Is John O’Dowd a successful Minister of Education? It depends on who you ask. If you ask the DUP, for instance, you’ll be told he’s useless. They’ll wonder aloud how Mr O’Dowd, who has few if any academic qualifications, whom some unionist commentators refer to as ‘the former baker’ – how can such a man be put in charge of education?
Which shows what the DUP know about the link between career success and academic success. Those who are most gifted academically have a habit of winding up as academics; those who are less gifted academically are forced to find other routes to making a living. Is the academic smarter than the butcher, the baker, the candlestick man? It depends on which b, b or c m ( No, Virginia, Perkin Warbeck didn’t invent this initials thing – P G Wodehouse did; although of course Perkin uses it better than any living writer)…Where was I? Oh yes. It depends on who you’re talking to about the ministerial quality of those with few academic qualifications.
Take Martin McGuinness. He has few if any academic qualifications, but as Education Minister he went straight to the issue that has scared off his predecessors, the 11+, took it by the throat and rattled it very, very hard. There is effectively still an 11+ – both Catholic and Protestant grammar schools have built their own defensive wall to keep out the hoi polloi – but the days of deciding a child’s academic future by a stupid examination at the age of 11 are on the way out. Beyond education, few nationalists/republicans and perhaps few unionists would deny that McGuinness has been more than effective as Deputy First Minister. The SDLP’s Sean Farren, when he was Minister of Finance, had no background in the world of numbers – his was an arts background. But it didn’t make him incapable of doing the job. The fact is, how well a Minister discharges his/her duties in a post depends on the quality of the man or woman.
And you only have to watch and listen to John O’Dowd for five minutes to realise that here is a man with a very firm grip on his brief. Like the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, O’Dowd resembles a street fighter; but like Ferriter he is a highly effective performer in his field and an able debater. In fact, since Mitchel McLaughlin took something of a back seat in our local politics, I can’t think of a more able debater than O’Dowd. I know there’s a view that says Gerry Adams’s successor should be from the South and I can see why it is said; but if the new leader is to be elected solely on ability and leadership qualities, O’Dowd would be a strong contender.
Maybe that’s why he’s been the focus of attack from within political unionism recently. The old dictum catches it well : it’s when they start ignoring you that you should worry, not when they vilify you.