'Them and us' - are we entering a new era?

We are just two days into Peter Robinson's new era of "all of us" politics replacing the old "them and us" confrontations. So I thought I would dip into assembly proceedings to check how it's going.

There was the Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry on his feet. The minister was dealing with the sustainability of Northern Ireland's separate teacher training colleges - Stranmillis in south Belfast which trains teachers for the non-denominational state sector and St Mary's in west Belfast which caters for Catholic maintained schools.

The Alliance politician didn't mince his words. Given falling numbers of pupils and falling numbers of trainee teachers, he reckoned the future of Stranmillis was bleak. He believes it's best option is to merge with Queen's University, a plan which remains moth-balled as MLAs won't pass the necessary legislation.

With a population of just 1.8 million people, Mr Farry reckoned Northern Ireland should have a single teacher training system. He has commissioned a study to examine the sustainability of the current divided system and questioned whether the taxpayer should continue to subsidise separate colleges.

So in the new spirit of "one community" did MLAs on both sides nod sagely, wish the minister well in his endeavours and pledge to examine the recommendations of his study with open minds? No, you've guessed it. They savaged him.

Sinn Fein's Paul Maskey accused Mr Farry of trying to close St Mary's by stealth. The West Belfast MP and MLA claimed the minister was "sailing very close" to engaging in sectarianism.

The Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea reckoned Mr Farry was hanging Stranmillis out to dry. The TUV's Jim Allister described Mr Farry's approach as "churlish and vindictive", accusing the minister of hoping Stranmillis would bleed to death.

The minister responded by acknowledging the debate was polarising the house. He regretted the accusation he was flirting with sectarianism. Whilst he would prefer to have one integrated teacher training system, he insisted that he remained willing to listen to the views of others.

Mr Farry declared himself in favour of a "shared future", but a later statement from the DUP accused him of jeopardising that shared future. The DUP called on the minister to take a tough decision by pushing ahead with a full merger of Stranmillis and St Mary's into an expanded education department at Queens. Although, if Sinn Fein's contribution to the debate was anything to go by, republicans would block such a radical plan.

After nearly an hour-and-a-half the assembly moved on to a statement from the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson. Thank goodness we are now in the era of "all of us" politics.

If we were still stuck in those old "them and us" days, you can only imagine how much more strident the exchanges over the future of teacher training might have been.