of borrowing. That is why the deficit must fall and why families with young children lose benefits and tax credits, and the NHS struggles. Yet here is Osborne borrowing an estimated £15bn from Britain’s pensioners at (once he’s taken back tax) 3.2 and 2.2 per cent, when he could
borrow on the gilt markets at 0.3 per cent. Even the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian governments aren’t paying as much as he is. It is just a bribe to persuade pensioners to vote Tory in May.

 

Snow blindness

Here is a Daily Mail story that sums up English education as remoulded by Michael Gove. When snow began to fall in the playground of a Norfolk primary school, a teacher of eight- and nine-year-olds lowered the classroom blinds so they couldn’t see it. The teacher acted to ensure “children focused on the tasks in hand”, the school explained.

In 1967, the Plowden report on primary education in England, regarded as the bible of progressives and trendies, considered the merits of “flexibility in the curriculum”: “When a class of seven-year-olds notice the birds that come to the bird table outside the classroom window, they may decide, after discussion with their teacher, to make their own aviary . . . paint the birds in flight, make models of them . . . write stories and poems about them.” Now, it is left to a Norfolk parent, “mother-of-six Shelly Betts, 43” (as the Mail calls her), to suggest that “they could have turned the snow into a science lesson”. Make that woman education secretary, I say.

 

Hacks’ hustings

Though the final decision will not be made by them, Guardian journalists ballot later this month on who should be their next editor. The candidates have not been named but are said to include one external applicant, probably Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who is now editing BBC2’s Newsnight without (if we believe the ratings) conspicuous success. The world, the hacks clearly believe, waits with bated breath: they spent much of their last meeting discussing whether the hustings should be streamed live over the internet.

 

Where do left-footers stand?

British Roman Catholics often seem reluc­tant to relinquish the victim status they held for several hundred years. During a debate about unqualified teachers on BBC1’s Question Time, Cristina Odone, the former NS deputy editor and professional left-footer, protested when Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, mentioned nuns. Poor Hunt, accused of denigrating Catholics, was caught in a mini Twitter storm. But what Odone had just said was that unqualified teachers at Catholic schools she attended “taught values, not British values . . . real values”. Hunt, I think, was trying to say that these teachers were nuns who taught Catholic doctrine. A good point, but he would have done better to ask why Odone was denigrating British values. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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