Mr Gove... Then and now

"The hollowing out of Northern Ireland's Britishness is a progressive process, whereby the British state divests itself of responsibilities and strips the province of evidence of its British character".

Not my words, but those of the Education Secretary Michael Gove, in his pamphlet "The Price of Peace" written 13 years ago.

In the publication, which was highly critical of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Gove expressed repeated concern about the erosion of Northern Ireland's British culture.

Now in charge of the education department in London, Mr Gove has reached the conclusion that splitting the exams taken by English, Welsh and Northern Ireland pupils is a "natural and legitimate consequence of devolution".

In the Guardian, Whitehall sources are quoted talking about a "surgical separation", by which England pursues A-levels based on "end of course" exams.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, seeks to retain courses in which pupils are graded via a mix of exams and continual assessment.

Maybe, as Ronnie Hassard from Ballymena Academy suggested to the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, such a split shouldn't have too adverse an impact on local pupils.

Mr Hassard pointed out that Scotland has long had its own qualifications.

UK universities have proved able to cope with different systems.

Indeed the education secretary was himself the product of Scottish schooling.

Laboratory for experiments

However if those same universities come to view A-levels in Northern Ireland and Wales as easier or softer than exams developed in England that could be a problem for potential applicants.

The Northern Ireland Conservatives say the Stormont education minister "should not stand in the way of progress".

They have urged John O'Dowd to keep up with Michael Gove's attempts "to get to grips with the reasons that some employers and universities view GCSEs in particular as a devalued qualification".

However Mr O'Dowd shows no sign of adopting Mr Gove's approach, while his Welsh counterpart, Leighton Andrews, insists Wales will retain the GCSE, AS and A level branding.

Mr Andrews has tartly pointed out that "one of the benefits of devolution is that it allows England to be a laboratory for experiments."

Back in 2008, when David Cameron was courting the Ulster Unionists, the Conservative leader declared that he had "never been a little Englander" but was always a passionate believer in the Union.

He added that he wanted "the most talented people to form my government and that will mean people from all corners of the UK."

But since Mr Cameron arrived in Downing Street, we've seen changes to tuition fees which provide financial encouragement to students from devolved areas to stay at universities near home rather than travel elsewhere in the UK.

Also, the short-lived attempt to introduce an English Baccalaureate certificate and now the latest split over exams.

As a Sinn Fein Minister, John O'Dowd is likely to feel relaxed about any trend that loosens the ties that bind together the UK - but it's more surprising that "passionate unionists" like David Cameron and Michael Gove appear happy to oversee the process.