The fact that, once the nominations had been completed, the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education turned out to be Sean Farren, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, deepened the amazement in all quarters and the dismay in Unionist ones. Departments were expected to have a mixture of Catholic and Protestant ministers. Mr McGuinness and Mr Farren are both Catholics. Education was a prime cause of the civil rights movement that degenerated into the violence that's scarred the last 30 years in Northern Ireland. John Hume, SDLP leader and, like McGuinness, a Bogsider, describes himself as one of the first Catholics to benefit from Britain's extension of education to all in the Forties.
The first civil rights marchers in 1968 were students at Queen's University in Belfast, notable among them Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, who came to national prominence in Britain when she became the youngest-ever woman MP at Westminster in April 1969.
The 30 years since have seen many changes in higher education. Queen's was then predominantly Protestant. Now it is mainly Catholic. Then most students leaving Northern Ireland to study were Protestants going to Trinity, Dublin, still a Protestant University. Now 12,000 a year leave to go to university, mainly in Scotland and England. They are disproportionately Protestant. Dundee University students are 40 per cent Northern Irish. That over 80 per cent don't return to Northern Ireland to work is widely accepted, by the First Minister, David Trimble, among others, as creating a serious problem. Mr Trimble, a father of four, has a keen personal belief that young Protestants need to stay and work at home if Protestants and Unionists are to have a real future.
If young Protestants do not make careers in Northern Ireland demographic trends accelerate, meaning Catholics aren't just catching up in sheer numbers but are catching up even faster in jobs, particularly in the professions and civil service. Over the last two years Mr Trimble has discussed with the Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett the imbalance and the perceived lack of 5,000 higher education places in Northern Ireland, something that the creation of a new campus, Springfield, on the Belfast peace line, announced at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, is intended to address.
At secondary education, conversely, very little has changed yet. Through all the changes enforced by the British since the Stormont Parliament was suspended in 1972, the province has hung on to its selective and segregated schools: only four per cent are non-sectarian. Most state schools are Protestant. Catholics go to voluntary-aided schools.
There are huge arguments about the system's benefits, with the middle classes, Protestants in particular, clinging to the fact that a high number of those staying on in the sixth form gain good A-levels, but critics point to the equally high proportion of 16-year-olds who leave with no qualifications.
A report being prepared on the selective system by a consortium of academics from all four Northern Ireland universities, headed by Professor Tony Gallagher of Queen's, is due in January and is likely to reflect the findings of a European survey of two years ago that showed Northern Ireland had a very high percentage of people between 16 and 60 - 24 per cent - who had literacy difficulties. The Irish Republic came out at 25 per cent.
The Gallagher survey will look at the effect of selection on the attainment of pupils at all levels and at the knock-on effect on their job prospects. Previous surveys, including some by Professor Gallagher, suggest that selection misjudges one-in-six or one-in-seven of pupils, and lack of qualification at 16 affects job prospects. Northern Ireland retains worryingly high levels of unemployment.
Mr Trimble, who shares a middle class Unionist belief in the grammar system, points to the high skill base in some sections of the community that has meant in the last year the Post Office, for instance, siting a main sorting office in Belfast rather that than the East End of London, because it can draw on a suitable work force there.
But Professor Gallagher's earlier findings suggest there are working class areas in Belfast, in Derry and in border areas, that find it very hard to attract employers of the quality of the Post Office as they do not have the skills base.
If the January report, that'll now land on Mr McGuinness's desk, says the selective system is failing a significant proportion of Northern Ireland's young, particularly the working class young, Mr McGuinness is much less likely than his predecessors in charge of education have been, to accept that the selective system should continue without change.
It is this fact that brought all those gasps in Stormont at his nomination on Monday and that has had civil servants and educators scurrying around wondering what the future holds.
So far Mr McGuinness, a grandfather with his own stake in the education of future generations, has not declared his hand but his previous record suggests he favours non-selection; he is not a great believer in Catholic education, but he would like Irish used more widely in schools. In higher education Mr Farren will not pose such a threat to Unionists. The SDLP is as concerned as any party to ensure Protestants feel secure staying in Northern Ireland. But Mr McGuinness's reactions in January to the Gallagher report will be watched anxiously.Reuse content